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10 Invaluable Back To School Ideas For ELT Teachers

Teacher holding Back To School sign

I have a theory: ‘A teacher’s stress level at the beginning of the year is inversely proportional to his/her years of experience’. It does ring true, doesn’t it? It’s also true that the more one prepares in advance the smoother the first days will be and the easier it is to cope with contingencies. The purpose of this blog post is to help reduce ‘back to school’ anxiety for novice teachers and experienced colleagues alike, with one or two new ideas to add to your ‘bag of tricks’ so as to give flagging enthusiasm a boost. I hope you find them useful!

1. Set Back To School objectives for your students

Ask yourself: what would you like your students to achieve by the end of the year? Setting back to school objectives is hugely important because it gives your students something to aim for. Here are some tips: 

  • Make sure your students can relate to your objectives (e.g. [for Business Students] ‘By the end of the course, you will be able to give presentations at least as well as your colleagues from the UK and the US’). 
  • Aim high. Expectations act like self-fulfilling prophecies (provided you believe in them).
  • Make sure your objectives are measurable. How will students know they have achieved a particular objective?
  • Ensure buy-in. As teachers, we often automatically assume that what we desire for our students is what they want too. Not so! We need to discuss these objectives and get our students on board.

2. Set objectives for yourself!

Don’t forget about your own development. It can be all too easy to pour all of your energy into the development of others, but self-care and personal growth are essential if you want to be the best you can be. Worried you won’t have time? Try these everyday development activities for busy teachers.

3. Prepare a stress-free Back To School environment

Prepare a learning environment that energises, rather than one that demotivates and increases anxiety. High levels of pressure are counter-productive to learning, and creating a safe space for students will give them the confidence to push themselves. Watch the webinar to find out how you can manage your own wellbeing and how this can be transferred to help students in the classroom.

4. Prepare your Back To School classroom

Perhaps you would like to encourage more open discussion among your students this year, or just fancy changing things up to help returning students (and yourself) begin anew. The correct back to school classroom layout can also help you manage your classroom more effectively, as you can design it to support the tone you want to set in lessons (see below).

5. Revisit your bag of tricks (what do you mean you don’t have one?)

OK – a ‘bag of tricks’ is a collection of games/activities/tasks that you have used in the past, your students enjoy and which you know and trust (see your free downloadable activities below). You might think that there is no reason to write down ideas you are so familiar with. Wrong! Time and again, when I get frustrated while planning a lesson, I go through my list only to marvel at how activity X – which was my favourite only a year ago – had completely slipped my mind. If something works, write it down. The faintest pencil beats even the best memory!

6. Revisit your list of sites

Looking for material or ready-made activities to use with your students? A site like Breaking News English for instance offers graded texts, based on topical issues, each accompanied by dozens of exercises for you to choose from. For Listening material, the British Council site has a huge range of excellent clips for all levels. If you or your students are movie fans then Film English might be just the thing for you, or if you believe, as many do, that students learn best through songs then a site like Lyrics Training is right up your street! As for comedy fans, there is always the ‘Comedy for ELT’ channel on YouTube…  😊

7. Prepare templates instead of lesson plans

Lesson plans are good, but Lesson Templates are far more versatile! A Lesson Template is a set of steps that you can use repeatedly with different materials each time. For example, a Reading Skills Template can be used with a new text each time (see this one for instance; you may even choose to use this particular set of activities for the first day of school!). Prepare a template for each of the four skills, and an extra one for a Vocabulary Lesson. Seeing is believing! Here are examples of a Writing Skills template, and a template combining texts and activities from Breaking News English with Quizlet.

8. Support yourself with apps

Learning doesn’t stop when students leave the classroom! Apps like Say It: English Pronunciation, LingoKids and Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary can deliver time and time again whenever you want to give your students homework with a twist! You can find all of these on iOS and Android.

9. Set the tone in the classroom

Do it from day one. Make sure each lesson contains at least one fun activity (a song/game/funny video clip etc.). It is best if this is linked to your lesson plan, but it does not have to be; motivation trumps linguistic considerations (I hope OUP do not fire me for this… )! Don’t avoid using your best activities early on for fear of running out of interesting things to do later. If your students come to see you as a fun/creative teacher, this will colour their perception of whatever you do later. Plus, by doing exciting things in class you set a standard for yourself and this will do wonders for your professional development!

10. Have a great first lesson!

Below you can download some back to school activities for your first class (feel free to tweak the activities or play with the order as you see fit). Given the number of things a teacher has to do at the beginning of the academic year, it is comforting to know that at least the Lesson Plan for the first session is out of the way!

 

 


Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has travelled and given seminars and workshops in many countries all over the world. He has written extensively on Methodology, though he is better known for his ‘Psychology and ELT’ articles in which he draws on insights from such disciplines as Marketing, Management and Social Psychology and which have appeared in numerous newsletters and magazines. His areas of interest include Student Motivation, Learner Independence, Teaching one-to-one, and Humour.

This post is a collaboration between Nick Michelioudakis and Oxford University Press.


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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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What makes a good coursebook

esl coursebookRobin Walker, freelance teacher, teacher educator, and materials writer offers practical examples about how a good coursebook supports effective goal setting.

In August in response to my webinar on helping intermediate students, I received an email from Alina de Palma, who teaches in Brazil. She told me:

“My students and I set goals in February this year and it was really great, they felt extremely motivated at that time, but the goal was more like a long-term goal, so now I do not feel that energy anymore. Besides, I think I have set very subjective goals with some of them and that leads to my question … about what kinds of goals to set.”

What kind of goals to set?

This is a key question and worth considering when choosing a good coursebook. In general terms, we usually relate goal-setting to something we do at the beginning of the year. We enjoy doing it but then the goals get forgotten, or they were too vague in the first place to be operational. Going to class aiming at the same ill-defined, long-term goal (Improve my English! for example), soon fails to provide much motivation. In fact, it can become a source of discouragement.

How do we get round this?

Like Alina, I ask students to set goals at the beginning of a course. I ask each student to write these down and then I collect them in. Here’s what one student wrote recently before an intensive course on pronunciation:

My goals would be to:

  • Improve my intonation.
  • Have as little Spanish accent as possible.
  • Detect and eliminate specific mistakes that I might be repeating.
  • Learn how to interpret the phonetics in a dictionary.
  • Be more confident when dealing with unknown environments (I mean when you don’t know the audience or there are other “risk” factors).
  • By better knowing the phonetics and the pronunciation I hope to improve my listening as well.

This student was exceptional. Most learners aren’t able to articulate their aims so clearly and as a result, they set goals that are too vague.

With a new group of students, it’s useful to make a summary of the initial goals they wrote down and then make the summary available to everyone. Some goals will be common to all, and it’s useful to refer back to these on a fairly regular basis as you’re teaching. For example, at the start of a lesson you can point out that the listening work you’re going to do that day ties in really well with the goal everyone had written down at the beginning of the course about “understanding colloquial native-speaker speech better”. It’s really important to tie in what you do in class each day to pre-course goals so that learners see that you have a plan, and that class activities really do serve their needs.

At a different level, I try to get learners to set short-term goals. The problem here is that most learners don’t know how to articulate these, and so one useful way to help them is to give them a list of possible short-term goals for a lesson, and let them choose two or three. These can come from the contents of the unit the class is about to start. Good coursebooks will state the language learning aims for each unit somewhere in the book, often at the start of each unit. As we begin a new unit or lesson we need to make the goals specific by talking through them with your class or writing them on the board. Without our guidance, many learners simply don’t pay any attention to them.

It’s also useful for us as teachers to clarify to our learners what we are going to do that day and why. Sometimes we are so familiar with what we are doing that we forget to tell our learners why we are doing it. But for them it is often the first time and the logic behind class activities isn’t necessarily clear to them. Adults in this situation will usually passively follow our instructions, but not really engage with the lesson. With rowdy teenagers you might have discipline problems.

At the start of the class use the coursebook to point out the lesson aims and contents. This should help learners to set personal short-term goals for that lesson. The CEFR ‘can do’ statements are useful here as they set out in objective terms what learners should be able to do (better) at the end of a class. Most good coursebooks now use these in one way or another.

The above notwithstanding, I find the best source of short-term goals comes from learners reflecting individually on performance in specific areas at the end of a class. Listening is a nightmare for most of my students, so when we finish a listening activity I get them to reflect on how they did individually. I do the same with fluency activities. After a speaking activity I might ask students to think about their performance and to ‘identify’ with one or two of the following typical problems:

  • I couldn’t find the words I needed for the activity.
  • I had problems with the pronunciation of many/some/a few words.
  • I got halfway into a sentence and then didn’t know how to finish it.
  • I didn’t always understand what my partners were saying.
  • I didn’t speak because the other people were much better than me.

Identifying an individual problem goes a long way to setting a personal short-term goal for a future lesson. These will all be specific to each learner, which is very important.

Finally, we need to be careful not to spend too much time on goal setting or it will become a chore and will de-motivate our students. What matters is to find the balance between setting goals and achieving them. It is also very important to help learners to enjoy their success when they have achieved their goals. One goal I used to set new elementary-level students was that by December I would be able to give the whole class in English (not often done in Spanish secondary schools). When we achieved this – usually by mid-November – we celebrated our progress. This was inevitably a turning point in the year for the group, and was the moment when I began to move towards the students setting their own goals, both long-term and short-term.

Like many things in ELT, goal setting isn’t natural to learners, and it requires us as teachers to take them to the point where they can do it for themselves. But we need to be patient, and we must avoid setting ourselves unrealistic goals about goal-setting.

To find out more about what makes a good coursebook why not join my webinar on 31st October?