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25 ways of randomly placing students into pairs or groups

There are many benefits to getting students to work in pairs and groups. These range from giving students more speaking opportunities to creating better overall classroom dynamics.

There are three broad ways of grouping students. We can let the students choose who they wish to work with, the teacher can make the groups, or we can group them randomly. In this post, I’ll show you a wealth of way that you can organise your students randomly into pairs and groups.

The suggestions are organised into two sets. The first set of suggestions gets students to form a line which the teacher then divides up into pairs or groups of the desired size. The second set of suggestions gets students directly into the pairs or groups.

Form a line

This grouping method requires students to stand up and form a line, complying to the set rule. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups. All except one of these require no extra preparation before class.

  1. When did you last eat ice cream? – Students get into a line ranked in order of when they last ate ice cream (pizza, chocolate, etc.). The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups as required.
  2. Something in your bag or pocket – Each student chooses and takes out a personal item that they have in their bag or pocket (encourage students to choose a more unusual item, not just a pen, keys, a coin, etc.). Students get into a line in alphabetical order of the spelling of the name of the item they are holding. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  3. Birthdays – Students get into a line ranked in the order of their birthdays in the year. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  4. Words from the unit – The teacher selects words from the unit of the course book and writes each one on an individual piece of paper. The teacher gives one word to each student. Students get into a line in alphabetical order of the spelling of the words. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  5. What’s your favourite food? – Students write their favourite food (animal, place, singer, etc.) on a piece of paper. They get into a line in alphabetical order of the word they wrote. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  6. What time did you go to bed last night? – Students get into a line ranked in order of the time that they went to bed last night. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  7. Alphabetical order – Students get into a line in alphabetical order of the spelling of their first/given name (or surname). The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups. Alternatively, students could write their names backwards and get into alphabetical order of the reverse spelling of their names.
  8. The youngest person living in your home – Students get into a line ranked in order of the age of the youngest person who lives in their home. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  9. How long did it take you to get here today? – Students get into a line ranked in order of how much time it took them to get to school today. The teacher then divides them into pairs or groups.
  10. Where did you go on your last vacation? – Students get into a line ranked in alphabetical order of the name of the place they went on their last vacation. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups. Alternatively, this could be about the city/place they would most like to visit.
  11. Last 2 digits of your phone number – Students get into a line ranked in order of the last two digits of their phone number. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups. Alternatively, this could be done with the last two digits on a personal ID.
  12. What was the last thing you ate? – Students write the name of the last thing they ate on a piece of paper. Students get into a line in alphabetical order of the spelling of the food they last ate. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  13. Number of letters in your name – Students get into a line based on the number of letters in their full name. Students should decide if they wish to omit any name they do not normally use or do not like. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  14. How much time did you spend away from home yesterday? – Students get into a line ranked in order of the amount of time they spend away from their home yesterday. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  15. Last word on the page – The teacher assigns a different page number of the course book to each student. The assignment of the pages could be done in several ways, but the easiest is probably to get students to count consecutively around the class, although not necessarily starting on page 1 (e.g., 33, 34, 35 etc.). Students look at the last word on their assigned page and get into alphabetical order of their words. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.
  16. Date on a coin – Each student takes out a coin and looks at the year written on it. Students get into a line ranked in order of the dates on their coins. Some students will probably have coins with the same year, in which case they could rank themselves by how old or new each coin looks. The teacher then divides the line into pairs or groups.

Directly into pairs or groups

Most of these suggestions require some degree of preparation before class.

  1. Grab the string – To get students into pairs, the teacher has pieces of string (one piece for every two students). The teacher holds all the pieces of string in a bunch in the middle and every student chooses and holds the end of a piece of string. The teacher then lets go of the string and students get into pairs with the person holding the other end of their piece of string (Dudley, E. & E. Osváth. 2016. Mixed-Ability Teaching. OUP).
  2. Lollipop sticks – The teacher has the name of each student written on an individual lollipop stick (or name card). The teacher chooses sticks at random to put students into pairs or group. Note: there are also free apps that can randomly group students in a similar way.
  3. What’s the category? – To get students into groups of 4, the teacher chooses words of 4 kinds of fruit, 4 kinds of colour, 4 kinds of animal, 4 kinds of furniture, etc., and writes each word on a separate piece of paper. Each student gets a word at random. Students get into groups with people who have the same category of word.
  4. Lengths of ribbon – The teacher has some pieces of ribbon cut into lengths (string or strips of reused paper also work). For example, if there are 12 students in the class and the teacher wants to make three groups of 4 students, there will be 4 short ribbons, 4 medium-length ribbons and 4 longer ribbons. The teacher holds all the ribbons so that students cannot see how long each ribbon is and gets each student to select one. Students get into groups with people with the same length of ribbon.
  5. Parts of a picture – The teacher has a number of different pictures and each is cut up into pieces (the number of pieces corresponds to the size of the groups required). Each student gets a piece of a picture at random. Students get into groups with people who have the other pieces of the same picture.
  6. Halves of sentences – To get students into pairs, the teacher chooses different sentences from the unit of the course book and writes each one on a strip of paper. Then each sentence is cut in half. Each student gets half of a sentence at random. Students get into pairs with the person with the corresponding half of the sentence.
  7. Letters – The teacher prepares pieces of paper each with the letter A, B, C, or D, etc. written on each one. The teacher gives one piece of paper to each student. Students get into groups with people with the same letter. This can also be done with coloured tokens or coloured pieces of paper.
  8. Team captains – The teacher selects some students to come to the front and be team captains. The number of team captains will depend on the required number of groups/teams. Each team captain then takes it in turns to choose team members. This can be done by team captains selecting who they want to be in their team or by randomly taking lollipop sticks or name cards (see 18).
  9. Count around the class – The teacher allocates a number to each student (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, etc.) around the class. When all students have a number, all the students with the number 1 get into a group; all the students with the number 2 get into a group, etc.

Philip Haines moved to Mexico from England in 1995 and currently works as the Senior Academic Consultant for Oxford University Press Mexico. He has spoken internationally in three continents and nationally in every state in Mexico. Philip is the author/co-author of several ELT series published in Mexico.


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Being a dyslexic English language teacher | Philip Haines

As a child I had difficulty reading and writing and some teachers would make me feel less than intelligent which often led to anxiety and low self-esteem, if I thought my limitations were to be exposed. This was especially true when I had to read aloud, which was the perfect opportunity for the rest of the class to observe my apparent stupidity. I was subsequently diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 15.

Having experienced language difficulties as a child, the thought of being an English teacher never crossed my mind. However, when I moved from the UK to Mexico my only real job prospect was English language teaching. I started as an English teaching rather reluctantly, but soon found that I was quite good at it. I believe that this is partly a consequence of my dyslexia. I can see three ways in which dyslexia has helped me as a language teacher.

Patience

The fact that some people need to devote a lot of time and effort to learning has always been obvious to me. If a student needs to hear, see and practice a piece of language many times, then it is my job to provide that for the student. If in the following classes more work is needed, then I accept this as being perfectly normal. Learning takes as long as it takes and getting frustrated doesn’t help anybody, least of all the students who need the most support.

Strategic awareness

As an adult I still can’t spell very well, but like many dyslexic adults I have developed strategies for remembering certain spellings. Non-dyslexic people seem to learn to spell with little conscious effort. I, on the other hand, have to approach the spelling of most words with a deliberate strategy. This has given me a level of strategic awareness for spelling that most non-dyslexic people have never had to develop. I incorporate these strategies into my teaching when needed.

Creativity

Although creativity is not exclusive to the dyslexic mind, I have a fairly good level of creativity, which comes partly from having to develop learning strategies. Also as a child I found comfort in the arts and crafts because my learning difficulties were never exposed. It’s so true that we become good at what we enjoy, and more often than not that’s because we devote more time and effort to those activities. In this context, my creative abilities had a chance to develop. Being creative in teaching has its advantages because it helps the teacher respond to the ever changing dynamics of the classroom. It also makes you feel comfortable with the creative process, which inevitably involves getting things wrong many times before finding the right solution. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, creativity in the classroom makes for a more engaging and fun teaching and learning experience.

Interested in inclusive teaching? Our latest position paper offers teachers some great tools and strategies for teaching students with learning difficulties. Click here to take a look.


Philip 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.


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The essentials of lesson planning: a Q&A session with Philip Haines

shutterstock_323995139Philip 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. Earlier this month, he delivered a webinar on ‘The essentials of lesson planning’, and today we bring you the question and answer section of the session.

Sharing aims with students

Is it a good idea to communicate the lesson aims to the students?

This is generally considered good practice and has the following benefits:

1. When used well it can involve students more in the learning process.

2. It forces us as teachers to be clear about what we want to achieve, how we hope to achieve it, and to state this as clearly as possible.

Writing detailed lesson plans

I find that writing in detail makes me distracted reading the plan in class. And I found that with detailed plans I would still forget a step.
But, doesn’t over-detailing procedure lessen the scope of emergent language?

There are two reasons for writing a very detailed lesson plan:

1. To help you be aware of all the features of as lesson that you need to take into consideration. This is a good exercise to help you develop the skill of lesson planning.

2. To enable you to prove your lesson planning abilities to another person.

In our everyday practice going into a lot of detail is often not very practical. The best plans I find are the ones that I can access quickly at a glance to get the main points. The main things I want to know are: What am I doing next?’, ‘How much time do I have for this?’ and ‘How should I do it?’

The process of writing the lesson plan forces me to do the thinking process before the class, but then when teaching, the lesson plan acts as a guide from which I can move away and return, as needed. Once I have a solid plan I can move away from it, but know it is still there acting as a safety net.

Avoiding lesson planning mistakes

What mistakes in lesson planning should I avoid as a beginner at teaching?

I hope that the suggestions above can help you with your lesson planning process. However, I would give two other pieces of advice for new teachers.

1. Go back to your lesson plan after each lesson and make a few simple notes about things that worked and things that didn’t work. Also note down the reasons why in each case. If you can, make suggestions of what you would change.

2. Try to identify any possible thing that might go wrong and think of a practical solution for each of these. This will help you remain calm when things don’t go as you expected, and there is always something that doesn’t go as planned, even for the most experienced of teachers.

Checking instructions

Even when I have checked and it seems everyone understands, if a student doesn’t perform according to what I’ve check then there’s an issue with language ability.

Instruction giving and checking is somethings that particularly interests me at the moment. I believe that if my students have misunderstood my instruction, than it is probably my fault, not theirs. I can think of four reasons why students don’t understand instructions:

1. The task might be badly constructed. No matter how good the instructions are, it will never make sense to some students because of some inherent flaw at the level of the task.

2. Your instructions might be incoherent. I have observed classed where there inconsistencies in the instructions. This is why the practice of occasionally taking an activity and writing out in full yours instructions and instruction checking questions (or ICQs) is such a powerful exercise.

3. The level of the language in the instructions or task might be too high for students. We need to make sure the language is carefully graded.

4. Students might not be paying attention because they were distracted or not interested.

If we have addressed these four points than we can assume that most students will know what to do, but we should then immediately monitor to make sure everyone is on task.

Lesson plans for dyslexic students

Can you give an example of a lesson plan/type of activity for students with dyslexia? Any sources we can use?

This question asks about lesson plans for dyslexic students. Being dyslexic myself, I feel I can give some advice about this. It is important not to expose a dyslexic student’s weaknesses but to provide them with a range of ways to process information. In two previous blog posts I gave suggestions for using audio scripts and for doing while-reading activities. The suggestions in these posts go some way to address the two points mentioned above.

• 25 alternatives to reading aloud around the class: https://oupeltglobalblog.com/2017/01/17/25-alternatives-to-reading-aloud-around-the-class/
• 25 ideas for using audio scripts in the ELT classroom: https://oupeltglobalblog.com/2016/09/20/25-ideas-for-using-audio-scripts-in-the-elt-classroom/

If you missed the webinar and want to catch up, feel free to visit our Webinar Library, for this session and previous recordings.


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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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Using First Language (L1) in the ELT Classroom

Using L1 in the ELT ClassroomPhilip 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 discusses the use of L1 in the classroom and shares some guidelines for its use.

The majority of English language teaching takes place in classrooms where both the students and the teacher share the same L1 (first language). In these contexts, the L1 is often banned from the classroom, and for many good reasons. Many teachers and heads of department forbid the use of L1 because an all-English speaking environment is prized since it actively encourages communication in English. Another reason is that the L1 can easily take over if not restricted. While there are many reasons for banishing the L1 from the classroom, there are also good reasons for using it. What I believe is needed are clear guidelines for effective use of the L1. Below I set some guidelines in three levels; from basic to more in-depth.

Level One: Functional

Level one can be used by all ELT teachers to help the class function more effectively without essentially compromising the popular principle that English should be used at all times. The use of the L1 is quite restricted and the teacher is always in complete control so there is no chance of the L1 taking over the class.

  • How do you say ____?: Students are allowed to ask how to say something from their L1 in English.
  • Can I say something in my language?: If students have something important to say but do not have the level of English to do so, they can request permission from the teacher to speak in their L1.
  • Time out: Just as in Basketball, the teacher can indicate that they will create a short space within the regular class to use the L1, and then return to the English class. This is especially useful when something needs to be discussed which could not be done in English.

Level Two: Strategic

In this second level, the teacher has at their disposal all the uses outlined in level one, but now encourages students to draw on their knowledge of their L1 and English to develop language learning strategies. This is essentially done by asking students to make comparisons between the two languages. The teacher is able to do this without the need to use the L1 themselves if they do not want to. Again, if the teacher fears losing control they can use the time out idea to create a ‘window’ from the exclusively all English atmosphere in the classroom.

  • English you already know: When there is a new word that has some relation to a word from their L1, the teacher asks students, “Does it look like a word you know in your language?”
  • Finding patterns and similarities: When there are grammatical patters or phrases that are have similarities between English and the L1, the teacher can ask, “What is the equivalent in your language?” or “Is it similar or different in your language?”

Level Three: Discourse

Level three uses the L1 to develop language awareness, higher order thinking skills, and to explore and comprehend features of discourse in English. The teacher also incorporates the ideas from levels one and two.

  • Discussing register: When looking at a phrase in context that has a particular register or degree of formality, the teacher asks students for an equivalent in their L1. This opens up discussions about appropriacy and register.
  • Just for fun: All bilinguals are aware of words and phrases that are easily mistranslated and produce funny consequences. By highlighting some of these and encouraging students to play with the language, we not only bring some light relief into the classroom, but encourage creativity and heightened language awareness.
  • Translating: Students work together and translate extracts or short texts from one language to the other. The teacher encourages students to discuss and justify their choice of words and phrases. This develops insight into features of context, appropriacy and register, develops higher order thinking skills, and promotes greater awareness of both languages.

These ideas are designed to encourage teachers to make principled use of the L1 in their classroom without feeling guilty about doing do so, while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls that are often associated with its use. It is hoped that all teachers will feel comfortable using some of these ideas and will consider the possible benefits of others.