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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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The Perfect Way to Celebrate Friendship in the ELT Classroom

A sign of friendship and teamwork - three fists bumping together

International friendship day is a holiday established by the United Nations in 2011 to celebrate friendship worldwide. The UN celebration is on 30th July. (This choice of date originated in Paraguay in 1958.) Some countries celebrate friendship on different days: In Spain, Argentina and Brazil it’s 20th July. In India and the United Arab Emirates, it’s the first Sunday in August. Regardless of the date, friendship is important for people everywhere.

How can you celebrate with your students?

One way you can explore this theme of friendship with your students is by using thematic quote cards to prompt class discussion. First, put learners into small groups. Then give each group a cut-up set of Friendship Quote Cards (download below) to look through. Allow learners to use a dictionary to check the meaning of unknown words. Go around monitoring to make sure learners stay on task. Once they are ready, write these sentence stems on the board and drill the correct pronunciation:

My favourite quote about friends is….
I really like it because…
My least favourite quote about friends is….
I don’t like it because…

Then ask the learners to choose their favourite and least favourite friendship quote. (There are as many different ‘correct’ answers as the number of students in your class. Everyone is different!) Once learners have done this, encourage them to compare their ideas with the ideas of other learners in their group, using the stem sentences to guide them.

What next?

If your students seem motivated by the topic of friendship, you can open this out into a whole-class discussion. However, if time is short, you may want to keep to small group discussions which you monitor as you walk around the classroom. If you want to express your personal preferences regarding your favourite/least favourite quote, do this at the end of the discussion so learners are not put off sharing their thoughts by you taking part too early in the discussion.

If we want our learners to read a classic story that describes a group of friends, we couldn’t do better than recommend ‘The Three Musketeers’ by the French writer Alexandre Dumas. The three Musketeer friends – Porthos, Athos and Aramis – have a slogan: ‘All for one and one for all!’ This describes their readiness to collectively help one of their number in need (‘all for one’) as well as each man being ready to work for the greater good of the group as a whole (‘one for all’)

As well as the Three Musketeers of the title, there is also the character of D’Artagnan. He arrives in Paris from the country and ends up, after many adventures, befriending the three Musketeers and himself becoming a Musketeer by the close of the story.

If you want to explore the differences between the four close friends in this story, give learners the Three Musketeers Grid (download below) and ask them to complete it with details about the different characters as they read.

Possible answers (Based on the Oxford Dominoes retelling):

  • Athos: tall, good-looking (page 1, lines 19-20), likes sleeping (page 11, lines 4-5), disappointed in love (page 22, lines 7-14), likes eating and drinking (page 33, lines 8-10)
  • Aramis: gets gifts from women, very private (page 2, lines 6-12), writes well (page 36, lines 18-25), likes pretty women (page 53, line 11)
  • Porthos: expensively dressed, quick to get angry (page 2, lines 1-3); likes a good sword (page 10, line 7), strong (page11, lines 1-2), likes adventures (page 53, lines 12-13)
  • D’Artagnan: wild, young (page 1, lines 17-18) brave (page 3, lines 2-3), loving (page 4, lines 13-15), loyal, helpful (page 9, 17-19), foolish (page 23, lines 1-4), innocent (page 34, lines 3-4)

To make this grid-filling easier, write on the board the information above in jumbled order. Students can check the meaning of unfamiliar words and match the phrases with the four main story characters, later reading the story to double-check their predictions.

A final (freer) speaking activity could involve learners matching the friendship quotes we mentioned earlier with key moments in the story, with learners explaining why they made these connections. (For example, ‘The W.B. Yeats quote matches the story opening because the three strangers D’Artagnan bumps into in chapter 1 become his friends later.’)

These resources are available via the Oxford Teacher’s Club.

Not a member? Registering is quick and easy to do, and it gives you access to a wealth of teaching resources.


Found these resources useful? How did they work for you? Share your experiences with our teaching community by leaving a comment below, or by tweeting us using the handle @oupeltglobal!


Bill Bowler is a founder series editor, with his wife, Sue Parminter, of Dominoes Graded Readers (OUP). He has authored many readers himself. He has also visited many countries as a teacher trainer, sharing ideas about Extensive Reading. Bill has contributed to the book Bringing Extensive Reading into the Classroom (OUP).  Two of his Dominoes adaptations (The Little Match Girl and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) were Language Learner Literature Award Finalists. Born in London, he now lives in Spain.


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Bubbling Under: Helping ideas to surface in speaking classes Q&A

School children writingEdmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher of English with more than 20 years of classroom experience. Based in Budapest, he has extensive experience of teaching EFL at both primary and secondary levels. He works with teachers from around the world as a freelance teacher trainer and as a tutor at the University of Oxford’s ELT Summer Seminar. He is the co-author of OUP’s Mixed-Ability Teaching and has also contributed materials to several OUP textbooks and training courses.


What can we do if our students are afraid of making mistakes?

Ask yourself what it is that your students are actually afraid of. Is it making mistakes? Or is it the consequences of making mistakes? In many cases, I think it’s the latter. Students are afraid that if they make a mistake when speaking, the teacher will embarrass them, or that the other students in the class will make fun of them. There are two things that we can do:

  1. Be encouraging and supportive
  2. Refuse to tolerate it when students make fun of each other in class.

What if students don’t understand the question?

Asking for clarification is an important aspect of successful speaking, and should be practised in class. Teach students phrases such as I don’t understand the question or Can you repeat that, please? Again, it is entirely natural for students not to understand our questions on occasions. It is only a problem, however, if the students do not have effective strategies for dealing with this situation.

We can also take steps to help students understand our questions. We can do this by:

  1. ‘Modelling’ the question to demonstrate its meaning before we ask individuals
  2. Repeating the question with added gestures
  3. Rephrasing the question using simpler language
  4. Writing the question on the board
  5. Asking another student in the class to clarify the meaning of the question
  6. Asking students to say what the question means in L1.

What if they refused to take notes?

Teenage students are usually only reluctant to write notes if they cannot ‘see the point’ of writing something down. In this case, there is definitely a point. Taking notes gives students time to prepare and to organise their thoughts. It makes the job of speaking much easier – and less embarrassing. When practising in pairs, I find that quieter students are much more likely to speak if they have already written something down in advance. As you practise doing activities like this, students will be able to see the benefit for themselves.

And if they still refuse? I think that in the rare situations where a student ‘refuses’ to carry out a reasonable request from the teacher, then the problem is not merely connected to the task. There is something more complex going on there.

Why do students love to talk about something/someone they hate, and not vice versa?

There’s a straightforward answer and also a paradoxical one. The straightforward answer is that students get bored of being asked about their favourite things all the time. The paradoxical answer is that it is more difficult for teenagers to talk about the things which they love, because there is more at stake: they can be judged more harshly by their classmates for giving an ‘uncool’ answer.

Although it was based on your experience with teenagers, this could also work with adults, right?

The techniques we looked at in the webinar can all be used – or modified for use – with adult learners, too. Adult learners of English can also suffer from a lack of confidence, and they too can benefit from activities designed to give them time, ideas and language resources to use while speaking.

How do you assess speaking as a skill?

Set specific goals and make sure that the students know beforehand how they are going to be assessed. You might evaluate their task completion, in which case the emphasis is on fluency and communicative competence. Alternatively, you might be doing controlled practice of certain structures, in which case the emphasis would be on accuracy.

What’s the most effective way of monitoring during a speaking prep? How much do you want to interfere (to give them more confidence in what they’re about to say?)

It depends on what the task is. As a general rule, let students speak. Intervene afterwards. Remember that the teacher’s role is not always to correct. Sometimes, asking students to repeat what they have just said can be an effective and face-saving way of helping them to self-correct.


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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 co-author of ‘Mixed Ability Teaching’ in the “Into the Classroom” series. 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.


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Does pronunciation matter?

shutterstock_297003296Robin Walker is a freelance teacher, teacher educator, and materials writer. He has been in ELT for over 30 years, and regularly collaborates with Oxford University Press and Trinity College London. Today he joins us to preview his upcoming webinar ‘Pronunciation Matters’, on December 6th and 7th.

At first glance it would seem that it is not really possible to question the idea that pronunciation matters. How can you learn a language without learning its pronunciation? Who will understand you if your pronunciation is poor? And will you understand them? Yes, the case for teaching pronunciation seems pretty solid, but the reality in classrooms around the world is often very different. Time and time again, when I give talks and workshops on pronunciation, teachers confess to me that what I’ve said has been enlightening, but that sadly they don’t have time for pronunciation in a syllabus that is already busting at the seams. It’s logical, then, that if they are short of time something will have to give, and pronunciation is an obvious choice, especially with courses that focus more on written than on spoken English.

Teachers say they don’t have time to teach pronunciation in their syllabus.

But can we really push pronunciation out to the margins of ELT like this? Surely it does matter. The connection between pronunciation and speaking, for example, is immediately apparent to anyone who has started learning a new language. But pronunciation is also about listening; it is not enough to recognise a word in writing, because if you don’t know how it’s pronounced you won’t recognise it when listening to someone using the word. Spanish learners of English can fail to recognise the word ‘average’ even though it is spelt the same way in both languages. This is because they are expecting a four-syllable word and so fail to make sense of the correct, two-syllable pronunciation.

Pronunciation is also an issue for listening because of the way that words that are pronounced one way when said in isolation can sound quite different when they are part of a sequence. My own students kept using ‘Festival’ to start their essays. I couldn’t work out why and until they explained that it was the way I started any instructions I gave them in class. It wasn’t, of course. What I’d been saying was ‘First of all’ but because of their poor pronunciation they completely misheard what I was saying.

pm1

Vocabulary, too, has a pronunciation element if we want to use a new word when speaking, and there are many examples of the connection between pronunciation and grammar. A rising tone at the end of an affirmative sentence, for example, turns it into a question to the ears of the listener. Thus:

pm2

Speaking, listening,  vocabulary – yes. But writing?

Less obvious, admittedly, is the link between pronunciation and writing, and it was clear to me for a long time, and to all of my colleagues, that pronunciation and reading are simply not connected. Or at least that is what I thought until I heard Michael Swan and Catherine Walter speak at the 2008 IATEFL conference in Exeter. Their session was about the problems learners face when reading in English. Poor pronunciation, Catherine explained, often lies undetected behind the poor reading skills of many students. If we want them to get better at reading, she proposed, help them to improve their pronunciation.

I listened to this concluding remark in amazement. Suddenly everything fitted into place. Pronunciation does matter. And rather than being marginal to the core elements of ELT, it lies at the very heart of teaching English. Grammar, vocabulary, speaking, listening, writing and reading – what holds them all together, what is common to them all, and what is central to ELT, is the very same pronunciation that got pushed out onto the margins some time in the mid-80s.

Pronunciation is the glue that holds everything else in teaching together.

How this is, how pronunciation operates as the glue that holds everything else in teaching English together, I’ll explain in my webinar in December. I’ll also look at goals for learners, because if the goal in the past was to sound like a native speaker, the situation today, with English being used the world over as a lingua franca, is not so simple. I’ll be looking at priorities for our learners’ pronunciation, too, because if there isn’t much time to fit everything in, we need to focus on what matters most.

So if you accept that pronunciation matters, and you want to find out more about what matters in pronunciation, join me in December, and we’ll put pronunciation in its proper place at the heart of ELT.