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8 Steps Towards a Successful Classroom

Verissimo Toste, an Oxford teacher trainer, discusses the ingredients of a successful lesson. Verissimo hosted a webinar on this topic on the 10th May. To view a recording of this webinar, click here.

What makes a lesson successful? Beyond the specific materials and activities, what can teachers focus on in order to deliver consistently successful lessons? These are not easy questions to answer, but there are some key points we, as teachers, can focus on in order to increase the probability of consistently successful lessons.

Consider the students. Too obvious a point, probably. But in the rush of a day’s lessons, it is easy to deliver content without focussing on the individual students we have in front of us. What are their abilities, their interests?  How do they feel that day and how could these considerations affect the lesson you are about to deliver? Sometimes it is important to take a deep breath before beginning a lesson and consider these questions. We might be able to make some slight adjustments that will help our lesson flow better.

Although easily taken for granted, it is important to begin and end the lesson well. A good beginning has impact, drawing the students’ attention and engaging them in what they are about to do. It is also clear as to what the students will be doing in the lesson. A clear idea of the outcome of the lesson will help students become more personally involved in the activities, helping them to learn better. A good ending will give students a sense of achievement, of having learned. Students can reflect on what they have learned and what skills they have developed. Equally important, they can also consider what might have been difficult during the lesson, leading them to focus on that aspect of their learning.

Of course, the material you use will greatly contribute to the success of your lesson. But it is important to look at it critically. How does it relate to your students? Is it relevant to them? Almost any topic can be made relevant, but it is important to focus on this in order to make it so. Students may find a topic boring or a language point too difficult to understand. However, making their feelings and opinions part of the lesson will help to involve them. Contributing to the lesson in this way helps them take responsibility for what happens in their lessons. They, too, contribute to the success of the lesson.

Students today learn as much outside the classroom as they do in class, maybe even more in some cases. Successful lessons take this into consideration and don’t end when the class ends. There are many ways to extend the lesson beyond the classroom. Students can find links between the topics in class, maybe from their coursebook, to their world. I discovered in a coursebook lesson based on parkour that the national champion of the sport was from the city where I was teaching. My students knew more about it than I did. Of course, this led to photos of where the sport was practised in the city and some of the people who practised it.

Technology is an integral part of our students’ lives, providing many opportunities for continuing language work outside of class. This could be based on language work integrated with the coursebook, or online work based on researching a topic. Teachers can also consider using students’ digital devices to bring their lives into the classroom. When working on the present simple for daily routine, students can be encouraged to take some photos of what they do every day. Sharing these in class will add a personal context to the language being learned.

My webinar further discussed some of the key points that bring success to the classroom. You can view a recording of the webinar here.


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A pre-JALT interview with Kristin Sherman, co-author of Network

Kristin ShermanKristin Sherman, co-author of Network, OUP’s first adult course book to use social media, sits down with us to talk about using social media and technology in the ELT classroom. Kristin is the author of several ELT materials including the hit series Q: Skills for Success, and has extensive teaching and training experience.

1. What do you think is the greatest challenge ELT teachers face in the near future? How can they prepare to overcome that challenge?

I think definitely one of the greatest challenges that ELT professionals face is trying to adapt to new technology. So many changes have been created by technology, and trying to figure out what it means for our teaching is the biggest nut to try to crack. The way that people communicate and access information has changed dramatically which has a lot of implications for both language teaching and learning.

Students and learners can be exposed to a greater variety of English with new technology. For example, if they are using online discussion forums or using social networks they’re going to see not only American English or British English, but a wide variety of English. That’s good because it’s authentic and the learners are going to be exposed to the kind of language that they will need to practice in their professional careers and so forth. But on the other hand, all of this input is a considerable challenge for them and for the teacher.

In addition to exposing us to a greater variety of language, technology is also changing our brains and the way that we learn. Research shows that all kinds of things are changing from how we read to how we process information, and even our learning style preferences. I think that teachers are really going to have to take these changes into account, and if they’re going to be successful and effective they need to adapt their teaching to address what’s happening with learners.

Another big challenge with technology is bridging the gap between younger learners – who are much more skilled at using the internet and who have grown up with it – and the instructors who are a maybe a bit older and are not as tech-savvy. Bringing these instructors up to speed is an interesting challenge because if they don’t adapt they’re not going to be as effective as they could be as instructors.

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A pre-JALT interview with Ken Wilson, author of Drama and Improvisation

Ken Wilson with teachersKen Wilson is a teacher trainer as well as the author of over 30 ELT materials including the course book Smart Choice and a compilation of drama activities entitled Drama and Improvisation. He has extensive experience with the English Teaching Theatre as a performer, writer, and artistic director and has written countless plays, radio, and TV programmes. Ken will be attending his fourth JALT national conference this October where he will be giving talks on improvisation and communication. He joined us for a short interview to talk about drama and improvisation in the ELT classroom as well as what he expects from this year’s conference.

1. What do you think is the greatest challenge ELT teachers face in the near future? How can they prepare to overcome that challenge?

For me, it all comes down to technology. I think the biggest challenge is the correct, sensible and useful employment of technology in the ELT classroom, and I think it’s a different thing for new teachers and for more experienced teachers.

When I was in Japan last time, I noted that – as in most countries – some teachers are a little bit uncertain about the use of technology. Some of them feel that the publishers are introducing the use of technology at quite a fast rate. What I would say to those teachers is that there are some terrific advantages to technology, but what you’ve been doing yourself successfully over the last five, ten, twenty years is equally valuable. And as an experienced teacher, you shouldn’t feel any pressure from anybody to use technology. Just remember that what you’ve been doing successfully up until now is still valuable – technology is just there to help you with it.

For new teachers who are being trained with technology, it might look like Christmas. All these techno toys look so fantastic, but you should remember that at the end of the day, the classroom is first and foremost about the relationship between you and the student. The technology is there to help your students, but you‘re the person there who is teaching. Don’t put the technology between you and your students. My worry about new teachers who get really excited about technology – who walk into a classroom, switch something on, ask people to use something on their tablets – is that they are losing an important aspect of their relationship with their students. Students still need to know that they’re relating to a person and the technology is there to help that relationship, not become a barrier to it.

2. One of your presentations for the JALT conference this year is titled “Can improvised activities work in Japanese classrooms?” Can you give us a teaser of what you will be talking about?

About three or four years ago, I wrote a book called Drama and Improvisation and the reason I finally got around to writing this book was that I had been doing activities in the classroom that were really, really simple and they involved very basic language, but they still involved improvisation activities. Drama must be used in a way that is accessible for low-level students, and that uses activities that work for all levels of students from elementary to advanced levels. When I wrote Drama and Improvisation, the series editor Alan Maley told me “All these activities are really simple! They’re all elementary.” I said, “I know, but the fact is I’ve done them with advanced students and they find the intellectual requirement quite interesting and quite a challenge even though the basic language is quite simple.”

Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve seen drama workshops at conferences, where I found myself thinking, that’s a sensational activity but it only works with somebody who speaks a lot of English already. A lot of people who give drama workshops will say that drama is essential because students need to take flight, use their imagination etc. etc. which is great if you have the language to do it, but most of the students can’t do this because they don’t have that framework.

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Using the language of football to engage your students

Alan Redmond, co-author of English for Football, offers teaching tips on engaging your students by using the topic of football in your English lessons. Watch the video to see Alan and co-author Sean Warren discuss how football can motivate students in class.

I teach English to Premier League footballers and Academy players at Premier League clubs. For a football fan like me, it’s a great job and one that I’m constantly grateful for, but it’s a job that I’ve had to mould and shape from the start. I try to do two things: firstly, teach General English using football as a context and, secondly, teach the essential English vocabulary and terminology used in the world of football.

Football has a lexicon of its own. Expressions like ‘drop deep’, ‘man on’, ‘mark up’ or ‘hold the ball up’ are crucial for players to understand and there are a lot more of these expressions that coaches and team mates will use when speaking to a player.

I found teaching the language specific to football to be a little like teaching phrasal verbs to General English students: It often seems fine in class but the students have a high tendency to mix them up immediately after the class. To counter this, I divided the high frequency expressions into categories based on which player would say them and in what situation the player could expect to hear them. For example, ‘mark up’ is something that they will hear from a goalkeeper when defending corners and free-kicks.

Teaching English in a football context is useful for professional footballers but it can also engage students who aren’t professional footballers or even footballers at all. Try our Present Perfect explanation and exercises from English for Football and notice how easy it is to motivate your students afterwards.

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How to reflect on how we teach

Young woman using laptop on park benchJulietta Schoenmann, a language teacher and teacher trainer with over twenty years’ experience, considers ways in which teachers can reflect on how they teach.

As professionals who care about our students and the quality of the lessons we prepare and deliver, we do from time to time want to explore certain aspects of our practice in more depth. One way of doing this is by carrying out an action research project. ‘Project’ makes it sound rather grand and formal but it doesn’t have to be as inaccessible as it sounds. Classroom-based research is simply a method for finding out more about teaching and learning which then, in theory, makes you a better teacher and also helps your students become better learners. So how do you go about doing it?

On your own

There are loads of things you can do by yourself which reveal plenty about you as a teacher – your attitude to your work and your students, your role in the classroom, your management techniques, your lesson planning abilities, etc. The first thing you need to do is think about which aspect of your lessons you want to research. Looking through any pages of the New English File Teacher’s Book can get you thinking about areas that deserve attention:

  • How effectively do you present new grammar structures?
  • How helpful are your techniques for explaining new vocabulary?
  • Do you provide adequate feedback on students’ performance?
  • Do you set up and conclude activities in a logical and engaging way?

It’s helpful to write down some questions to get you started so that you have a focus to work with. Let me give you an example from my own teaching.

A little while ago I wanted to find out how effective my instructions were with pre-intermediate group and decided to record my lesson. The digital recording device I used was nice and discreet so it wasn’t distracting for students in class. I was able to stop and start it whenever I wanted (rather than waste time on footage that wasn’t that helpful to me, such as groups doing a writing task). I set aside time a few days later to listen to what I’d captured.

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