Activities & Techniques: Tried & Tested

Not really related but very cool video.

I’ve previously written a reflective sort of post on my first semester as a university English teacher, and my feeling of being thrown in at the deep end somewhat. This led to me trying out a lot of things, some of which were successful, others of which were less so. It also led me to planning each lesson very carefully, and building up a fairly large stack of paper on my desk. I’ve been meaning to trawl back through it for some time now, and given that I had some time over the thanksgiving holiday here, I finally got around to it. What follows then, are some brief notes on things that I did last semester.


Grammar Auction: I tried this with my elementary class, and it works pretty well as an activity from a fun point of view, especially when teams make a huge bid on an incorrect sentence. You can use it with real student errors too to make it hit home a bit more. The problem though, is that unless it’s linked to something else, or there’s an opportunity to practice the correct forms after, then it’s not a particularly helpful activity for students. My other concern is that it takes a while to set up and do, and involves very little speaking for elementary level students. Verdict: OK, but requires careful placing within a lesson.

Live Listening: I did this as part of a pre-intermediate lesson on hometowns. I had students prepare questions that they wanted to ask me about my hometown, and then ask them while we recorded the whole thing. I then gave them a variety of tasks, summarizing, comparing to their hometowns, listening for important linguistic features, and coming up with questions for the rest of the class about the listening. This worked OK, and got more student interest than a coursebook listening, but wound up producing a listening text that was unfeasibly long, and that we didn’t really have enough time to work with in the lesson. One thing I was pleased with though, was students picking up on authentic features of language like fillers and pauses. Verdict: Different tasks for different groups work really well. Would do this again, but try to limit questions and length of answers, and work with the text in much more depth.

Jigsaw Activities: This is a particular favourite of mine. For those of you who don’t know how they work, students form small groups to discuss something (square numbers work best, so 3 groups of 3, 4 groups of 4 etc.). Then they split up, and new groups are formed with one member of each original group in each new group. They then share/debate/discuss their original groups findings with other people in the group. Finally, if possible, they return to their group and share whatever they learned. I did this for the health and fitness unit with my pre-intermediates, and it was a great success. Having done a listening about a health club, I then had each group design their own health club, with information about facilities, diets, programs etc. They then appointed a salesperson, while the other group members became customers. The customers went to hear about other spas, while the salesperson tried to sell theirs. Then everyone came back to their own group to decide which spa they wanted to visit (excepting their own of course). They then revealed their choices, and the most popular spa was declared the winner (if I recall correctly, it was the one with the bikini masseurs). There were many good aspects to this activity – the planning stage gives an opportunity for thinking about what to say, generating new vocabulary etc., and you can do more than one rotation in groups, giving fluency practice to the salespeople. There’s also lots more spontaneous language use, as the customers are encouraged to ask questions, and by the end of the activity each person has taken part in three or four slightly different discussions, but all around the same theme using similar lexis. The competition element also encourages students, and I had little trouble getting my sometimes slightly reluctant students to push themselves and communicate freely in English. Verdict: One of the best things that I did this year.

Classroom Kit

Mini-whiteboards: I saw this trick presented by Peadar Callahan at a conference. Basically, you can create a pretty effective personal whiteboard for a student simply by laminating a piece of A4 paper. This has a huge range of uses, checking answers, drawing board, musical instrument, and works particularly well for shy classes to whom the thought of answering a teacher question is terribly frightening. Using white boards means that everyone can answer, the teacher can see who needs some help, and nobody loses face. However! This limits speaking time, and I find that if students talk about an answer with their partner first then they are quite willing to answer anyway, especially if everyone does. There are also other ways to measure a response, such as thumbs up/down for yes and no questions. The main problems that I had were 1) Mess! This is on me, and wouldn’t have happened  with proper whiteboards, but the laminated ones that I had wouldn’t wipe clean, especially after the writing had been on them for a while (even with board markers). This lead to buying board cleaner, tissues and all kinds of other stuff, meaning that the classroom filled up with rubbish, and we spent 10 minutes every lesson trying to clean the damn things. In the end, I gave up. 2) Sharing. I thought that the boards would be a great chance for students to write some example sentences, which everyone could look at and do error correction etc. In the end, students writing meant that it was difficult to read, and not everyone in the class could see anyway. I have a new solution for that this semester, but that’s for another post. Verdict: could have been awesome, but wasn’t. Invest in some real whiteboards (or get your school to).

Remembering Stuff (the students, not me)

Wikispaces: Being a switched on, thoroughly modern, gizmo-oriented sort of chap (this is about half true), and having read all about the lovely opportunities that technology presents, I decided that I would make a wiki for each of my classes, where we could share class notes, extra activities and generally have a jolly good time. Being also extremely busy, I put the responsibility for maintaining it on the students. This was one of the less successful aspects of the semester. I gave bonus points in class to students who maintained it, and they dutifully copied all of our board work onto the website, with no explanation, rhyme or reason. I suspect that outside of these loyal bonus point hunters, nobody even looked at it, even when I warned that some of the questions from the exam would be based on the vocab on the site. At least, I assume that nobody looked, as nobody got the questions right. It also meant that students thought that there was no need to take notes, as they would all be on the website later.  Add to this the fact that some students failed to even sign up, and it was a big hassle to get those that did to, and this doesn’t look like a winner.Verdict: Students aren’t the keenest to do stuff outside of class, and need their own notes. If you’re going to use technology, use something that the students already know.

Remembering the board: A very brief and simple activity. At the very end of the lesson, tell students that the following day they will have to remember everything on the board. They can look for a minute, but may not write anything. At the beginning of the next lesson, draw some hints (dividing lines, section headings, odd words or letters) and have them try to recreate it on a piece of paper, or come up and fill in the board. Verdict: Quite good. Better than Wikispaces. PS Remember to take a photo of the board!


Making assessment a bit more personal and communicative: This was something I tried to do as time went on and I got to know my students better. For one written quiz, I had students write personal sentences from prompts like “I’m looking forward…” testing their infinitive/gerund knowledge. The twist was, they couldn’t write their name on the test (I asked them to use a memorable number for IDs sake), and I had to guess who had written the sentences for part of the grade on the test. I also did something similar where students had to describe another member of the class for a speaking test, and I had to guess who they were. Who knew that testing could deepen your relationship with students? Verdict: Made weekly quizzes that little bit more interesting and challenging.

If you violently disagree with anything I’ve written here, do feel free to leave an acerbic comment below, and if you use one of these ideas successfully (even if I did), feel even freer to leave a nice one. Also, you can always follow me on Twitter (@breathyvowel)




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