Over the past – OMG – 21! years – I must have asked and answered a gazillion questions about how to teach different language structures and subskills to learners of English both online, on various discussion boards, and onsite, in private discussions. However, it’s only now dawned on me that it might be a good idea to pool everything together in my own blog. I am not sure how long it will take to accomplish this goal, and whether I will live that long, but I am absolutely sure I won’t regret embarking on this rather Dr House-esque project. Teachers encounter all sorts of challenges, and meeting some of them is like catching the wave – you either succeed and grow to enjoy the process, or fail and quit, hugely disappointed in the profession. I guess the best way to organize everything will be to use the problem-solution format.
CASE #1 “I often have difficulty thinking of warm-up activities to start my lessons, and I have trouble thinking of ideas for filler activities, too. Well, I know some twenty-thirty+ warmers and fillers, but I’ve been teaching for years, and things are starting to get somewhat boring. On top of this, some of my students have been with me for a while, and some are new, which makes it a bit of a challenge to keep both cohorts interested as I have to make sure that I don’t repeat myself. PS Please don’t google it for me – I’ve done this already. ”
To start with, take it easy – you are not alone. Actually, there is nothing to be ashamed of. It is absolutely normal to run out of NEW ideas once you have spent a few weeks teaching, to say nothing of those who have spent some 10-20 years working as an ELT instructor. Generating a brand new warmer or filler for your 10,000th lesson could even prove a genuinely unattainable goal if you really want to do something you’ve never ever done before. If, however, you are fine with some conscious repetition with a tad of variation, your problem will be solved completely or at least partially by the time you’ve read this post.
A POSSIBLE SOLUTION
Google “fillers and warmers”. Get yourself a copy of Tessa Woodward’s “Planning Lessons and Courses“, and read EVERYTHING you can find in it about THREADED ACTIVITIES starting from page 55 (the quotes below are from there). I will try to provide a quintessential summary of what they are now, but it doesn’t mean you should rely on this tiny little description and not do any reading yourself. I assure you that the book is worth its price in gold. Do get yourself a hard copy. You won’t have a flicker of regret.
So, what are THREADED ACTIVITIES or THREADS for short?
Some people believe that “little and often” is the best way to learn. Instead of spending a long time all at one sitting trying to understand something, some teachers feel that it is better to work for a short spell on something, leave it to settle and percolate for a while, and then pick it up next time, reviewing and extending understanding a little before leaving it again.
So, what does this all mean? In essence, it implies introducing series or threads of look- alike activities, the best known of which may well be known to most teachers and learners as classroom routines, into the teaching process. The difference between a series of activities that form a thread and a series of routines is that the former are a much bigger, almost infinite, pool of what you could do. They can be lexical, grammatical, phonological, functional or skills-based. They can also pursue affective or rapport-building goals. I do mean that there is a world of opportunity for the creative mind. The activities themselves, albeit new each time, will follow the same pattern, but there will always be some novelty or variation in terms of the focal teaching point or objective. To remember the algorithms better, approach lesson planning in the same way a bride would approach planning her wedding outfit – you will need “something old and something new”.
If I were you, I’d want examples here and now. That’s fair enough, so here there are some.
The first example Tessa Woodward gives is that of “an animal a day”.
This series of activities is designed to work on literal and metaphorical uses of basic vocabulary. The animal can be a cat, fish, bird, horse, snake or frog. The first day, one animal is introduced with its basic vocabulary, e.g. a cat: whiskers, paws, claws, tail. When the thread is revisited in the next class these words are reviewed and new ones are added, e.g. tabby, tom, kitten. Your choices each time you revisit the animal in subsequent classes are to
- review nouns already learned
- add verbs (hiss, scratch, purr)
- add adjectives (furry, soft, playful)
- add strengths and weaknesses (good hunter, kills things, sleeps a lot)
- add metaphors (cat’s eyes in the middle of the road, a catty remark, to claw back money in taxes)
- introduce new ‘animals’ such as ‘birds’ or ‘snails’, discuss the similarities in what they have (feathers versus slimy scaly skin) and where they live (nest, garden)
- ask students to tell you about individual animals of one type that they have known
The ‘animal’ a day thread can last from 5-20 minutes and can be visited either every class or regularly but at longer intervals. … They can be used at the same or different points of the lesson each time. There are many different kinds of threads for speaking, listening, vocabulary, writing, thinking and general knowledge. (pp 55-56).
What conclusions can we draw from this?
One is that you do not have to literally study one animal a day; one animal could “last” you for a month of lessons with a student or a group of students if you teach them 2-3 lessons a week.
Secondly, threaded activities do not have to be built around animals, they can be very very different.
Thirdly, such activities do not have to serve the purpose of filling in the extra 5 minutes of class time or allowing for late-comers. They can help you to teach a whole proper theme in addition to what you have in your coursebook, for instance.
One possible way to exploit this idea is to look at the last 2-3 units in the coursebook you are to use with your student(s), and think of threads to teach something in those last units over the course of the whole year. It is no big secret that the last few units in most coursebooks very rarely get covered properly in most schools and by many teachers due to lack of class time.
In other words, if your coursebook has 12 units, and you are to cover it in 3 terms, ie 4 units per term, look at units 4, 8 and 12 for thread ideas. Alternatively, look at units 10-12.
To put it differently, as you might have understood already, the “animal a day” example is just the tip of the iceberg and there are tons more out there.
One more point that Tessa Woodward makes in her other book, namely, ‘Planning from Lesson to Lesson’, which she co-authored with and Seth Lindstromberg, is that you can run SEVERAL threads simultaneously, so your lessons can become interwoven with a number of them over the course of the term.
The two books I refer to are not always easy to find, and, apparently, there is a lot of room for exploration if today is the first time you’ve heard about threads; you may really want to talk to someone who has used threads in their work or who is planning to learn more about them to grasp the concept, to share experiences or to learn together, for it is … a fun way to develop professionally.
I know what it feels when you get stuck over a lesson plan, so if you are a practising English teacher and wish to discuss threaded activities over Skype with like-minded colleagues in a group of 3-5 people in our Virtual Classrooms (it is free, no strings attached ) at www.study-english-online.net -please explore how the ELN Virtual Classrooms work first, and then sign up as an ELN project participant either on Eventbrite or by email stacey @ englishlab.net (if you choose to email directly, do not forget to write “Teacher Professional Development Workshops” in the subject line please).