Tag Archives: Efl Lesson Structure

1001 ELT CASE STUDIES * CASE 1 – How to think of a good warm-up activity to start all my lessons over the next term in ONE HOUR or LESS? – Use threads.

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).

How Long Should One Online Language Lesson Last?

To begin with, I am not aware of any reliable statistics.  I can only draw on my personal experience and summarize a number of related Google search results.

It is obvious, I hope, that it is impossible to spend more than 3 clock hours talking without a break.  I guess that’s the maximum.  As for the minimum, an online lesson can be as long as a regular phone call, i.e. it can last for as little as 5 or 10 minutes.  Personally, I like it when lessons are 2h15min long, with a short break or a longish filler activity when 2/3 of the time has elapsed.  But I cannot justify my preference with reference to the literature, because there is nothing in the literature:(  apart from some “circumstantial” evidence.

Let me elaborate on that.  First and foremost, a language lesson like an aerobics workout should start with a warmer. Most warmers allow the student to practise making some small talk, discuss the latest news and learn a few related lexical items,  ask questions about the last homework assignment and the like. It is an important element, though I can think of situations when you can opt out of it and “get down to business”. The usual recommendation is for a warmer to last between 3 and 10 minutes, the average being 5 (without homework questions!).

The rest of the lesson is usually comprised of activities.  Again, most activities are composites, i.e. they are made up of several parts or stages.

Stage 1 is known as lead-in.  It introduces the topic or activity and usually takes between 2 and 15 minutes in an onsite lesson.  It is impossible to give a more precise estimate, because you have to consider the number of the students present, their level, motivation and familiarity with the topic.

Stage 2 is really a meta-stage, but it must never be ignored, because it has a direct impact on how successful the activity itself will be. You tell your students what they have to do or set the task during this stage.  You may have to demonstrate,  model, elicit sample answers and so forth to make sure your students understand what they have to do and how. Timewise, this stage lasts between 1 and 5 minutes on average, and depends on the complexity and focus of the activity.

Stage 3 is frequently labelled run in lesson plans. It is the activity per se. During stage 3 your students usually do the task, and your role is to monitor.  In 1-to-1 lessons the teacher usually forms a pair with her student and does a double load of work, i.e. does the task and monitors simultaneously. Whether 1-to-1 instruction is the best way of teaching speaking is a controversial issue. I for one have my reservations, but outlining them is beyond the scope of this post, so I’ll leave it at that. This stage can last between 5 and 90 minutes.

Stage 4 is another meta-stage that is often labelled close in lesson plans. The teacher tells the students that their time is up and rounds up the activity.  Sometimes it is necessary to stop the activity before it has come to a logical conclusion, before everything has been done or all the questions have been discussed.  You have to tell your students whether they will finish the activity later in a subsequent class or for homework, or whether that’s it and no more work is necessary. Whatever you decide, you have to make sure that the students are not frustrated and can see the pros of your choice. Of course, it is great when you are very good at timing and can estimate how long an activity will take to the minute.  I have to admit it that I still have to work on that:(  and it is not uncommon for me to underestimate – I never overestimate – the time necessary to complete a task, as a result of which I occasionally have to do without some or all of the follow-up activities.  Closing the activity and telling students whatever next usually takes 0.5-5 minutes.

Stage 5 is usually the time when you provide different types of feedback.  Providing activity feedback such as the correct answers normally takes 1-3 minutes. Providing delayed feedback to do with the mistakes that you jotted down while your students were doing the activity might take up to a quarter of an hour.

Stage 6 is any follow-up activity or task that is based on the main activity.  In other words, it is a new activity that might take as long as stages 1-5 combined or as little as 3-5 minutes. What makes it a stage as opposed to a standalone activity is its dependence on the outcomes and language practised during the main activity.  It is not unusual for an activity to be followed by more than one follow-up task.

Now let me do some simple maths.

If a lesson is comprised of a shortish warmer and a short activity with a tiny little follow-up task, it should take you a minimum of

greetings 1 min

warmer – 3 mins

lead-in – 2 mins

set task – 1 min

run  – 5 mins

close – 1 min

feedback – 2 mins

follow-up  – 3 mins  (set – run – close)

feedback – 1 min

leave-taking – 1 min

GRAND TOTAL: 20 mins

As can be seen from the estimate above, it is possible to have an even shorter lesson – 10-11 mins – if you decide to do without politeness conventions (i.e. if you choose to say neither hello nor goodbye and start doing the main activity immediately), warmers (it is possible if the student is fairly advanced and has plenty of speaking practice outside class, which usually means that he doesn’t really need to “warm up” making small talk) and follow-up tasks. But would such a lesson be as efficient? I am not sure.

Another consideration is that stage 3 of most enjoyable speaking activities takes between 15 and 40 mins on average (most fun speaking games take at least half an hour to play because there are usually several rounds, and some communicative games last for an hour and a half), and the higher the student’s level is, the longer the activity tends to take. You should also allow for some thinking time. Not all speaking activities are heated discussions by nature. Nor are they tongue twisters – it is neither your nor your students’ objective to speak as fast as you can all the time, but it never hurts to introduce time limits.

What I’d like to make clear now is that the framework described above pertains to different kinds of language learning activity, not only collaborative speaking tasks.  Students may have to not only speak, but also listen, write, read and do hybrid tasks in class either alone or in pairs or small groups.  The nature of the task set as well as all the student variables have to be considered when estimating the time the lesson you plan might take.