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Archive for June, 2015

1001 ELT CASE STUDIES * CASE 2 – My students just won’t use all these linking words or new vocab when answering discussion questions … What shall I do? – Use them yourself. Respond to the questions first. Be a good model answer provider.

Saturday, June 27th, 2015

CASE #2  Sometimes teachers complain that their students stick to what they know or “play safe” when answering all kinds of “discussion questions”. To put it differently, they just won’t use any of the new language, be it linkers, grammar or vocabulary.


One easy way to make your students use the language you want them to is to use this language yourself in response to all those questions you want them to “answer” or “discuss”; to be the first person to answer, and to ask the students to listen carefully and then say what exactly they agree/disagree with, and/or what is also true about them, and what is not.

To make the task even more focused, you can instruct your student(s) to listen to your answer and note down all the linkers you use (or whatever other target language you want them to use in their answers), and then spend a minute (or two or five) planning their response in such a way that when it is their turn to speak, they will use the same linkers ( or target language) as you and will structure their response in a way that is very similar to yours.

It is also possible to adapt this solution to weaker students that won’t talk much in any language. To be specific, you can ask them to take notes as you answer the question, and then to repeat your answer drawing on their notes. As these people frequently lack speaking subskills in their L1, you might want to take an interdisciplinary approach, which implies asking them, before they repeat anything, to analyse their notes a bit by means of discussing them with you or to offer to compare their notes and your notes (yeah, it does help to have a kind of “answer key” for that purpose), and to identify the speaking strategies used.

In many ways, this solution is similar to what they call job-shadowing in human resource management, which is when a new employee becomes his/her mentor’s or more experienced colleague’s “shadow” for a while learning to do the work by means of observing and copying their mentor’s every move, frequently breaking the routines they have to learn into manageable reproducible chunks of work that they do very slowly, step-by-step, under their mentor’s supervision.

What some language learners find difficult (apart from idea generation) is figuring out how long their responses should be (length), and how they should be structured (coherence/cohesion). As teachers, we have certain expectations, but unless we demonstrate or tell our students explicitly in what way we would like them to speak, they may never know, which – at the end of the day – can frustrate both us and them.  You cannot invent things like this,  just like you cannot invent your own grammar rules or collocations in a foreign language, you can only copy and learn by example. If you provide no good input, no examples in the form of a coherent response, your students will be left to themselves to figure out what to do with all those lists of collocations or cohesive devices, and what is the main problem here is that this figuring out could literally take years, and in some cases it may never happen.

What is important to understand here is that not everyone is naturally good at or really into analyzing the structure of another person’s utterance unless explicitly told to do so.  What is more, when these people joined your class, they did that to LEARN from you rather than to LISTEN TO YOU SAY “now answer my questions” or “now make sentences using the words and phrases in the box on page 6”. One of the most natural functions of a teacher in any language class is to be a good IMPROMPTU model answer provider or generator. Sadly, some teachers frequently shrink to “instruction readers and correct answer providers”. This is something that a good teacher should strive to avoid at all costs, in my view.

“WHAT about TTT  (teacher talking time)?” – you might ask.

I knew you’d ask this question. The thing is that you should not confuse “talking about stuff that has nothing to do with your lesson aims”, i.e. digressing and taking the floor for extended periods of time during the lesson time and again, and providing “language or skills-development input through listening”. Remember that when you speak, your students listen.

Of course, you might as well record yourself answering questions (this could take tens of hours of lesson preparation time!) and play back the recording instead of giving a live performance. The only question is why you should do this if you can deliver your answers live (and record the lesson if necessary).

By far the most compelling reason for using audio recordings in class is that many teachers do not have the language or skills to speak like voice-over artists. However, if you do have the skills, and when it comes to answering all kinds of everyday discussion questions, you should have those, why not put them to good use and benefit the student?

If you never speak the language in class the way you would like your students to speak, never give them an idea as to what and how they could or should say, where are they going to get that knowledge from? An odd CD that that their coursebook comes complete with? Do you seriously think that could count as sufficient input? I hope not.

You may argue that there are millions of audio and video recordings online, and your students could listen to those. Well, you have a good point here.  Those videos and podcasts can indeed  be a good solution. If you have access to loads, do use them.  In practice, however, every so often using them is a GOOD, BUT VERY TIME-CONSUMING and FREQUENTLY VERY EXPENSIVE SOLUTION as it may be plain impossible to find audio samples of good answers to most if not all the questions you would like your students to answer. It can be particularly hard if you want to teach your students how to answer the same questions in several different ways, eg what to say if you agree, what to say if you disagree, what to say if you don’t want to answer the question, what to say if you don’t know what to say, etc. What I mean here is actually answering those questions and not talking about “how to answer”.

What is more, using pre-recorded audio for every single question or just one question has one more grave disadvantage in classes that aim at teaching real-time conversation skills, namely doing this can have a demotivating effect on your students. The main reason is that it can be very discouraging for language learners to realize that their teacher will not speak the language himself or herself, and would rather show videos and play radio shows for them to watch and listen. It is like being taught to play tennis by someone who is morbidly obese and does not know how to hold a tennis racket, but is still very eager to teach and will show you videos or play audio recordings explaining how to play the game every time you ask a question or need to learn a new move or technique.

What students eventually come to think of when the teacher resorts to providing instructions only when setting the task is that their teacher neither will nor can speak the language. This does not happen overnight. Nor does every student happen to harbour such thoughts, but it does happen. And when it does happen, students change schools or teachers, or give up on their studies completely. The root cause of that is that what most students studying with teachers want is to be inspired. They need you as a teacher to boost their confidence in their ability to say things in the course of having a normal conversation with them. If they can produce answers of the same complexity as yours, they believe they “can also do it”.  Unlike all those soulless CDs, you are a mortal made of flesh and blood, you are real. The latter is what makes all the difference. We believe in ourselves more and we learn more when we learn from people “like us” in ways that are as much down-to-earth as possible.

🙂 By all means, there are many ways to deal with the issue raised, and the suggested solution is by no means the best. There are other methods and teaching techniques out there to exploit. Yet, I hope that now that you have reached the end of this post, you have started to question all this hype about TTT … My own experience has revealed that the GIGO principle is very often observed in many modern classrooms, meaning that when there is no good live input on the side of the teachers in the form of their own answers to the very same questions they want their students to respond to, their students do not learn to speak at all or do not learn to speak as well as they could and would if they were provided with examples in the most natural way possible.


Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

a NY T article

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.

Saturday, June 20th, 2015

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.


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 -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 @ (if you choose to email directly, do not forget to write “Teacher Professional Development Workshops” in the subject line please).