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Hi everyone, this morning we woke up to a fine layer of frost coating everything here in the UK. It isn’t quite the same as the level of snow I got used to while living in Russia, but it’s still pretty! Many of the shops started playing Christmas music several weeks ago (some of them almost straight after Halloween!) so even though it’s only the 30th November it’s already starting to seem quite festive.

In this post I really just wanted to check in and introduce you to something I’ll be doing over the next 25 days. Every day I’ll post one Christmas activity you can do with your classes (covering a range of different levels and age groups). Some will be my own ideas, others great resources I’ve found and loved elsewhere. I’ll also be emailing my subscribers a special Christmas surprise on the 25th!

In the meantime (it’s still November after all!) I’d like to share posts from a couple of other bloggers who are also sharing special Christmas resources. If you just can’t wait another 24 hours, check out:

Joanna Malefaki’s Christmas Countdown Activities. I wasn’t following Joanna’s blog last Christmas (I didn’t even have my own blog last Christmas!), but for the last 3 years she has shared a countdown of Christmas activities – 23 activities of varying lengths that you can use with your classes. I particularly like the Christmas Scavenger hunt idea!

If you’re looking for somewhere to direct your adult students for a little bit more practice, English with Kirsty is offering a series of Christmas offers (including freebies and discounts) on 12 weekdays in December. Register with her now to receive updates on what’s available when, or check out her website or social media. The first offer will be available on 5th December!

What are your favourite Christmas activities to do with your students? 

Are there any other Christmas offers you think I should check out?

 

The Best Online Courses for Teachers

the-best-online-courses-for-efl-teachers

When I first started teaching, I was never quite sure what to do to develop as a teacher. I was lucky enough to be working for a franchise which provided good support for new teachers – monthly training seminars and so on – but that all seemed pretty school dependent. Truth be told, opportunities for professional development were among my main reasons for taking that particular job; but what if I’d not been quite so lucky?

Times have changed in the teacher training world since then, and one thing I’ve noticed the rise of is online courses. Suddenly, your school not offering much in the way of CPD is no longer an excuse, or a barrier to developing as a teacher. Today I want to talk about online courses – and why they’re great for us EFL teachers.

Why should I take an online course?

If you’ve never studied anything online before, taking a whole course on the internet can seem a bit daunting. Even if you’re reasonably au fait with computers, it’s a different way of learning. You don’t build quite the same relationship with your fellow students as you do when taking a face-to-face course, and not studying at set times means that you have to take responsibility for motivating yourself. Saying that, there are numerous advantages to studying online.

  • You’re not limited geographically. One of the reasons I took my first online CPD course was simply due to location. Although theoretically it would have been possible for me to have travelled into Moscow to take a face-to-face course, the three-hour round trip meant that wasn’t viable on weekdays – at least not when teaching a full timetable as well.
  • You can study in your own time. Although online courses sometimes involve assignments with particular deadlines, for the most part you can work at your own pace. This means that online courses are great when you’re trying to fit things in around teaching (especially if your timetable isn’t always consistent on a week-by-week basis).
  • It’s cheaper! Let’s face it, TEFL teachers aren’t exactly rich, and whilst your wages may be more than enough in the country you’re working in, it might be a different story once they’re converted into a different currency. In many cases online courses are cheaper than their face-to-face counterparts, making them helpful for those who are watching the pennies.
  • They’re a great ‘taster’ for further study. There are lots of free online courses out there in addition to paid ones. These can be great if you’re not sure how interested you are in a subject, or if you’re considering taking an online course but aren’t sure if you have the energy, time or brain power to devote to it. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offer a risk-free way of trying these things out – or indeed seeing how you get on with part-time or online study.

How do I know if an online course is right for me?

  • You want to study a topic that may not be available where you are. I’ve taken numerous online courses, most of which wouldn’t have been available where I was living and teaching.
  • You’re thinking about taking a CPD course (or even going back to university), but you’re not sure if it’s right for you. As previously mentioned, taking an online course can be a great way to ‘dip your toes in’ to the water of further study. The British Council and the University of Southampton, for example, offer a co-authored course which gives you a free taster of their online masters degree in English Language Teaching. Great for if you’re contemplating doing a post-grad course, but think you might have forgotten how to study!
  • You like the idea of part-time study, but aren’t sure how well you’d be able to motivate yourself. Again, taking an online course gives you the opportunity to try things out in a low/no-risk environment. It can be difficult to figure out how well you’d be able to fit studying in around working (especially if you don’t have prior experience of this). What better way to find out than try it and see!
  • You’re not a technophobe. First of all, it’s worth pointing out that you definitely don’t  need to be a technological genius in order to successfully study online. Every online course I’ve encountered includes an ‘orientation’ module, which allows you to get used to the systems used and the types of exercises you might be asked to complete. If the idea of using a computer for any purpose brings you out in a cold sweat, then maybe give online study a miss – but if you’re capable of reading blogs, you’re probably capable of figuring out an online course.
  • You’re open to studying with people who might have different ideas and experiences. One of my favourite things about taking online courses has been having the opportunity to interact with people who’ve had lots of different experiences, both in learning and in teaching. On my first online course, the moderators were based in Bulgaria, I was a Brit teaching in Russia, and my fellow students were based across Central and Eastern Europe. The international aspect of it definitely made it a more interesting learning experience, and I’m still in touch with some of my fellow students four years’ later.

 

So, what are some of the best online courses (and course providers) available for EFL teachers?

Future Learn:

FutureLearn often produce courses aimed at English Language teachers with varying interests and levels of experience. They also offer lots of introductory language courses (including Italian, Norwegian and Dutch) if you feecredential-futurelearnl like empathising with your students and going back to being a learner! Their interfaces are easy to use, they include a wide range of different activities in their courses (including PDFs to download and read, video lectures to watch, audio files to listen to, multiple choice tests and mini peer-graded assignments). The material is released in weekly ‘chunks’, but not to fear, if you get behind everything is still available for a few weeks after the end of the course, giving you a chance to catch up. The best part? All of their courses are completely free (although you’ll need to pay if you want a certificate). 

Some of their courses available are:

Exploring the World of English Language Teaching

 

Teaching for Success: The Classroom and the World

Teaching for Success: Learning and Learners

Teaching for Success: Lessons and Teaching

Dyslexia and Foreign Language Teaching

They re-run many of their courses so if you’re interested in something that’s already started (or indeed already finished) register your interest – they’ll let you know if/when they’re re-running the course.

Coursera:

courseraCoursera again offer a huge variety of courses, including those aimed at English Language teachers. It’s worth bearing in mind that these courses do have a fee if you want to access the entire thing – but you can still access the video lectures and some of the other materials for free if you just want to try it out.

Teaching EFL/ESL Reading: A Task Based Approach

Teach English: Intermediate Grammar

TESOL Certificate: Teach English Now! Part 1 and Part 2 (as these courses won’t include a practical component I wouldn’t recommend them as a replacement for a face-to-face certificate if you’re considering training as an EFL teacher. However they’d be a good way to dip your toe in and see if you think it’d be right for you.)

Teaching Tips for Tricky English Grammar

 

British Council:

My first experience of studying online was the British Council’s Primary Essentials course, which is sadly no-longer available. The British Council are in the middle of re-vamping the online training courses they offer (previously there were ones on usinbritish_council_logo-svgg technology in the classroom, teaching students with SEN, and teaching young learners), and so there should be some exciting new courses available soon.

They provide a self-assessment tool  which allows you to reflect on and evaluate your own teaching, and then offer a recommended course of study. Although the courses aren’t free, they’re relatively affordable, and you have the option of paying on a module-by-module basis.

IH World:

I don’t work for IH anymore, so I promise that they’re not paying me to say this 😉

ih-world-organization-logoAlthough they’re not cheap, if you’re serious about taking an online CPD course International House offer a fantastic selection. You can study subjects ranging from Online Tutoring, Teaching 1-1, Teaching Very Young Learners, to Advanced Methodology, Delta 1 Exam Preparation, and even Teacher Training. I’ve not taken one of their online courses, but have had experience of their face-to-face ones, and cannot recommend their teacher training highly enough.

Have you ever taken an online CPD course? Would you recommend it to others? 

I am not affliated with any of these courses or course providers – I just think they’re great! 🙂

A TEFL Certificate is for Life, Not Just for Christmas

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Image: lookanimals.com

Ok, I admit it, part of the reason I chose the this title for this post is because I wanted to include the cute photo of the puppy – after a hard day’s work we all need more cute puppies in our lives. Unless you’re a cat person of course. But anyway, I digress.

One of my biggest ELT bugbears is whenever people ask what I do, and the following conversation always ensues.

Them: So, what do you do?

Me: I teach English to international students, immigrants and refugees.*

Them: Oh, is that TEFL? I/my daughter/my grandson/my cousin’s sister’s best friend did that. What are you going to do after that?

Just to make it clear, guys, this is my career. It’s not something I decided to do one day as a fun gap year activity (although if you did, and you take it seriously [as you obviously do if you’re reading ELT blogs], then good for you). English language teaching is the only industry I’ve worked in since graduating from university in 2010, and it’s the only industry I intend to work in, dividing my time between teaching, writing, mentoring, and training – and of course blogging. Would you ask a doctor, or an accountant, or even a shop assistant when they were going to get a ‘real job’ or what they were planning to do after they’ve finished/got bored with/grown out of being a doctor/accountant/shop assistant? No? Then please don’t ask me.

Teaching English as a Foreign Language doesn’t have much of a reputation in the ‘career’ stakes – rather it has a reputation for being a gap year activity, a way to fund travel, and more of a fun volunteer activity than a serious career. Why? While I don’t know the definitive answer, I can offer some hypotheses.

1.Many people do only teach English abroad for a year, and then rejoin the ‘real world’. This is an unavoidable fact, and I don’t know that it’s necessarily always a bad thing. Teaching English does give people an opportunity to ‘try out’ teaching, and I know several people who have loved it so much that they’ve moved into mainstream education when back in their home country. Even if you decide not to teach in the long-run, it does give you many transferable skills – and even if you only teach for a year I am still a firm believer that you can have a positive impact on your students. Saying this, I have noticed schools becoming more interested in employing ‘serious teachers’, and I hope for the sake of our students that those expressly interested in simply funding their travel (and with no qualifications or experience) are gently encouraged to look elsewhere.

2. It’s a low-prestige, poorly paid industry. Although it’s true that both the salary and the prestige afforded to English teachers are higher in some countries than in others, generally speaking no one got into teaching EFL in order to get rich. Working conditions can be pretty shoddy, and working abroad means that most teachers will simply take what they’re given to avoid hassle/language barriers/overly complex bureaucracy. The low wages, instability of living abroad and lack of job security (even if you do manage to get a job back home) mean that TEFL is something many people do for only a period of time, rather than a long-term career.

3. TEFL courses are short and (relatively affordable). The internet is flooded with companies offering ‘Weekend TEFL Courses’ and ‘Online TEFL Courses’. Not all courses are created equal – as apparent when you see the number of job adverts which specify that applicants must have CELTA, Trinity CertTESOL or equivalent. However, the perceived ease of ‘doing a TEFL course’ means that many people don’t view those working in this industry as well-qualified professionals; rather we are more akin to someone who bought their qualifications over the internet.

4. Not all TEFL teachers act like professionals. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s true. I’ve worked with colleagues who’ve shown up to work drunk, hungover, who’ve boasted about attempts to seduce students or who’ve simply spent their time regaling their students with tales of their drunken escapades rather than actually attempting to teach them anything. To my mind, these are the kind of people who should not be in the teaching profession – and that includes TEFL.

5. Many people are not aware that higher level qualifications exist. I guess this is kind of an extension of point three; the easy availability of entry-level TEFL courses means that many people (especially those outside the industry) are unfamiliar with Delta, the Trinity Diploma, masters degrees, or many of the other CPD opportunities that are out there. I can kind of understand why people don’t feel that a career can be built on a four week qualification – but the fact is that many EFL teachers have significantly more than that.

So, what can you do if you are, for better, for worse, a TEFL teacher, and you want to be taken seriously?

  1. Take your job seriously.

 It’s ok to have the occasional off-day, where you don’t plan or underplan or didn’t get quite enough sleep the night before, or even when you’re feeling a little worse for wear. Everyone’s human! If you find that this is becoming the norm, though, rather than the exception, it might be worth taking the time to consider whether or not this is a job you actually want to do. Teaching EFL is never going to be your only possible option.

2.  CPD,CPD,CPD. 

I’ve heard lots of people say that you only learn to drive after you pass your test. Not having a driving licence, I can’t vouch for whether or not this is true, but I do think teaching works the same way. You don’t magically become an expert teacher the day you first clutch your TEFL certificate in your hands, and no one expects you to. The best teachers never stop learning and developing. It doesn’t even have to be learning about teaching – learn a new language (maybe the language of the country you’re in) or another skill you’ve always wanted to try. Just by engaging in the learning process from the other side you will automatically be able to empathise more with your students. Observe other teachers, attend workshops or seminars, read books or blogs or websites about teaching, take a face-to-face or online course, there are literally hundreds of ways to become better at what you do.

3. Consider branching out.

Teaching General English classes in a private language school isn’t all there is. Teaching young learners, teaching business English, teaching exam classes, teaching online, teaching ESOL – all of these avenues give you options to specialise, to diversify and to develop as a teacher. General English is just the start: it doesn’t have to end there.

4. Remember that the most important thing is how you feel about what you do. 

Other people’s opinions count for a lot. My whole motivation behind writing this post is my frustration with how other people view my job, and my fears that they will view me as somehow ‘lesser’ because my career doesn’t fit in with their expectations. There’s probably a whole host of other blog posts that could be written about how we perceive our identity, how our job or career or lack thereof impacts on our self-esteem, and how social media has led to a generation of young adults worrying too much about what image they present to the world. But today I shall close with this:

Yes, I’d like people to stop telling me about their cousin’s sister’s best friend who did a TEFL certificate in 2002 on her gap year in China. Yes, I’d like well-meaning friends and acquaintances who teach in state schools to stop referring to what they do as ‘real teaching’ (as opposed to what I do, which is obviously… pretend teaching?). But at the end of the day, I know that I am making a difference in my students’ lives – and I am proud to be a TEFL teacher. 

 

 

*This is my newer, refined answer. Its predecessor, ‘I teach English’ is only understood to mean ELT when outside of the UK, and always led to questions about which primary or secondary school I worked at. This led to confusion when my answer was ‘None of them.’

Planning on a Daily Basis

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During your CELTA or Trinity, planning takes hours. Literally hours. It’s not so much the figuring out what you and your students are going to do, but more the writing an incredibly detailed procedure of every stage within that. It has, in the past, taken me around 4 hours to plan a single 45 minute lesson, which, let’s face it, is not sustainable when you’re teaching 18, 20 or even more hours a week.

Are you staring at your computer screen now with an expression of abject horror wondering when you’re ever going to have time for all your planning?

Or are you fed up with spending all weekend, every weekend, in the staffroom or at home, but poring over coursebooks?

It doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s talk about planning on a daily basis. In this post I’m going to share some sections of lessons I’ve planned to observation standard, and compare them to what my planning might look like if I were teaching that same lesson on a ‘normal day’. I’ll share some of the tricks and tips I use to keep my planning time down, and some advice on how you can make them work for you. Are you sitting comfortably? Have you got your coffee/tea/wine/beverage of choice? Then let’s begin.

Tip 1: Your plan is for you.

When you’re writing a plan for an observed lesson, your aim is to write a plan that could easily be followed by another teacher. On a normal day-to-day basis though, your plan is for you and you alone to follow. This means that it can look however you want, and can include whatever you want; it doesn’t need to be a clone of mine or a clone of anyone else’s. If you find a style that works for you, then stick to it.

Tip 2: Use abbreviations (but make sure you remember what they mean!)

You’ll notice that in my plans I rarely use full sentences, and often don’t use full words either. When you’re trying to save time, abbreviations are your friends. Students becomes ‘Ss’, feedback becomes ‘fb’, student book becomes ‘sb’, whatever floats your boat. A word of warning though – I have on occasion written things and then realised, when looking back, that I have no idea what my abbreviations mean. Choose something and then stick to it!

Tip 3: Use different colours, capitals, highlighting, underlining, and draw arrows and boxes round things.

Again, another little presentation tip. Observation lesson plans are usually typed – easier to read, change, email, and reproduce. However most people I know normally plan their lessons by hand. This means that you’re free to draw, doodle, and use different things to make different sections stand out. As long as it’s clear enough for you to read easily, anything goes.

Tip 4: You don’t have to write everything – but write the things you tend to forget!

One of the reasons observation lesson plans are so time-consuming is that you have to write every single little thing down. When planning for your normal lessons, you don’t need to! To state the obvious for a moment though, if there’s something you often forget to do, make a habit of including it, in writing, in your plan. For me it’s instruction checking/concept checking questions. If you do it often enough, it becomes a habit, but having a little written reminder doesn’t hurt when you’re on the way there.

Tip 5: You don’t need to include the same amount of detail for everything.

As with not needing to write everything down, you also don’t need to include the same amount of detail for everything. Write a more detailed written plan for activities that are complicated, or new to you or to your students. If it’s something you’ve done hundreds of times before, one or two words is enough.

Tip 6: Keep it all together.

One thing I can’t recommend enough is using some kind of dedicated notebook or exercise book for your lesson planning. Sure, it means you have to go to the trouble of buying one and then remembering to use it, but it does have multiple advantages over using individual bits of paper. First, it means that you’re less likely to lose your lesson plan before the lesson (I did this once, several years ago. Never again). Second, it means that you can easily refer back to things you did in previous lessons – helpful if your class is once or twice a week and by the time it rolls round again, you can’t quite remember! Thirdly, it gives you a helpful place to jot down notes during the class – activities that work well or don’t work well, students who find a particular topic or task difficult, things you need to revisit or do in the next lesson, or even simply who has forgotten their homework!

Tip 7: Don’t be afraid to use more space.

This ties in with the previous idea, but remember that you need to be able to read your lesson plan, and ideally be able to glance at it quickly and find what you need. When I first started teaching I would use my exercise book as a standard school exercise book – finish one plan, draw a line, start another one. I quickly found that my brain simply doesn’t work well this way, and so what works best for me is to use one page per lesson. Even if it’s not as good for the environment, and even if my plan is only five lines long, it helps me to focus on that one lesson and easily access the information I need. Don’t worry about wasting paper if wasting a little paper makes your life that much easier.

Tip 8: You don’t have to plan day by day, but don’t plan too far in advance either.

Some teachers I know try to get all of their planning done on the weekend, or on Monday, and so they are planning free for the rest of the week. If that works for you, then fine – but personally I’m always wary of planning too far in advance. If your schedule doesn’t allow for you to sit down and plan every single day, then of course don’t do that – work out when you’re free and figure out what days you can plan when. Bear in mind, though, that if you’re planning more than two lessons in advance with a particular group of students, you’re dependent on their learning fitting in perfectly with your plan. If your lessons follow on from one another, your students will need to understand and be able to use whatever you’ve taught them on Monday to be able to achieve your learning objectives for Wednesday. If they didn’t get it on Monday that means you’re likely to need to adapt Wednesday’s plan so that you go over the material again, give them more practice, or present it in a different way before moving on.

Tip 9: Figure out when you plan best.

This will be different for everyone – and may well depend on the hours you’re teaching too. In Russia, I taught predominantly in the afternoons and evenings, and so this meant I could use my mornings for planning time. On a few occasions I tried to plan in the evening, but found that by the time my lesson rolled round that what I’d written was a load of crap! On moving to Prague, however, I started teaching at 8am every day, following a 45 minute commute. I was not planning before that, and so my planning time switched to afternoon/evening. Given the choice,  I still prefer to plan my lessons during the morning, but you might need to shift it around so that it works for you.

Tip 10: Be organised!

All the planning in the world isn’t going to help if you don’t finish the preparation process! When you’re planning your lesson, ideally have a ‘photocopy folder’ ready (this can just be a poly pocket!) and make copies of what you need as you’re going along. If you’re planning at home/in a coffee shop/anywhere else that you don’t have access to the resources you need or a printer/photocopier, make yourself a little ‘To Copy’ list. Check you’ve got all the materials you need – or again add them to your list of things you need to sort out before the class. Check CDs, website links, or any technology you might be using to prevent last-minute panics when you get into the classroom!

Now that we’ve talked about ways you can keep your planning time down, let’s see how all of those things work in practice.

Here’s an extract from a lesson where I was teaching a group of 6-7 year olds some new vocabulary. As you can see it follows the standard layout for observation lessons: stage aims, interaction patterns materials and time taken, what will the teacher be doing, what will the students be doing, potential problems and solutions. There’s a lot of information here (for  only 2 minutes of activity!) and it shouldn’t be surprising that most of this wouldn’t make it into my lesson plan. Just because it’s written down doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it, but this way of practising new vocabulary is a routine activity in my class and most of this information is in my head!

lesson-extract-drilling

Here’s that same extract how I’d be likely to write it in a normal, non-observation lesson plan. Yup, that’s it!

drill-vocab-louder-quieterremember-to-redrill

Moving onto a ’20 questions’ type game now (this time played with a class of 10-12 year olds), here’s my observation plan extract.

lesson-extract-20-qs

And on a normal day:

10-qs-game

Part of the reason I’ve written so little for both of these activities (one short bullet point a piece) is that I’ve done them multiple times before. They’ve become routine as much for me as for my students, and I don’t need to write out the whole procedure in order to know what I’m doing! Here’s a slightly different one though – an activity we haven’t done before, and a reading activity that I’m carefully staging to ensure my students have enough support.

lesson-extract-reading-exercise

As you can see, for this unfamiliar activity I’ve written far more. Some reminders to me (eg. tell the students to put their pens and pencils in pencil cases before the start of the activity), a time limit for an activity, some instruction checking questions, some answers to instruction checking questions! I often write down instruction checking questions/concept checking questions as it’s a good reminder to me to ask them!

I’ll also write down the answers to questions (either ICQ, CCQ or questions the students will be answering if the answers aren’t really obvious. I personally find maths and any kind of number work a struggle so tend to write down the answers to anything like that – it means I’m not suddenly having to count quickly in class and potentially getting it wrong!

I’ve also included my activity for fast finishers at the bottom: I find it helpful to have a reminder of things like that as often I’ll be so busy concentrating on the main activity that I’ll forget!

ss-read-quickly-how-many-spaces

Finally, I’m just going to reiterate the most important point in this whole blog post – the planning you do on a daily basis is for you. It can look however you want it to, and take whatever form you want it to, and it doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s. Some people will naturally write longer, more detailed plans, while others will write less.

Don’t spend hours working out and writing down every little detail if it isn’t necessary and isn’t going to help you in the classroom. Planning is only preparation for the most important part: the teaching!

What do your lesson plans look like on a normal day-to-day basis?

Choosing Topics for Teens

questions-to-ask-yourselfwhen-choosing-topics-for-teens

Things they believed when they were children, zombies, part-time jobs for teenagers, WWII, their ideal futures, the generation gap, US politics – all topics that have worked well over the years when teaching my teen classes. Music, fashion, school, popular TV shows, teenage life in other countries – all topics that haven’t.

It’s easy to see why when teaching teens it can be tempting not to stray far from the coursebook. Sometimes, however, there’s little choice but to use your own material, and sometimes you (and everyone else) simply get bored of the same old topics covered in seemingly every teen course – many of which are in my ‘didn’t work’ category! When it comes to thinking outside the box and choosing your own topics/material for teaching teens, here are 5 quick questions to consider.

1. Is this topic relevant to my teens?

Who exactly is in your class, and what is the focus of the coursebook? Although not ideal, it’s possible that at least some of your students will be older/younger than the focus of your coursebook. This means that you might end up, as I did, frantically trying to find ways to make a unit about ‘the world of work’ interesting to 10 to 12 year olds. A good indication is to ask yourself if your teens would be interested in this topic if they were talking about it in their own language. It’s worth remembering as well that teens at the younger end of the scale tend to be pretty self-absorbed (through no fault of their own, it’s simply a stage in development), and so their interest in different cultures/places they have never and probably will never visit/famous historical figures is likely to be quite limited.

2. Am I thinking outside the box?

Many coursebooks tackle the issue of relevancy by predominantly dealing with topics related to teen culture: music, film, fashion, friendship, etc. There are two problems with this: firstly, most schools don’t update their coursebooks on a yearly basis, and popular culture dates quickly. Secondly, talking about the same topics all the time quickly gets boring! You don’t have to stick to these topics – and sometimes thinking outside the box a little can be a great idea! Teenagers are starting to be more aware of the adult world around them, and as they figure out their place in it, they also have lots of opinions! Don’t be afraid to discuss a topic simply because it seems like something very different to the topics you normally use; your teens may well surprise you! When it comes to knowing what your teens are interested in or would like to discuss or study – ask them!

3. Is there an element of choice?

One important thing when teaching teens at any point is to include an element of choice – and this can be a great approach if you’re not sure which topic would be relevant/interesting for your class. On the face of it this seems like it creates more work for you, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Giving teens a choice works particularly well with project work; examples of this could be:

  • Alternative formats for the material you want your students to produce (eg. students can create a presentation, make a poster or write an essay).
  • Alternative tasks (eg. research and present an existing festival, design your own festival)
  • Same task, different topic (eg. students produce a presentation on a topic of their choice)
  • Choice within a limited topic (eg. writing a film review – students choose what film)
  • Positive/negative approach – I’ve found teens often enjoy this one. For example, rather than asking them to design their dream school, give them the freedom to choose that, or to design the worst school in the world. Create a campaign for healthy eating – or create a campaign to get people eating nothing but junk food. The subversive element really captures their imaginations and gets them thinking!

4. Am I making assumptions?

One of the reasons choosing topics for teens is so tricky is that it’s often easy to make assumptions about what they will and won’t be interested in. I’ve taught teens before who have loved Harry Potter – so Harry Potter is a great topic choice for teens (not always the case, it tends to be quite polarising and students either love it or hate it!). If you’re planning a programme of work around a particular topic (which will last for more than one lesson) it’s wise to check student interest first, or provide tasks but allow students to choose their own topics. Don’t necessarily assume that teens will or won’t be interested in something based on previous teenagers you’ve taught: ‘all teenagers like talking about music’ is about as much of a fallacy as saying ‘all British women like cats’.

However, if you’re choosing a topic that will only be used for one lesson (or even one activity!) don’t be afraid to choose something you’re not certain all your teens will be interested in – especially if you’re teaching older teens. Being able to engage with a boring topic is to some extent a life skill, and so something your students will need to encounter sooner or later.

5. Is this topic appropriate?

My final words on this topic are a word of caution. Although with the rise of the internet teens and children are exposed to far more at an increasingly younger age, we as teachers are still in a position of care. If you’re uncertain if the topic is age-appropriate, or you think it’s unlikely that your students would be exposed to this at their age in their culture, it’s wise to steer clear. Teens often like to think of themselves as adults, but that doesn’t mean that they are! Even if your teens all assure  Particularly if you have a variety of ages in your class, err on the side of caution: what’s appropriate for your older students might not be appropriate for the younger ones. It’s also worth bearing in mind that your opinion counts too! Your teens may tell you that they all play (insert violent computer game here) and they know all about (insert controversial adult topic here) – but at the end of the day you’re still the teacher and you’re still in charge. If you feel at all uncomfortable, again it’s a topic to avoid.

I’ve tried to avoid giving lists of appropriate/inappropriate topics for teens here, as every class and teacher is different – but I’d love to know what’s worked well for you! Have you had any topics that have worked particularly well with your teen classes, or any topics that you thought would be a success, which then flopped? 

How to Write Excellent Lesson Aims

Lesson Aims/Stage Aims/Learning Objectives/Learning Intentions: you’ve encountered them on every CELTA/observation lesson plan you’ve had to write, and yet they remain one of the hardest things to do well. It can be tempting to try to overlook writing them completely – if you don’t have to write them, then don’t.

Nowadays I routinely write lesson aims for the majority of the classes I teach – through choice, not because I have to. Why would I do such a thing? Well-written lesson aims can make a huge difference to whether your students learn (and both you and they know that learning is taking place) or not. In short, good learning objectives can be the difference between a good lesson and a bad one. So, how can you make sure your lesson aims fall into the ‘good’ camp, rather than the ‘bad’ one?

One of the easiest ways to understand what ‘good’ aims look like is by looking at an example – and also by seeing examples of what not to do! So I’m going to put myself on the line here. These lesson aims are real examples: some of my main aims for observed lessons during my first year of teaching. Oh boy. I’m not proud of them.

to-practise-reading-for-gist-and-for-detail-on-the-topic-of-novels-and-autobiographies

To be honest, these aims are pretty bad – and I’m amazed I even passed the observation for the final one (complete with spelling mistake). They’re vague, don’t focus on the right things, and wouldn’t be very helpful if I’m trying to figure out if my students have learned anything or not. So, let’s look at some of the problems.

to-practise-reading-for-gist-and-for-detail-on-the-topic-of-novels-and-autobiographies-1

Why are these aims quite so unhelpful?

Well, not all of them are aims, for a start. They tell us about what tasks or activities the students will be doing, but not why they will be doing them.

They talk about what the teacher will be doing, not what the students will be doing.

They aren’t specific enough.

There’s no allowance for differentiation. 

There’s no way of telling if some of these aims have been achieved. Students will ‘practise vocabulary’ – but do they understand it? Can they produce it? Have they actually learned anything?

So, we’ve seen ‘what not to do’. How do we make these aims better?

Compare the lesson aims above with these aims below, which I wrote for an observed lesson as part of the Young Learner extension course I took this time last year.

They look a bit different, don’t they?

students-will-be-better-able-to-recognise-and-understand-vocabulary-for-the-names-of-a-set-of-six-halloween-creatures-3Let’s look at what these lesson aims do better:

students-will-be-better-able-to-recognise-and-understand-vocabulary-for-the-names-of-a-set-of-six-halloween-creatures-4

How can you improve your own lesson aims: so they look more like the ones above, and less like the ones at the beginning of the post? You could Google examples and then try to base all the lesson aims you ever write on those models… but that’s time-consuming and not tremendously practical.

What can you do on a day-to-day basis? This is far from my own idea (today I’m just the messenger) but in order to write good lesson aims, think of the acronym: ‘SMART’.

Specific

You see where my final lesson aims are far clearer than the ones preceding them? That’s because they’re far more specific. If you want your students to achieve your lesson aims, you’re going to have to be clear about exactly what it is that you want them to do. They’re going to learn new vocabulary? What vocab is it? What are they going to be able to do with that vocab at the end of the lesson that they can’t do at the beginning? 

Measurable

You need to be able to tell if your students have achieved the aim or not, and therefore it needs to have some kind of measurable result. You can’t tell if your students have ‘learned vocabulary’ because you can’t see into their brains. However, you can tell if they can recognise the words/produce them. A measurable aim is something that you can say ‘Yes, my students did this’, ‘No, my students didn’t do this’ – or something in the middle.

Achievable (by ALL the students)

This is where differentiation comes into play. Whatever you’re going to do in the lesson needs to involve the right level of challenge – and that isn’t just about not making it too difficult, but also not making it too easy (don’t try to teach 25 new vocabulary words to 6 year-olds, but equally don’t just teach them one new word either). You might even include elements of differentiation in your plan: Some students will…, most students will…, but the main element of your aim should be achievable by all your students.

Relevant

Is it linked with a topic/activity that students have already studied? Is it something that they have expressed an interest in? Is it a skill that they need (for example study skills, exam technique or something they need to be able to do for work)? Is it aligned with a coursebook or syllabus you are using? You don’t need to necessarily write why your aims are relevant in your plan – but it’s a good idea to know why you’re teaching them this thing.

Time-framed

By the end of the lesson… at the end of the activity… over the course of the term… when exactly do you want your students to have achieved this aim by? A helpful way to start yourself off on the right foot here is to begin your aims with ‘By the end of the lesson, students will be able to…’

I’d offer one tiny extra tip of my own: when writing lesson aims, I always used to put them off as long as possible. Therefore I’d write the whole plan… and then figure out the aims afterwards. Decide what to do, and then figure out why you’re doing it?! I hope the problem with that approach is fairly obvious. Even if you hate writing them, even if the difference between ‘good lesson aims’ and ‘bad lesson aims’ seems like navigating a minefield, figure out your aims first, then decide what activities will help your students to achieve them. 

Teaching Beginners 101

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Several months in, I thought I’d pretty much got the hang of this teaching gig. Eliciting, concept checking, explaining grammar rules – sorted. Until I was given a class of beginner students. How on earth was I meant to get them to understand anything when the first bit of target language was ‘Hello’?!

Five years and several beginners’ courses later, here are my top ten tips for stressfree beginners’ classes.

1.Teach what you expect them to produce.

When teaching any other level, we take it for granted that we can walk into a classroom, greet the students, ask them how they are and what their names are – and receive an appropriate response. Complete beginners don’t necessarily know this language, and so bouncing into the classroom with a cheery ‘how are you?’ may be met with blank stares. If you want your students to respond to ‘What’s your name?’ with ‘My name is…’, you’re likely to need to teach them. Remember that although it seems simple to you, for complete beginners these questions and answers are a challenge! Don’t be surprised if ‘How are you?’ is still answered, ‘My name is Anna’ until a few lessons have gone by.

2. Use visual aids whenever possible.

Remember that beginner students have very little vocabulary – but they need to understand what new words mean somehow! Showing students a dictionary is far quicker and more effective than explaining ‘it’s a book that tells you what words mean’ (especially if in that sentence they’re only familiar with the word ‘book’!). Using photos, pictures and realia in class makes it more interesting, and also can give students extra information which they may not be able to glean from the language they understand. For example, video listening exercises are often easier than ones which simply have audio, because the students can pick up on the setting, body language and facial expressions.

3. Show, don’t tell.

Keep your instructions clear, short and concise. Demonstrate what you want the students to do (particularly in pair and group work – choose a stronger student and model the activity for the rest of the class). Use gestures  (for example when telling the students to open their books) and don’t be afraid to use mime!

4. Teach classroom language.

If you want students to communicate with you and each other in English, again, you need to teach them to do so! Make sure part of one of your first lessons focuses on ‘classroom language’ – things like classroom equipment (pens, pencils, rubber), requests such as ‘Can I have a pen, please?’ and ‘Can I go to the toilet, please?’ as well as phrases: ‘Sorry I’m late’, ‘I don’t know’, ‘I don’t understand’. Although these phrases may seem pretty ambitious for a class who barely understand ‘How are you?’, it’s not necessary for students to understand every word or the grammar behind them in the first instance. Teach them as chunks: ‘I don’t know’, and remember to drill the pronunciation!

A note on L1 here: I’ve encountered teachers who speak students’ L1 who give all their instructions in students’ own language. Personally I’d advise against that, especially as it won’t do them any favours when they join an elementary class and can’t understand instructions in English!  You don’t need to speak the students’ L1 in order for them to understand (see previous points about visuals and modelling), and it’s far better to encourage them to communicate in English as much as possible from the very start.

5. Keep it simple – but don’t patronise.

It can be tricky to find supplementary material when teaching adult beginners, not least because searching online for beginner EFL/ESL materials tends to result in lots of materials aimed at young children. Sometimes you can still use these activities with adults; I’ve certainly played dominoes, boardgames, hangman and some flashcard games with mine! Use your common sense, and if something seems particularly childish (either in topic, content or presentation), give it a miss. Remember as well that whilst your students speak very little English, this doesn’t mean that they are uneducated or stupid.

6. Remember to praise!

Some of the most self-conscious students I’ve taught have been adult beginners. They’re well aware that their colleagues, family members and friends often speak far better English than they do – and even though you know this doesn’t mean that they’re stupid, they  often fall into the trap of believing this themselves. Praise frequently (but sincerely) and make sure they’re aware of what they can do now that they couldn’t do before.

7. Review, review… and recycle.

The English that beginner students are learning will be the building blocks for all the English they may learn in the future – and so it’s important that it sticks! Use the first activity of each lesson to review and practise something you covered in the previous class. As you progress through the level try to recycle the language that students already know – for example questions with ‘Is it…?’ can be used in any guessing game, or ‘What colour is it?’ can be asked about any object or item in a picture.

8. Remember that it’s normal for students to understand more than they can produce.

Don’t worry if you students can’t necessarily understand every word you say. That’s a situation they’re going to face for a long time yet, and as long as they understand the key vocabulary and the general gist of what you’re saying, it’s not a problem. Likewise, don’t worry if your students can understand some quite complex written or spoken material, but then can only produce very basic things themselves – this is a normal stage of language acquisition.

9. Don’t be afraid to go off topic sometimes.

It can be tempting when teaching very low level students to think that you need to stick exactly to whatever pages you’re meant to be studying in the coursebook. This really isn’t the case! Some of the most rewarding interactions I’ve had with my beginner students have been during a discussion about holidays, when one of my class got his phone out and started showing us pictures of his horse! Not particularly holiday related, but at the end of the day, you’re teaching your students to communicate in English – and sometimes that’s far more important than whatever’s on the syllabus.

10. Enjoy it!

Adult beginner students are one of the most rewarding levels to teach, as their abilities at the end of the course are so different to at the beginning! Sometimes you’ll have lessons where nothing seems to go right and your students can’t understand… but rest assured that won’t be the case every lesson. Teaching beginners can be a real challenge, but the rewards can be great too!