Cringing at Cheese this Christmas?

Christmas is naturally a mushy time…considering the fact that it combines all the ideals of love, giving, family reunions, and bonding.

Like weddings, it is one of those occasions where you really can’t stave off the sentimental moments. Or can we?

Some of us sneer at melancholic Christmas tunes, the twinkling fairy lights or the smell of the Christmas dinner cooking.

Some of us can’t express appreciation for the nostalgia and laughter shared over some mulled wine in front of an open fire.
And they are neither Ebenezer Scrooge nor in serious need of psychotherapy.

They just hate cheese.

Since when has cheese earned such a terrible reputation? We act as if being cheesy is the uncoolest thing to hit the human race since that shoulder-padded jacket we wore at secondary school thinking we were making the biggest fashion statement ever.

Is this our anti-thesis to NKOTB, Westlife, Rick Ashley, and the entire boy band fad of the 80s/90s?

Or a prolonged silent protest against the loving hippie attitudes of the 60s and 70s?

Or our reactions to the every big studio romance film starring Meg Ryan?

Or maybe it’s our acquired distaste for being bombarded by advertisements as our good ol’fashioned emotions are manipulated by marketing firms of mega-conglomerates?

Or is it really that child inside us all that feels a bit betrayed by the happy families portrayed in every cheesy song and film when we discover that real life just isn’t quite so?

Is it the build-up of frustration with having to cope with the family dramas that could only annoy and disturb as much as they do because they are built upon decades of history together?

Is it the frantic preparation followed by the disappointing unappreciation that scares us into realistic apprehension of allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the significance of the occasion?

Could we let our guard down and demolish the fortress that protects our hearts this Christmas?

After all, it’s the season for forgiveness.

I’d say, why not let yourself go this holiday season?

Merry Christmas one and all, and I pray that the spirit of giving is with you.

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Devil’s Advocate vs Mike Hogan on Business English Teaching and Training

This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). We concluded that the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA). After all, it’s always healthy to rethink our views as we attempt to justify them.

The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype.  The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project.

So the first victim in the hot seat is my co-conspirator, Mike Hogan.  

Mike currently gives communication skills training to corporate clients based in Germany. He also creates bespoke training concepts for clients and advises clients, training providers and publishers on issues relating to corporate training. Mike is also a Business English coursebook writer. Find out more about him here and follow him on Twitter here.

Chia : The area of Business English teaching is a very grey one…It is often unclear as to whether the BE teacher is teaching English or teaching Business skills.

While some say the two should not and cannot be separated, and that BE teachers should also be well-versed in business, others say that we are simply not paid enough to act as consultants.

Mike: Hi Chia, you’ve definitely brought up an interesting and relevant topic, but before we delve into it, I think you’re confusing the different job/roles.

Consultants and business English teachers are simply not the same thing

Chia : Pray tell. What are the differences?

Mike: Well, before we look at that, let’s just focus first on the BE teacher and what’s expected of them. What is their task?

Chia : What WHO is expecting of them? The clients? The TEFL BE specialists? The layperson? Everyone seems to have a different definition of what is expected of the BE teacher. Some expect a course in Business, some expect communication skills, some expect presentation or negotiation skills, some just want some grammar…

Mike : Right, so you’ve listed communications skills, presentations & negotiation skills and grammar….. We’re getting closer to the big 6: Telephoning, Correspondence, Presentations, Meetings, Negotiations, Socializing/Small Talk. These are the skills which most course books cover, and also those listed in books like:

How to Teach Business English                         or                                                                                                                The Business English Teacher

Chia : So are you saying that the definition of a BE teacher is one that teaches English used to carry out those 6 skills and what is expected of a trainer or a consultant is different then?

Mike : Yes, those ‘6’ are certainly what seems to be expected from a BE teacher , although not limited to those. The expectations of the latter two are fundamentally different, as is what they deliver.

Let’s stick with ‘teacher’ for a moment though. A teacher can come into BE teaching from a number of areas, right? Although it’s often though the CELTA route, right?

Chia : Yes.

Mike : Ok, and many of those may not have had what one might call “professional” business experience before doing their CELTA. (I include myself among them).

So, then those starting out lack the practical experience and knowledge of business meetings and presentations necessary to train their learners. They teach from the coursebooks provided to them and use them as the basis from which to further their own knowledge of said subjects.

As Frendo puts it in the aforementioned book, “a teacher is someone who teaches (for general purposes of general improvement). A trainer is someone who is required to change a person’s behaviour or ability so that they can do a specific job. Training is job-oriented.”

Chia: Isn’t that simply rhetoric? Take the English teaching field outside of BE for example. We call them teachers but many would be pretty up in arms if you were to suggest that they were just teaching for ‘general improvement’. We live in a world of ‘niche markets’ and English teaching is becoming more and more needs-based than ever.

Does that mean that outside of BE, all teachers who attempt a needs-based, job-oriented focus is a trainer?

Mike: Hold on… “Teacher as coach is someone who can help the learner to take advantage of the learning opportunities in their learning environments … to better understand their own strengths/weaknesses, and plan accordingly. This is related to learner autonomy, where the learner takes full responsibility for their learning.” They generally work in-company – as does the trainer – as opposed to within a school environment, a place where ‘the teacher’ is often found.

Chia: All the definitions you are giving seems like pure rhetoric to me. The word ‘general’ in General English is a misnomer. Most experienced teachers will tell you that… And any teacher engaged in 1-to-1 classes will without doubt be using goal-oriented needs-based lessons… You are just giving me definitions after definitions…

Mike: And as you’ve said above, yes the teaching world is a world of niche markets and I wasn’t aiming at making a sweeping statement about what teachers do or what they call themselves, but fundamentally, the definitions are there and they are different from each other. This is how they can be distinguished.

Chia: The boundaries between a teacher, a trainer, and a consultant is not always that clear in real life.

Mike: I haven’t mentioned consultant yet … and yes, there’s a huge difference here: experience and what they do.

Consultants are neither “teaching” nor “training”, but can use their expertise to run needs analyses within companies, create training concepts, analyse the structures in place within, potentially recommend training suppliers, conduct negotiations (rather than ‘teach’ the language for them, or ‘train’ the skill)…and so on.

Following my point of experience (just above) – a consultant (or coach) very often has ‘real’ business experience…and their educational background may well have been a business MA rather than one in TESOL.

Am I getting closer to not just using rhetoric to highlight the differences?

[Note: that was in no way a value statement relating to either type of MA, and I have great amounts of respect for anyone who further their development through further learning, regardless of what it is they’re learning. It should be relevant to them, their needs and direction].

And over the years teachers may, yes, develop into trainers, and from there into coaches or consultants … but it also comes with continual development and not just teaching experience.

Further training and also often ‘real’ business experience are necessary to make that leap/step…as well as the implementation of many of the skills found in our BE course books, i.e. marketing, networking, presentations and negotiations … in order to ‘place’ oneself.

Wikipedia: “Business English means different things to different people. For some, it focuses on vocabulary and topics used in the worlds of business, trade, finance, and international relations. For others it refers to the communication skills used in the workplace, and focuses on the language and skills needed for typical business communication such as presentations, negotiations, meetings, small talk, socializing, correspondence, report writing, and so on.”

Chia: As you have so clearly just shown with your wiki definition of BE, the boundaries aren’t always clear…But don’t you think that part of the issue in the Business world is a failure for clients to recognise what the BE teacher/trainer/coach does? (I’m going to leave out consultant as you have clearly shown that that warrants a whole different discussion) And thus the status of the BE teacher/trainer/coach isn’t clear too

Mike: I believe that one should tread lightly when using the term ‘coach’ as it can often be misconstrued in the psychological or life coach sense … and also in the business coach sense …which is getting closer to the consultant definition I gave above.

Chia: What I’m saying is a lot of BE teachers might be doing the very things that you defined as what a trainer, or even a coach does … but just because of where they work and how they package themselves, they don’t earn the same title and therefore the same remuneration.

Mike: I’m sorry, I have to disagree.

As I’ve just said above … the coach uses very many different techniques to the teacher or trainer. ‘Coaching Toolkit for Business English Trainers’  aims to looks at some of the differences and highlight coaching approaches which can be used be those thinking about making the transition or expanding their own skill set. It’s been co-authored by a Business English trainer who has re-trained as a coach (Anna Stowers) – which also follows my previous point about (continual) development.

So, can we please remove that designation from your objections above and focus then on the distinction between teacher and trainer?

Chia: OK, fair point. I recede.

Mike: I thought you would. ; )  Anyway, coming back to ‘where they work’ and ‘how they package themselves’ and that ‘they don’t earn the same title or remuneration’.

Does a doctor who works in his/her own specialist practice earn more than a ‘general’ ‘non-specialist’ doctor working in a hospital?

Does a mechanic who works for a Formula 1 team make more than the guy around the corner who fixes my car?

Chia: A doctor’s or a F1 mechanic’s specialist knowledge isn’t quite the common sense knowledge that a business trainer needs…

Mike: But are you agreeing that specialist knowledge is worth a higher fee?

Chia: Yes. But common sense packaged as specialist knowledge isn’t necessarily that specialist.

Mike: Ok, and are you also then saying that business (English) trainers’ knowledge of business need just be that at a level of ‘common’ sense?

Chia: It depends on how you define common sense, which of course as we know isn’t that common.

Mike: Common = most people know it.

Chia: Common sense isn’t quite common as such. It’s an ability for logical thinking and as defined by Merriam-Webster as, “sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts.”

It’s an ability to make such judgment – an ability that could be honed from experience, or be instinctive…

But certainly not the same kind of specialist knowledge that a doctor has…

Mike: Yes, there are very many excellent teachers out there, with very high levels of ‘common sense’ that would also make excellent trainers, but common sense is not enough. ‘Specialist’ knowledge of how business works is also necessary. For such people, with (or without) prior professional experience, investing in professional development could greatly help, such as the Cert iBet, or an Intercultural Trainer’s Cert … as is attending the conferences where we see each other and our peers. That combined with practice, i.e. the experience I was talking about earlier, will help them to make the next steps in their career (if they decide to want to go in that direction).

OK, given your background in trading , or sales & marketing … If you were giving BE teaching/training to a group of sales/marketing people or traders, do you not think that you’d be able to relate more to them and their needs than someone who has no idea of these industries (and may not be flexible enough to take a Dogme approach to it)?

Chia: I like the way you sneakily slip Dogme in there to get me on your side… But not today, Mike…not today…

Mike: Well, as I’ve said before (today), the concepts behind Dogme aren’t new (in Business English) teaching, and people teaching/training in this industry need to be particularly adaptable to the needs of their learners.

Chia: Absolutely. But again, I take you back to the initial argument. Most good teachers already practise some form of principled eclectism, which by definition is needs-based.

On my Celta courses, I spend the whole month getting my trainees to elicit, to deal with emergent language, to work with learners’ interests and learners’ needs … even at a Celta level, one could claim that I’m training them to be trainers rather than teachers as such … after all, isn’t that what the communicative approach to teaching about? So is there really a difference between trainer and teacher?

Mike: Yes, there is – context, expectations, delivery, experience, ability, (possible) specialization … and not necessarily location …

There is a growing importance of and focus on improved performance in the workplace rather than mere language level practice and improvement. This means more importance is being given to the level of transfer between what is covered by the TRAINER and how applicable that is in learners’ working lives. It’s not enough for learners to be able to successfully complete activities, role-plays and simulations in training sessions. They need to complete their professional tasks more successfully.

OK. let’s try a different angle…

Do you call yourself a trainer?

Chia : No

Mike: Why not? If it’s just a matter of rhetoric (as you say) and results in higher rates for doing the same thing?? Then it would be a no-brainer to call yourself one, right?

Chia: Because I work for a school and it says ‘teacher’ on my pay slip. Which is exactly my point… I could be doing all the things a trainer does but labels only matter if you are a free-lancer… Thus, my point being, the labels are not about what we do, it’s about who we work for and how much we get paid. In an ideal world, we would be defined by the duties we perform, but in actuality, it is about the marketing and being the free-lancer and not about the job we do as such…

Purely playing Devil’s Advocate, don’t you think it’s extremely unfair that we have to do the marketing and repackaging of ourselves to ‘fool’ the clients into thinking we aren’t the bog-standard ‘English teacher’. Shouldn’t we instead be trying to change the lay person’s view of what an English teacher does so as to ensure they understand the impact we can have on their communicative competencies in their businesses? Shouldn’t we be trying to educate the lay person instead of trying to differentiate ourselves from English teachers?

Mike: We’re not re-packaging ourselves and I don’t know what you mean by ‘bog standard’ teacher. Who is the lay person? Our client?? and what sort of ‘fooling’ are we doing? Regardless of what our clients’ expectations of what a BE teacher is or isn’t.

I believe the best way to fulfill clients needs is to find out what they are (rather than telling them what they are – based on what we want to sell), to consult them and clearly identify their needs then those of their organisation. The person consulting is not necessarily the teacher/trainer/deliverer. It is quite often a centre manager, sales person, external consultant, etc. Then a suitable programme/offer/course/package can be put together for an appropriate fee, with the appropriate type of professional taking care of the delivery.

The key word is ‘appropriate’. Then we can ensure that our client’s needs (and expectations) are met. …and this type of consultancy work should be done be a consultant who can draw on the necessary and appropriate resources to deliver.

Appropriate meaning; what does this individual, group or client need? A teacher, trainer, coach or mix of all.

As I said above, the consultant and the training/coaching/teaching provider are not necessarily one and the same person, but they could be – although as you’ve indirectly pointed out, this could lead to a conflict of expectation in terms of rates.

…and responding to your comment above; there are many (training) institutions which use trainer to delivery their training – drawing on the differences highlighted at the top, and so it’s the distinction is not limited to whether the provider of the service is in a ‘school’ (or agency), or in-company.

Mike: Further to my comment earlier about trainers, coaches and consultants often have business training backgrounds rather than TESOL MA and such, I also think that training of the type that our participants get, i.e. active business people, would also be potentially very useful. I’m talking about fundamental training in the principles of project management, team leadership and such areas. Such training would give the basis for increased insight into business communication and business practices, which again serve to draw a distinction between the titles of professional we are talking about. They could be useful for people aiming to further develop in the fields of corporate training.

In addition, training in international competency development could also be beneficial. There are many specialist course available for thse coming from Business English teaching background, such as those offered by Barry Tomalin at IH, London; Adrian Pilbeam at LTC Bath; York Associates or WorldWork in the UK; or Skylight in Germany.

Yes, it’s about where we do it and how much we get paid, but crucially, it is also about WHAT we do.  Training is about training someone for a change in their behaviour, or ability so that they can do a SPECIFIC job. It’s context based and led by situation … and not just because unit5 of the book deals with business trips and negotiations. [Aside: IF you work with course books, they need to be flexible and adaptable with opportunity for personalization]

Chia: Sure. You can call that training and I can call that good teaching and continual professional development…

Mike: OK fine, but there is a difference in the terms/titles used, built upon (further) training, practical (i.e. business) experience, client expectations, and what is actually being delivered. There are also some key qualities necessary, including, but not limited to, openness, desire to self-improve/invest, ability to become an ‘expert’ in your clients’ field quickly, and others. Maybe we can save the rest for a sequel?

Chia: Thank you, Mike. That is a really concise summary of what we discussed. Sorry for giving you a hard time.


Come back soon for the next DA session, with a new person in the hot seat.

Chia

Epilogue: Mike & Chia are still friends! Mike’s opinions are his own and do not represent any organization he is associated with. Chia was just playing DA.

Dogme in Exam Preparation Classes

It’s often widely argued that Dogme cannot be applied in Exam preparation classes as they often follow a syllabus and have strict guidelines as to where students are headed and the language they need to know in order to pass the exam.

However, many exams these days no longer utilize discrete item tests like gaps fills. Instead, most exams seem to be looking at what students can do with the language they know, and through the use of topics as prompts, assess the range and accuracy of language students use to communicate and organise their ideas. For instance, students answer essay questions such as ‘Sports do not bring people together. They tear people apart. Do you agree?’

In fact, the IELTS exam itself is a bit like a Dogme lesson – Here’s a topic, let’s see what emerges.

So why do we feel that in order to effectively prepare students for these exams, we need to systematically take them through the exercises of a coursebook and strictly follow a syllabus?

I took an IELTS preparation class recently and was prescribed a neat little coursebook which I embarked on trying out. However, in the classroom, instincts seemed to take over and using the topics of the coursebook as  a departure point, I started to do the following:

For lexis

  • Get students to brainstorm words related to the topic while I mindmap on the board.
  • Do lots of revision and recall sessions using back-to-board or board rush games.

For speaking and discussions

  • Get students to discuss certain issues related to the topic in pairs, mindmap on their mini-white boards, and feedback to the class.
  • Divide the class into two with one group agreeing and the other disagreeing and conduct a class debate after some prep time.
  • Get students to close their eyes and visualize a scene they have to describe as the teacher raises awareness of all their senses, taking them through the sights and smells of the scene. Students then open their eyes and take turns describing to their partner (great for IELTS Speaking Part 2).

For writing

  • Give each pair a different essay question to draft the main points of the essay for 3 minutes. After 3 minutes, the question is passed on to the next pair. After the brainstorming ideas for all those different questions, the class writes the introductory paragraph to the first question. The teacher writes one too. They show each other the paragraph and the class is guided into noticing certain features of writing the teacher has used. The class attempts to emulate what the teacher has done with the introduction paragraph of the next topic.

The above procedure can be done not just with introductions, but with any paragraph or short piece of writing. Repeat as many times as you like because each time, different language issues emerge, and it allows you to take students through everything from linking words to thematic structure (theme and rheme) to how to write overview statements.

For listening

  • Get students to pick a TV programme to watch as homework. You can specify the genre e.g. documentaries, or the film e.g. An Inconvenient Truth, Supersize Me. Students have to make notes and summarise the film for fellow classmates.
  • Do intensive listening exercises e.g. using the BBC News Headlines in class.

For grammar

  • So much grammar emerges from the discussions and the writing tasks that it is really a matter of the teacher being principled in the eclectic way they improvise in the classroom.
  • I find corrections for written homework best done with the whole class as a delayed correction slot so that students can learn from each other’s mistakes and think about how they can reformulate sentences to make them better.

So my one-month IELTS class went the Dogme way and feedback from my students was overwhelmingly positive. A couple said that they had never learnt so much in a month before.

And the irony is – everything they learnt came from them.

What do you do at Christmas?

Christmas is a family occasion where we gather around Christmas trees after a Christmas dinner of roast turkey and stuffing to open up presents after listening to the Queen’s Speech.    True or False?

Christmas is a time spent with friends, partying and clubbing in silly party hats and wishing each other Merry Christmas at the stroke of midnight. True or False?

Even if certain cultures don’t celebrate Christmas in the same way, they must surely know about the family Christmas of the west, thanks to the omnipresent Hollywood films.                     True or False?

Perhaps it is much harder for Hollywood to influence our family routines and traditions, but its impact is often much more clearly seen in our perceptions of romance and how we conduct our social lives and relationships. In Japan and Korea, Christmas Eve shares more in common with the Valentine’s Day we celebrate in Europe, where couples meet for a romantic candlelight dinner over which they exchange presents and whispers of Merry Christmas.

So if Christmas is like Valentine’s Day, what then do Koreans and Japanese do on Valentine’s Day? Well, here’s where local interpretations of European festivals take a slightly interesting turn. Valentine’s Day in Korea and Japan is now set aside as a day when women buy men chocolates as a declaration of their feelings. While Japanese women of all ages buy beautifully packaged gourmet chocolates for their partners, it was the teenagers that gave Valentine’s Day its real significance.  As it is not common for women in Korea and Japan to make the first move in expressing their interest in the opposite sex, this special day meant that women could take control and let the men they fancy know about it. This saw tonnes of chocolates delivered in truckloads to male celebrities making the tabloid news every year.

In order to avoid the threat to face that men might face when confronted with chocolates from a woman he’s not quite interested in, the Japanese created White Day a month after Valentine’s Day (14th March) for men to reciprocate with white gifts such as white chocolates, marshmallows or cookies, and jewellery after having a month to think about the advances on Valentine’s Day. An absence of gifts from the men they have showered with chocolates on Valentine’s Day can be taken as a form of polite rejection. In Korea, the 14th April has been named Black Day – a day when those who did not receive any presents on Valentine’s Day or White Day get together to celebrate being single.

But I digress. Christmas in Japan and Korea may not be a bank holiday, but it certainly is a chance to celebrate, a chance for shops to get out their fairy lights and fight to attract customers with the best decorations. In Singapore, Orchard Road, the main shopping street, is decorated with the most lavish lights, and every shopping centre competes to win the title for the best decorated. Unlike many countries in Asia, Christmas day in Singapore is indeed a bank holiday, but it isn’t quite the family occasion it is in the United Kingdom. So friends get together and party the night away.

The Spanish, on the other hand, certainly know how to make a holiday last. Presents aren’t exchanged until the 5th and 6th of January, during the festival of the Three Kings, when floats grace the streets of villages and sweets are thrown into the crowds as they reenact the coming of the three kings.

How do you celebrate Christmas?

How do your students celebrate Christmas?

Who do they celebrate it with?
What traditions do they have? What typical foods do they eat?

If you teach a multilingual, multicultural class, this could be a great chance for a discussion and some lovely sharing to take place.

If you teach a monolingual class, how about a task? Have different groups of students conduct research online about the different Christmas traditions of different countries and report back in the form of a presentation.

And check out websites like www.santa.net for some inspiration.

So, what do you do at Christmas?

How I use the BBC News Headlines to enhance listening

This is something that I’ve been doing for a while and I find that instead of ‘testing’ my students’ listening ability, which most listening exercises you find in course books seem to do, this truly provides listening practice by sensitising the learners’ ears to how English sentences are said. I have had learners, who previously found listening to English TV programmes intimidating, not only display a marked improvement in their listening ability after only carrying out this procedure once every day for a week, but also enjoyed a remarkable boost to their self-confidence.

I’ve done this successfully with learners of a Low-intermediate but I would recommend that learners be at least a good Mid-Intermediate Level for the BBC News Headlines to be satisfactorily exploited.

That said, this procedure could be applied to other kinds of authentic listening texts as well, and does not have to be restricted to the BBC News.

A) Prediction task

Ask leaners to predict what they think the news headlines might contain. Write the predictions on the board.

B) Google ‘BBC News Headlines’ and click the first link listed

C) Listening for content

  1. Teacher tells learners to listen to the news headlines and check predictions, and also count the number of news stories there are.
  2. Pair check and feedback
  3. Listen again and state what country/company/topic the headlines are about.
  4. Pair check and feedback
  5. Listen again and take notes in order to summarise the story for your partner.
  6. Pair check and feedback

These three listening tasks provide the learners with opportunities to process the content from top down, practising extensive subskills gradually combined with listening for detailed understanding.

D) Intensive Listening

  1. Teacher plays the news headlines sentence by sentence and get the students to identity each word which is then transcribed onto the board. Repeat each sentence as many times as necessary.

E) Noticing chunks

  1. Teacher gets students, in pairs, to find collocations, fixed/semi-fixed expressions and grammatical collocations from the transcribed text.
  2. Feedback

 

F) Progressive Deletion

  1. Story by story, headline by headline, the teacher rubs off parts of collocations and fixed expressions from the board and students fill in the gaps verbally in pairs.
  2. Quick feedback – teacher nominates a student to read out the news headline with the gaps filled.
  3. Teacher rubs off more words from the board and students fill in the gaps.

10 things I do with my Mini-WhiteBoards

It all started when a co-tutor on the CELTA suggested that I borrow some mini-white boards for an input session on boardwork. My trainees had so much fun drawing pictures of varying degrees of artistic proficiency to convey meaning of the words ‘prawn’, ‘chess’ and ‘aubergine’ while I was also able to provide a much more hands-on practice session of organizing collocations, using mindmaps, and marking phonological features.

I decided then to invest in my own set of mini-whiteboards and they have been a hit in the staffroom since. I now use it for both teacher training, English teaching and even exam preparation classes.

See here for some cheap mini-whiteboards you can purchase for your classroom.

Here are some of the ways I use them in a General English and in an IELTS exam class. The list is in no way exhaustive so do feel free to add on to it…

1.    Language Review

A mini-whiteboard can be given to each student, or to a pair. As a variation to back-to-board, I explain the lexical item in the context it was encountered, and students write their answers on the white boards. If this is to be done competitively in pairs, students should be given a few extra seconds to discuss their answers…On the count of three, they turn their boards over to reveal their answers. This way you can check how much they remember of the lexical item and their spelling of it.

2.    Needs Analysis

Instead of using tedious needs-analysis forms, students can write (or as a creative alternative, you can get students to draw) their goals on the boards. Holding their goals up for the whole class to see is step 1 to materializing those goals, and is a good chance to see if their classmates share the same expectations.

I sometimes write up a whole list of topics e.g. Health, Food, Education, Politics and Current Affairs, Travel, Family and Relationships, Technology, etc… (or Business skills if you are a BE teacher, e.g Presenting, Chairing Meetings, Taking part in meetings, Negotiating, etc.)  and students vote for the topics they want. Depending on the size of the class, each student/pair might get anything from 2 to 4 votes. They write their favourite topics on the mini-whiteboards, and when all boards are turned round, the teacher can have a clearer idea as to which topics are more favoured than others.

A variation of this is to write up the four language systems (grammar, lexis, pronunciation, discourse) and four language skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) up on the board and students vote for which language system or skills they think are most important and they need most work in.

3.    Brainstorming & Mind-mapping

Whether done as a lead-in to a lesson so as to activate the relevant schema and lexis, or as a first stage to process writing, the boards seem to be a good platform for groups of students to draw their mind-maps. Learners seem to take more ownership of their work when it is put on the mini-white boards and shown to the rest of the class. An empty board can look much sadder than an empty notebook page, and you will notice that students are often much more keen to fill up that mini-whiteboard.

4.    Jigsaw reading picture notes

An idea I adapted from the ever-so adventurous and creative Fiona James, this is a variation on Jigsaw Reading. Students are given different texts to read and asked to make notes so that they can retell what they have just read to the other students. However, here’s the catch. They can’t write any words. All notes have to be in the form of pictures that they will draw on the mini-white boards. This automatically forces students to process the texts for meaning instead of simply copying out chunks of words, and it also encourages students to use their own words and paraphrase what they have read when retelling it to their partners.

5.    Delayed Correction

You know the drill. After a freer speaking exercise and feedback on content, the teacher writes up a list of sentences/words she has heard students say and puts students in pairs to correct those sentences on their own. The idea is to get students cognitively involved in the reformulation/correction process instead of simply telling them what their mistakes are. However, what sometimes happens with some students is that they would skim through the list with their partners, making minimal effort and waiting to be told the ‘answer’.

I now give each pair of students a mini-whiteboard each and systematically go through the list of sentences one by one, and with each one, giving students time to discuss with their partner and write the reformulated sentence on the mini-whiteboard. On the count of three, they turn their boards over and I shower praise on those who have thought of good or creative reformulations. The competitive element somehow ensures that everyone is on the toes.

6.    What are the collocates?

To be used in conjunction with a corpus, the teacher gives students a lexical word e.g. global, boost, community, or even a de-lexicalised verb e.g. get, make, set, and students are given a time limit to write the top 5 (or 10) most frequent collocates of the word on their white-boards. You might want to limit the part of speech e.g. top 10 noun collocates, or top 10 adjective collocates, so as to prevent articles and prepositions from appearing.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that the top 2 collocates of the examples given are as follows:

Global warming, Global system;

Boost confidence, Cash boost;

European community, Care community;

Get back, Get rid;

Make sure, Make up;

Set up, Set out.

A variation of this activity is What are the prefixes/suffixes?

Also a corpus-based activity, using the * key, find out the top suffixes and prefixes of words such as ‘like’ or ‘organise’ by typing *like* or *organise*. Give students the task of writing down what they think might be the top variations of the given word on their mini-whiteboards.

The top 2 with ‘like’ are ‘likely’ and ‘unlikely’, while the top 2 with ‘organise’ are ‘organised’ and ‘organisers’ although ‘reorganise’ and ‘well-organised’ appears later down the list.

7.    Silent conversation

I first got the idea for this activity from a colleague, Fiona Johnston, and have found it really useful and motivating. Now, I get students to do it on a mini-whiteboard which they can then rub out, rather than on sheets of white paper.

I walk into class not saying a word and proceed to write the following on the main board.

‘Today, we are not going to speak for an hour. But we’re going to have a conversation. A conversation on paper. Here are the rules:

  1. You’ll work in groups of 3.
  2. You will discuss the following topic I will give you.
  3. You can interrupt your partner but by writing.
  4. Try to avoid very long paragraphs. Don’t make your partners wait too long while you write.

Here’s your topic: …”

The topics can range from ‘What did you do this weekend?’ to ‘Tell your partner about the different members of your family’ to ‘What problems do you face living in London’ to controversial statements like ‘Men should stay at home while women work to support the family. Do you agree?’

As they write, I play some Nina Simone and Michael Buble in the background and walk around correcting their sentences. Works a charm and students often realize how similar this form of communication is to chatrooms and instant messaging, and therefore find it extremely useful.

8.    Information Gap

 Partners sit back to back. Student A draws a picture on their mini-whiteboard. They then try to explain and describe the picture to their partner who will then proceed to draw it on their own mini-whiteboard. At the end, both hold up their mini-whiteboards for the rest of the class to compare and see how similar (or different) they are.

Sometimes, I get my students to draw the layout of their house (great for prepositions of place), sometimes just random shapes and lines, sometimes they draw a pretend snapshot/photo from their photo album (adapted from Danny Norrington-Davies), and sometimes a favourite painting/album cover/item of clothing, etc.

 

9. Essay Writing

One of my favourite ways of teaching writing is simply to get students to write a paragraph (after sufficient brainstorming and deciding on the content of course) and me writing a paragraph with them. We then compare what we have written and look at how our paragraphs differ and what they can do to make their paragraphs better.

Take for example a recent IELTS preparation course that I was running. Students were given a topic like ‘Video games are bad for children and should be banned. Do you agree?’ After brainstorming the ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments to the topic, we decided to write the introduction to the essay. We spent about 4 minutes writing quietly on our mini-whiteboards, and when students were ready, they compared their work with their partners. I then had everyone flipped their boards over (including my own) and we talked about their use of linkers and discourse markers, compared to mine. We found it much more effective than correcting students’ writing over their shoulders or taking home the marking because everyone gets to learn from each other’s trials and errors.

10. Win, Lose or Draw!

We can’t possibly talk about mini-whiteboards and not talk about this classic favourite, although I’m having trouble knowing who to credit for this…indeed, how long does an idea have to be floating around before we stop acknowledging the creator…

This can be used as a revision tool. Students have all their previous lexis on cards, they take turns drawing and their partners guess the lexical item.

And those are the 10 things that I use my mini-whiteboards for when teaching English. Do you use mini-whiteboards too? Did your school purchase them? How do you use them? Do your colleagues use them too? Do share what you do with these wonderful little things!