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!

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Learning English through a TV series

This is a true story I often tell my students.

Quite a long time ago, I went out with an Italian who was relatively new to London. He hardly spoke any English when we met, and we used to have conversations, negotiating meaning in Italian and the little Spanish I knew, with a huge Italian-English dictionary between us. Shortly after we met, I gave him a simple gap-fill exercise that required him to transform the verbs into the past tense, and he spent about 5 minutes understanding the instructions ‘Fill in the gaps with the suitable verbs’, and getting quite frustrated. I soon realised that it was quite impossible to teach someone whom I was involved with.

Watching TV together was always quite a challenge and the psychological block he had grew as he struggled to understand what he was hearing. Finally, I suggested that we watch DVDs of the American series 24 together and assured him that we would have English subtitles on, and that he should feel free to pause at any point and I could either try and explain what was happening, or we could check the dictionary together. Very reluctantly, he agreed and these subconscious English lessons began.

The first 5 episodes took us ages to get through as he would yell ‘stop’ every other second. But as the general plot and the characters of the series became clearer, it became easier for him to deduce meaning from the background information he now had. And as the storyline developed, he became more interested in what was going to happen, and was happier to deal with the ambiguity of certain words. He found himself not wanting to pause the DVD when he could grasp the gist of each scene, especially when it would interrupt the flow of the action on screen.

One day, as I was watching TV, he walked into the room and started watching the TV programme with me. About five minutes later, he exclaimed, ‘There are no subtitles on!’ I was quite amused as I had thought it was something he would have noticed immediately, but instead he said, ‘I understood everything! And I didn’t even realise the subtitles weren’t there!’

We went through 3 seasons of 24 in 3 months (that’s about 72 hours of TV) and a couple of months after that, he proceeded to take the Cambridge First Certificate in English. Bear in mind that he had not had any formal English instruction up to this point, and had not really spent much time reading or writing in English (aside from text messages to me). To my surprise, he not only passed the exam, but had an ‘Exceptional’ in his reading paper and an ‘Excellent’ in his writing!

So here’s why I strongly recommend watching TV series with subtitles to any student.

  1.  You don’t have to keep getting to know new characters and new plotlines as it is with films. The background knowledge of the story helps you deduce meaning from context more easily.
  2. Words, phrases and grammatical structures often repeat themselves in a TV series. We looked up the Italian translation of the word ‘to threaten’ and ‘threat’ about 5 times when watching the first 2 episodes of 24, but by the 25 time, he not only understood what it meant but also how it was used.
  3. Reading subtitles does help one’s listening skills. One is able to not only hear the words and phrases but also make the connection between how it’s said and how it’s written. After some time, the brain starts to associate the way things are pronounced and the individual words that actually make up the utterance.
  4. We often use prediction stages when providing receptive skills practice in the classroom mainly because the very act of predicting helps better understanding of the text, regardless of whether our predictions are right or wrong. We predict the end of the story as we read the beginning of it. We predict the end of a sentence before we finish it. We predict the other half of a collocation before seeing it. And this is a skill that everyone uses subconsciously in our L1. We often try to help our learners transfer those skills when reading/listening in an L2, but when watching a fast-paced TV series like 24, the learner starts to use those innate prediction skills automatically as they get more involved in the plot.
  5. There’s nothing like getting addicted to a good series. You will soon forget that you’re doing it to improve your English and become genuinely interested in the storyline. This interest motivates you and propels you to watch one episode after another as the excitement builds. Before you know it, you’ll have had hundreds of hours of listening/reading practice, alongside being exposed to hundreds of lexicogrammatical structures. That’s more exposure than any English course can provide.

So what TV series would you get your teeth sunk into?

Here are my top 3 criteria when picking a TV series.

  1. Go for something that doesn’t feature too many social or romantic scenarios because they tend to be heavily laden with phrasal verbs, colloquialisms and slang. (Sex in the City is out then…)
  2. If you want to go for a comedy series, ensure that the comedy doesn’t depend too heavily on witticisms, plays on words or cultural references. (that immediately excludes The Thick of It and Yes, Minister).
  3. More important than the first 2 criteria is this: Ensure it’s a genre you love. Motivation rules.

So, what would you watch? Here are 20 suggestions I often give my students.

Are there any you would add to this list? I’d like to know what works for you.

Intercultural Dining Etiquette and Table Manners

This week, a future mother-in-law wrote a enraged email to her step-son’s fiancee criticising her fussy eating habits and lack of table manners after her visit to their family home. The email went viral and was published in the Metro on Wednesday, and this piece of authentic material soon found its way to the English language school. In the staffroom, a debate ensued as to whether the future mother-in-law or the supposedly impolite girl in need of finishing school was to be blamed, and it soon became apparent that this would make for great discussions in our classes. Nevertheless, my colleagues weren’t sure if the article would be suitable for my low-intermediate class. Determined to grade the tasks (and discussions) and not the text, I brought the article into my classroom, and the discussion that actually emerged was more interesting than I could have ever expected.

It soon became obvious during the reading and discussions that the mother-in-law’s perception of what was good etiquette and appropriate manners was very culturally biased. And the following questions regarding etiquette arose:

When you are a guest at someone’s family home,

1. Do you normally wait for everyone (including the female hosts) to be seated before starting on your food? Should you say something before starting?

2. If you don’t like something, should you force yourself to eat it or do you find a way to refuse? What would you say?

3. Do you normally take small helpings of the side dishes (e.g. the potatoes, salads, etc.) throughout the meal, or do you take one big helping that will last you for the rest of your meal?

4. Should you finish everything on your plate or can you leave some if you have had enough?

Question number 1 initially seemed to invite unanimous responses of ‘yes’es’ but after some probing, it was revealed that in Japan and Thailand, the female hosts of more traditional families often remain standing, waiting to serve the guests, and don’t sit down to eat until everyone else has finished.

Question number 3 brought up some interesting cultural differences. Most Europeans thought it appropriate to pile on one big helping  onto one’s plate right at the start of the meal, but most Chinese students found this rude. A meal was meant to be an occasion for sharing, and the ‘this is my share and that is yours’ attitude didn’t go down very well with them. Taking just one piece from a side dish and eating it before going for another piece was the accepted approach.

In response to question 4, the Arabic students agreed that in some families, finishing the food on a plate would mean more is desired, and this would prompt the host to refill the empty dishes with more food. This would usually be pre-empted with an offer to refill the plate, which the guest can politely refuse, but if the host is unable to speak English well, they might enthusiastically refill the plate without asking.

This discussion prompted more questions about guest etiquette to be written up on the board and the discussion continued in groups.

5. What should you bring when you are invited to someone’s house? What should you bring when you are invited to someone’s wedding?

Most students agreed that something should be brought but the items ranged from wine to food, and even flowers. As for weddings, most Asian and Arabic students agreed that money should be given as a present, much to the surprise of the Europeans. The Japanese, Chinese and Korean students all insisted that the start of a couple’s life together would cost a lot of money, and therefore, the guests should be obligated to give more than the cost per head. A wedding would therefore bring in a profit for the happy couple to have a headstart in life. The Europeans, however, saw it as the happy couple treating their friends to a meal, and shared concepts such as wedding lists.

6. Where should you sit when at the dinner table? How should you sit? Where should you place your hands?

Some cultures had elaborate rules when it came to seating positions, which was often based on seniority, and which direction the host should face. The Japanese and Koreans agreed that it was rude to cross one’s legs in front of those more senior than oneself, but they disagreed as to how to place one’s hands. In the Japanese culture, both hands (and arms) should be seen above the table at all times. One hand ought to be holding the bowl of rice while the other hand held the chopsticks. The Koreans, on the other hand (no pun intended), found the holding of the bowl to be ‘beggar-like’ and insisted that the bowl should be left on the table, while one hand picks from it either with chopsticks, or more commonly, a spoon. Elbows, we all agreed, should be kept off the table.

7. Where do you place the cutlery to indicate you are still eating? Where do you place them to show that you have finished your meal?

Those that used knives and forks agreed that placing them side by side on the plate indicated that one had finished with the meal, but there was less agreement as to what to do with cutlery in the middle of the meal. Some suggested we should cross our knives and forks on our plates to indicate that we were not finished, but some were adamant that this was rude. The use of chopsticks was less familiar for the non-Oriental students, who were surprised to learn that one must never stick the chopsticks in their rice bowl as it resembled the incense used when praying to the dead. The Oriental students all agreed that placing the chopsticks back down on the table beside the bowl was the most polite way to do this, although the Korean and Japanese students reacted in horror when the Taiwanese students remarked that they also placed them together across the top of the bowl.

8. How many courses are usually served, and in which order?

Talking about courses reminded me of an experience I had with some Spanish visitors who came to London some years ago. They had wanted to try some Chinese food, so I had some dishes delivered. You probably already know this, but the Chinese don’t typically do ‘courses’, except for dessert and tea/coffee. All the dishes are placed in the centre of the table, and each person gets their own bowl of rice. One then takes what they want to eat from the dishes in the centre and ‘shares’ the meal with everyone at the table. But when I placed the dishes in the centre of the table, my Spanish friends started to eat out of the vegetable dish until it was empty, and then proceeded onto the Lemon Chicken. Despite my continual insistence that they had to mix all the dishes together, they stuck to their belief that the ‘salad’ had to come before the meat dish, and the rice came last. Imagine my shock when they finished off the meal chomping down on the plain rice in their bowls once all the dishes were done with!

9.  What do you normally drink with your meal? Are there any codes of behaviour to observe?

The Chinese students were keen to state that Chinese tea was usually drunk after the meal and not during, contrary to what Chinese restaurants in London would have you believe. The Japanese students, however, saw drinking green tea during the meal as totally normal. While the tea at the Chinese table should be refilled by the person seated closest to the teapot, when it comes to alcohol at the Japanese and Korean table,
it is customary for people to refill each other’s glasses/cups, and not one’s own. But the most interesting comment came from the Koreans, who said that when drinking alcohol in front of someone more senior, one should always turn away (about 90 degrees from the person with more seniority) and sip from their glass with their hands covering it.

10. How much time do you usually spend at the dinner table?

This brought up some stark differences. Most Europeans and South Americans saw dinnertime as time for communication with the rest of the family, and would spend anything from 1 hour to 4 hours at the dinner table. Those from the Far East were more efficient with their meal times and would typically finish a meal in 5-20 minutes, unless a guest was present.

This lesson went on for about 3 hours, throwing up lots of useful lexis and grammatical structures in addition to very useful speaking practice. The discussion/debate was definitely not about what I had expected it to be, but going with the flow definitely allowed us to learn so much more about each other. In a time of international business dealings, an understanding of the social norms and etiquettes of different cultures is becoming more important than ever. And lessons could be made so much more fruitful if we could kill two birds exchanging such information whilst providing practice of English. Meanwhile, on a more selfish level, I’ve learnt lots too.

Making Student-Centred Dogme Student-Friendly

So it seems that some students have been complaining about their teachers not using the assigned coursebook and  the discussion about whether the use of the coursebook should be encouraged/enforced has yet again risen.

With the Dogme approach to language teaching becoming more widely accepted in the TEFL world in the recent years, I had assumed that the debate was more or less over. That it was clear as day that a materials-light classroom where the use of students as the main resource was almost a given. I have taken for granted the fact that everyone knew that when done correctly, such lessons are rather taxing on the multi-tasking Dogme Practitioner, and that the benefits to their language learning process were for all to see.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been a Dogmetician teaching without a coursebook for over 3 years. Perhaps it’s because Thornbury and Meddings have given the approach an official label and wrote an award-winning book alongside countless journal articles and blogs with solid theoretical backup of the approach. Perhaps it’s because I’ve come to see Dogme not as an approach or methodology, but simply as improvised but principled eclecticism and good teaching. But all teachers apply Dogme in very different ways. After all, it is what a teacher has in their ‘bag of tricks’ and how principled their version of improvised eclecticism is.

I have always enjoyed analysing language, and been rather systematic in the way I clarify grammar, lexis or pronunciation, and perhaps this comes through in the way I conduct my Dogme classes. I have also invariably learnt my foreign languages in the same fashion. Whether it be Japanese or Italian, coming in contact with the language through authentic texts and real life communication (whether it be Japanese pop songs or arguments with in Italian with my ex) had been what motivated me to put the systems I’d learnt to use. Our own learning experiences undoubtedly influence how we see the language learning process. And most of our students have been students of language classrooms prior to our encounters with them. They, therefore, have certain expectations of what their classes should entail. And one of these expectations might very well be a structured journey through a coursebook.

But we know language learning is by no means linear, and that learners remember and use so much more of the language when they themselves have noticed the gap in their knowledge and have seen their need for it. Students clearly prefer communicating about themselves, their classmates and their teacher than doing predictions and receptive skills tasks about the faceless Johns and Janes in a coursebook. When I did my action research project on Dogme several years ago, students surveyed quite unanimously claimed that the Dogme lessons were much more motivating and effective. So how is it that we have students complaining about the coursebook-light classrooms at school?

Could it be that they find the lack of structure daunting? Could it be that they feel they are not learning anything in class? Could it be that skills work have dominated these lessons and that students are unable to recognise this as language learning when little grammar is involved? How is it that the clients of executive business classes who have never been prescribed a coursebook are not voicing the same complaints?

I hope I’m not preaching to the converted but here are some things that I do to try and address the above issues:

1. Needs Analysis

This is crucial in a classroom where a coursebook is not going to be followed. A detailed needs analysis needs to be carried out on Day One, and the interests of the students, their language needs and expectations need to be identified. I make sure I ask the following questions at the beginning of every course, and allow time for students to discuss them in pairs/groups:

  • How long have you been here? How long will you stay?
  • Why are you learning English? Why did you decide to come to this city/school?
  • Who will you be speaking English to in the future? In what kind of situations?
  • Do you find it more difficult to speak or to understand?
  • Do you use English outside the classroom? When and who with? How do you feel when using English in these circumstances? Do you read the news or watch English TV programmes?
  • Which skills would you like to work on? Speaking? Reading? Writing? Listening?
  • Which systems do you think you need to work on? Grammar? Lexis? Pronunciation? Why?
  • Do you find it difficult understanding native speakers? What about native speakers?
  • What did you like about your previous language classes and what didn’t you like?
  • How do you think you improve your English best? How do you try to remember and use the new lexis or grammar structures that you learn?

Because our school provides free coursebooks for General English students, when I give out these new books on Day One of a GE class, I would get students to turn to the content page and discuss the topics and language areas (grammar, functions, lexis) that they wish to cover. To add to the topics in the book, I’d put up several topics on the board e.g. Travel, Food, Current Affairs, Fashion, Health, Education, Politics & History, Technology, Music, etc. The negotiation process would then begin. Students would confer with their partners and the class would vote for the topics they would like to see in the coming weeks (each student gets five votes). This allows me to steer conversations towards the areas they are interested in, to ask more questions when these topics come up, and to be ready to use the appropriate activites/methods that I need from my teaching ‘bag of tricks’ to address their language needs. My end-of-day-one notes would often look like this.

Student Profiles

Maria – Nurse from Spain, been here for 2 months, staying for another 3.

Needs English to keep up to date with the advances in the medical field and to                     communicate with people from different countries when travelling.

Loves shopping and clubbing.

Lives and hangs out with other Spanish-speakers after class. Watches many                         English films with English subtitles.

Finds it more difficult to understand native speakers.

An organic learner who prefers to pick chunks of lexis up through frequent                            contact.

Thinks that she needs to work on her grammar because her last teacher told her                  it’s important and that she’s bad at it.

Hates activities that require her to stand up.

Yukiko – Flight attendant from Japan, been here for 1 month, staying for another 5.

Needs English for work and loves the sound of the language. etc etc…

Results of Needs Analysis and Negotiation

Systems : 1. Lexis; 2. Grammar; 3. Discourse; 4. Pronunciation.

Skills: 1. Speaking; 2. Listening; 3. Writing; 4. Reading.

Topics: Food (10 votes); Education (8 votes); Health (8 votes); Current Affairs (5 votes), etc.

Grammar Areas in Coursebook: Conditionals 2 & 3; Relative Clauses; Passive Structures; Story-telling tenses, etc.

2. Explaining why I do what I do

We do sometimes walk around with the ‘teacher-knows-best’ attitude assuming that our students will trust us no matter what approach we use. Students, however, often have a set idea as to how they learn best, and sometimes gently going through the hows and whys of the approach we’re employing (preferably backed up with a few sentences that start with ‘Scientific research into language learning has proven that…’) could not only take the mystery out of this unfamiliar way of teaching, and encourage them to see the benefits of it for their English, but resolve any false assumptions about language learning. I don’t just do this on day one but every time I employ an activity or method I haven’t done with them before e.g. progressive deletion, running dictations, TBL etc. I try to provide students with the pedagogic rationale behind it.

3. Working with emergent language and corrections.

Dogme has been accused of being ‘winging it elevated to an art form’. For it to rise above being merely a chat in the pub, it is crucial that the teacher is noticing opportunities to feed in new language, to board and extend upon the language emerging, listening for the language problems that students are having and finding the right moments to work on them to the appropriate extent.

4. Drawing attention to the language covered

In order to avoid a situation where students are unsure of what language input they have been given, I find it worth highlighting to students at the end of the class what lexical/grammatical work they have done that day (‘Look at all that grammar we’ve done today!’). Keeping a language column on the side of the board that is gradually filled out during the lesson does help, but I also get students to tell each other what they have learnt that day a la the end of a Sesame Street episode (‘Sesame Street was brought to you by the letter Z and the numbers 1 to 10’). Recalling the previous day’s lesson and carrying out recycling activities at the start of the next day also helps reaffirm this (shameless plug: my last blog on recycling in a Dogme classroom).

5. Taking notes

If students are not using the coursebook, it is all the more important to get them to keep an organised notebook. My students often have three notebooks. One for taking notes in class, a lexical notebook they keep at home where the lexis covered in class in re-organised into either an alphabetical order or by topic, and a grammar notebook which they also keep at home. The transferring of information from their class notebook to the home one helps students to remember and revise what they have learnt that day and allows them to have the time and space to raise questions about the use of that language. It is also important to make sure students are given time in class to write down what you have boarded and clarified.

6. Controlled-practice exercises

Coursebook-less classrooms don’t equate fluency-focussed classrooms. There can be accuracy work done too. This could take the form of pairwork e.g. Teaching an elementary level ‘there is/are…some’, ‘there isn’t/aren’t…any’: Tell your partner about the shops near where you live’; Teaching a mid-int class past modals of obligation: ‘Tell your partner about the rules you had when you were at school’; Teaching an upp-int relative clauses: ‘Bring a photo of your friends and family tomorrow and tell your partner about the people in the photo’.
‘But those are semi-controlled/freer practice activities!’, I hear you exclaim? I often find that controlled gap-fills, sentence transformations, matching and categorizing activities in coursebooks and grammar workbooks tend to use random de-contextualised sentences that have absolutely nothing to do with the topic you are discussing. Making up your own enables you to exploit the context that delivered that language and helps students to focus on not just the form, but the meaning and use as well.

Having said that, I recognise that with some grammar structures, it is quite difficult to keep all the practice within context (which is probably why the books too find it hard to produce contextualised controlled practice). In such cases, using the students’ names and their real experiences or making a friendly joke about the students in the exercises often help memory and retention. e.g. teaching Vanessa, who is a journalist and loves celebrity gossip, relative clauses, I wrote the following sentence transformation exercise on the board: ‘Vanessa wrote that article about Angelina Jolie. Angelina Jolie punched Vanessa during an interview’  This, of course, wasn’t true, but following Derren Brown’s maxims on memory tricks: Keep it visual and make it funny!

I remember teaching a Saudi student the structure ‘so+adj + that + clause) on the day after he had been to the dentist. Among the many sentence transformations about his classmates was one that read, ‘Ahmed looks so gorgeous with his new teeth that everyone standing beside him now looks ugly.’ Ahmed was writing the sentences on the board down in his notebook when he noticed this one and laughed, ‘I’m never going to forget this structure now!’

7. Ensuring variety

We tell trainees on the Celta in week one about different styles, and although I’m not a big fan of the VAK paradigm, the aim of that input session is to convey the message that we need to vary the activities we use in the classroom. But so many of us get lazy and start to rely on the same tricks day after day. Teachers might find their favourite boil-in-the-bag lessons much easier to execute than using a coursebook. As Chaz Pugliese said in his talk at IATEFL this year, ‘Teachers have fun! Or you might bore us!’

8. Not letting gimmicks and technology dictate

On a very different note from the last point, I have often seen teachers who spend a lot of time preparing their lessons and trying to spice things up, creating the most amazing materials using the plethora of features that the internet and IWBs offer. This is hardly materials-light to classify as a Dogme approach, but I simply felt that I needed to include something about that in this post. Arguably, one can still make lessons interesting and ensure variety by focussing on the lives of the students and the stories they have to tell us.

As much as I believe teachers should harness their creativity, the focus needs to be taken off the fancy tools of teaching and placed on the very people we are teaching. Several years ago, the British Council produced some telling results of a focus group research they conducted where students claimed that they felt that the use of IWBs and technology was taking their teachers’ attention away from them and onto the technology. The novelty of IWB gimmicks might impress students to start with, but when that starts to take centre stage, the development of our students inevitably suffers. We are not in competition to see who can create an all-singing all-dancing lesson about the present perfect continuous. We are in the business of helping students understand and use the structure. And I’m all for the most efficient way to go about doing this.

9. Giving homework 

Homework in my classes often entail students keeping their notebooks up to date, reading an article their classmates have brought in, doing some research on a topic online, preparing presentations or writing emails/blogposts/journals/essays. Depending on the needs analysis of course, including writing skills work is essential in giving students a ‘rounded experience’ of learning English. Using the controlled practice exercises in coursebooks as homework can also placate students who feel like their coursebooks are going to waste, and help them to see that the language covered in the classroom does correlate to the syllabus in the coursebook.

10. End-of-course retrospective round-up

Speaking of correlation, at the end of my courses, after rigorous rounds of recycling and revision activities, I get my students to turn to the content page of the coursebook once again, like they have done on Day One. I then get them to discuss with their partners which topics and which language areas they have covered over the month that are in the coursebook. Students are often pleasantly surprised to find that not only have they covered everything in the part of the book they were meant to cover, they have also acquired structures and language beyond that syllabus.

If students are still complaining despite all this, perhaps it’s simply due to the fact that they’ve been given a free coursebook that they haven’t got to use. The solution then is simply: Stop giving them free coursebooks and save the school some money. *wink*

Recycling Language in a Dogme Classroom

I have often have teachers asking me, ‘If language just emerges, how do you ensure learning takes place? How do you recycle the langauge?’

Many of you have read, or written blogposts on the same subject, but I thought I’d share my favourite ways of recycling language (which I’ve, of course, stolen and adapted from all the wonderful teachers and colleagues around me).

First things first, I find a retrospective record of my Dogme lessons useful in helping me keep track of what has gone on, so as to revise the language covered, and also to enable me to provide the appropriate scaffolding for subsequent lessons. To do this, I simply take a photo of my boardwork (with my mobile phone) at the end of each lesson. (The other advantage of taking photos is that when students tell you that they have no recollection of a language item being clarified, mainly because they had forgotten to take notes of it, there’s photographic evidence in your pocket!)

Here are photos of three different days of my Low-Intermediate lesson. Pardon my bad handwriting… *cringe*

(You’ll need to click on the picture to enlarge it.)

The emergent language is then transferred onto cards. Lovely coloured cards provided for by the school… On each card is either a lexical item or a structure in the form of a model sentence/phrase. These cards are brought into class every day for language recycling, and the pile grows quite rapidly, to everyone’s amazement and satisfaction.

Here’s how I use them.

1.  Recall

This is something I have adapted from an idea that originated from  my colleague, Melissa, and have done it every lesson since. (Thanks, Mel) At the start of every lesson, students tell their partners what they remember from the lesson before. It is important that the recall is not simply focussed on language, but also what was talked about, who said what, and how those emergent language items came about. This could last anything from 5 minutes to 15 minutes, and is also a great way for students who were absent to have a chance to catch up and be taught by their peers. I sometimes distribute the language cards as prompts for students to remember the contexts they arose in.

2.  The traditional and much-loved Back-to-Board

You could do this at the start of every lesson, and students seem to love it all the same. Divide the class into 2 groups, have one represetative from each group sit in front of their groupmates with their back facing the board. The teacher writes the lexical item (collocations, phrases, even sentences) and the group members have to describe and explain the language item to their representative without using the words on the board (or related words e.g. made-make, friendship-friend), without spelling any word, and without using ‘sounds-like’ clues. The first rep to shout out the answer wins a point for the group.

3.  Taboo (without the taboo words)

As the pile of cards stack up, this activity is ideal for a end-of-week revision. Again, divide the class into two groups. One representative from one group comes up and takes the stack of cards. They have 2 minutes to explain as many words as they can for their group members to guess. Rules for Back-to-Board applies. If they choose to pass a card, the opposing team will have a chance to guess when the 2 minutes is up. One point is awarded to each card guessed right.

4.  Fastest hands first

All the students sit on the floor in a circle with a ball/bottle of water/soft toy in the middle. The teacher explains the word/phrase/sentence, the fastest person to grab the ball/bottle of water/soft toy gets to answer. If they fail, their group will have one point deducted from their total score.

5.  Sabotage

All the cards are placed faced up around the floor. The teacher leaves the room (or turns away from the students and cards) Again, in groups, students will have to pick the word/phrase/sentence that they think the other group might have trouble with. The other group will then have to explain the language item to the teacher. If the teacher guesses it right, they win a point. If the teacher can’t guess it (e.g. because they’ve got the meaning wrong), the group that picked the card would have to take over the explaining. A right guess at this stage wins a point for that group. A bad explanation would mean 2 points deducted off that group’s total score.

6.  Board Rush/ Mini-Whiteboards

Ever since I’ve bought a set of mini-white boards, the traditional board rush has taken on a new meaning. The teacher explains the language item, the students have to write their answers on the board as quickly as possible (and flip them over for the rest of the class to see if you’re using mini-whiteboards). Correct answers scores a point. A great way to check for spelling errors. The teacher could always vary this by giving one part of the collocation and have the students write the other, or giving the context in which this language item occurred and have the students remember what was said/reformulated.

7.  Charades/ Win, Lose or Draw

Students pick a card and act/draw out the language item for their team to guess. You know how this works.

8.  Language Auction

Students are divided into 3 or more teams (This could also be done in pairs). Each team/pair is given a set amount of money to invest/gamble e.g. £10,000. The teacher could explain the language item, give a gapped sentence, or write up a sentence using the language item wrongly. The teams/pairs then bid to answer the question. The highest bidder wins the amount they bid if the answer is correct. If they get it wrong, that same amount is deducted from their pot.

9. Tell me a story

This could be done in pairs, or groups of 3. The groups are given a random number of cards and have to use the language item on the cards to make up a story. They write it up and the story is then posted on the wall for a gallery activity.

10. Pick it up, Take it home

At the end of each week/course, my students help me to place all the coloured cards face up on the floor. Students then walk around the classrooms in pairs discussing the different language items, explaining to each other the contexts they came up in and exchanging opinions about which ones they found easy or difficult. Students then have a chance of picking up the cards containing the language items they have trouble remembering or using, and take those home with them. I find that the physicalisation of actually picking up the cards and keeping them really helps with students’ memory of the item.

So there you have it. These are the 10 things I do on a regular basis to enable recycling to happen in my classroom. In fact, I tend to do one of the above activites on a Tuesday to revise Monday’s language, on a Wednesday to revise Monday’s and Tuesday’s language, and so on and so forth. On a Friday, I dedicate more than half of my 3 hour lesson to recycling all the language covered thus far (that week and the weeks before that)…

You probably already do some of them (if not all) yourself. But if you haven’t, do give it a try and tell me how it goes! If you have some that I haven’t mentioned, please feel free to share your ideas!

The Best Laid Plans…

I don’t like covering other people’s classes.

Well, who does? You arrive at work and are informed that you’ve got a class to cover. You are presented with a lesson plan that you’re supposed to teach and you walk into a room with 10 pairs of eyes staring at you wondering where their teacher is. You know nothing about them, and there just isn’t time to get to know them.

I often have full intentions to follow the plan I have been given and teach what I am supposed to. But once I get into class, my instincts seem to take over and unplugging takes place. Today wasn’t so different.

The lesson plan I was given this morning was clearly meticulously prepared. A reading text had been careful copied and cut into neat pieces, ready for a jigsaw reading, and a detailed procedure was written out for me. I started to feel guilty and decided to that I should follow the plan this time.

But the students were just too interesting…damn it!

The conversation started with me asking the Pre-Advanced students what they did for a living and one of the ladies was trying to explain the fact that she owned furniture shops selling furniture that was specially aged to create an antique look that was fast becoming popular in her country. We talked about the ultra-modern, minimalistic designs so characteristic of single male households and the collocation ‘bachelor pad’ came up. One of the students mentioned ‘Bachelor’s Party’ and more lexis about bachelors went up on the board. A student wanted to know the opposite of bachelor and another student volunteered the word ‘Spinster’. I quickly clarified that ‘spinster’ had a very negative connotation, and the conversation soon became about the sexism inherent in our language.

I boarded the words ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress’ and asked for the different meanings and connotations they had, and then we looked at the words ‘Mr’ versus ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and the more modern and politically correct ‘Ms’ and the reasons why these terms were considered inappropriate by some and why they were used in the past.  We started to think about the names of jobs ending with ‘man’ and found their politically correct substitutes, and decided that the words ‘doctor’  and ‘nurse’ didn’t need any changes as it was already de-gendered.

This led a student talking about the experiences he had with a male nurse and the conversation moved towards injections and vaccinations. When a student struggled to express that she had had an operation on her knee, the following sentences went up on the board:

I have had an operation on my knee.

I have had my knee operated on.

A doctor operated on my knee.

My knee was operated on several years ago.

We looked at the causative structure in the second sentence and students were reminded of the meaning and form before being given some quick practice. We then examined the rest of the sentence and I thought it was a good time to bring up the Textual Metafunction of Halliday’s Systemic Functional Grammar. The departure point (i.e. the subject) of each sentence was identified and we look at which parts of the sentences were Given and New, forming likely questions that preceeded each statement. We then started to look at separable phrasal verbs and why we would never put the pronoun ‘it’ at the end of a sentence like ‘I switched it off’ (because ‘it’ is a given piece of information and not new).

A student then asked about placing the stress in a marked position and we started looking at Contrastive Stress and how we can give information a ‘new’ position in a sentence by placing a marked intonation stress on the word. This led to us practicing intonation changes in sentences and then chunking longer sentences and playing around with prominence.

At this point, I started to feel bad about those nicely cut-up texts that were sitting in a corner and decided to use them for a chunking activity. Instead of a plain jigsaw reading, students had to read the short passages to their partners with the appropriate intonation changes while their partners took notes. The catch is they weren’t allowed to write words in their notes. They were only allowed to draw. Using their drawings, the students were then re-paired with different partners and had to re-tell what they had heard using only their drawings to help them remember.

Time was running out at this point and I had to leave the students at that point…

But I felt a bit more at peace with my guilt this time having used part of the plan given to me, albeit only a small part of it…

So who says cut-up cards were only for Tommy and Tina TEFLS and can’t be used in a Dogme class?