The Post-Covid Classroom & Our Empty Teacher Toolbox

So, the mad rush to get online has subsided. The barrage of webinars on how to set up breakout rooms on Zoom have ended and the conversation is turning once again. It’s crazy to think all of this only started a few short months ago. It feels like days ago that our teaching context was turned upside down and we scrambled to bring our courses online and now, with restrictions being lifted in various countries around the world, it looks like it’s all about to be turned on its head again.

The question on my mind is:

what does the post-covid classroom look like?

Now, I’m not talking about 2022 when all this is done and dusted (fingers-crossed, touch wood and all that lark) and we can go back to the way things were before. I mean the classroom between now and then.

Many schools will take a blended approach, carrying out some lessons in a physical classroom and some online. Undoubtedly, we will have smaller class sizes. Schools will consider staggering start times and closing public areas. Hand sanitiser will, of course, feature heavily in any reopening. Depending on government advice, masks might be a pre-requisite or they might be discouraged. Depending on your country, your borders might be open to new students and there may / may not be a quarantine period.

But let’s assume that all the above has been taken care of by school management and the government. Where does that leave you, the teacher, when it comes to your face to face lessons in a physical classroom? Is it business as usual but with fewer students?

I don’t think so.

Let’s take a close look at our teaching toolbox, our tried and tested techniques, the bread & butter of teaching in a communicative classroom. What happens to them in a socially distant classroom?

  1. Pairwork: sadly, this is probably done and dusted for a while. We won’t be casually leaning over and checking answers.
  2. Group discussions: Unless it’s a whole-class discussion, which has its limitations, we won’t really be able to conduct group chats with a metre between each person.
  3. Hand-outs: You won’t be moving around the classroom giving your students a beautiful photocopy. Depending on school guidelines, you might not be able to give any material that the student didn’t bring with them.
  4. Monitoring: while it won’t be impossible to monitor, sneakily looming over a student’s shoulder and offering advice & encouragement is going to be frowned upon.

 

Unfortunately, a socially distant classroom is going to leave us without our go-to teaching techniques but all is not lost. If we’ve learnt anything over the past few months, it is how quick our industry is to adapt to the situation and adopt new techniques that better suit the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Adapt and adopt, we shall.

When deciding how to adapt, we must consider what we are losing and how we can try to replace it.

Mentimeter:

One of the main reasons, I use pairwork in class is to give students thinking time, to allow them to learn from each other and help each other to formalise their opinions before they bring them to the class as a whole. Often, having a moment to share an answer with a partner will give a student the social reassurance they need to then share it with the whole class. This is the beauty of pairwork and something we really don’t want to lose.

One way to give students the thinking time, to give them confidence in their answers without having to share them with the whole class is by using poll / survey websites like Mentimeter. It allows students time to think and to answer anonymously; they can very easily see how the rest of the class feels or is answering and then stand by or alter their answer before bringing it to the whole class. It encourages the quieter student to get involved and gives them an easy communication avenue.

Text Discussions:

Much of how I communicate is via text messages or social media. There are people I speak to regularly that I haven’t talked to in person for years. This is the same for many of our students yet in a communicative classroom we tend to focus on speaking. Most schools will by this time have chosen an online platform to deliver their lessons be it Teams, Zoom or something else. For Zoom, students could simple start a meeting, turn the cameras & audio off and use the chat box.

By using these same tools or even WhatsApp, students can still carry out discussions in a meaningful way before sharing the outcome of their discussions with the rest of the class in whole-class feedback.

The nice little by-product of these types of discussions is a written record. The chat box can easily be screenshot and shared. Students can reflect on what they actually said/wrote and analyse how well they used the target language. And you have a concrete source to reference for feedback.

Displaying:

If handouts are behind us, that’s no bad thing. They’re great, don’t get me wrong, but the environment won’t thank us for all of the dead handouts that ended up in bins around the EFL world. In the socially distant classroom, we will be forced to abandon them and use the tools we have. So what do we have?

  • IWB: many of us will have an IWB. Apps like Microsoft Lens allow us to scan in resources; the snipping tool allows us to chop them up and deliver them to our students one piece at a time…as the writer no doubt intended.
  • Phones: our students don’t need to have a piece of paper they never look at again, they have cameras. Cameras that save photos in clouds according to their dates. Photos that they can access forevermore without having to sift through crumpled, wrinkled, ragged remnants of lessons long-forgotten.

If we don’t have IWBs, we have phones, which means we can send photos / documents via online platforms, WhatsApp, email, etc. Our learners can zoom in, they can edit, they can engage with it however we see fit.

Support over Presence:

Something that I’ve really found in online teaching is that support is more important than presence. In the past we have relied upon the fact that we can monitor closely and be on hand to answer every little question. In breakout rooms, this became impossible and in a socially distant classroom it becomes trickier.

All this means is that we need to spend more time setting up an activity. Learners need to know what exactly they should be doing, why they are doing it and what success looks like. Instructions are more important than ever and checking instructions is crucial. With students potentially working more individually or on their phones and you unable to loom over their shoulder, checking they are on task becomes more challenging. The answer may be to spend more time on giving and checking your instructions and getting buy-in for the activity from the students.

 

Above are just a few of the issues we may face in the socially distant classroom. No doubt there will be others that we haven’t even considered yet. Some of the above ideas for coping with these issues may turn out to be unworkable depending on your teaching context but we have proven our ability to adapt and adapt we will. I am excited to see how we tackle these issues and to hear your ideas.

Send them along!

Help I’m in a breakout room! Using success criteria to enable peer to peer feedback

For the foreseeable future it seems we’ll be teaching online and apps like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are going to be our classrooms. But is this just a stopgap while we wait for our schools to reopen? Maybe…but I personally think that online teaching is here to stay. That’s not to say it was never here before but by the end of Covid, I would say online English language teaching will have carved out its own space and will sit side by side with full immersion.

Assuming that’s the case, it’s not about weathering the online storm, it has to be about doing it as best we can. It can’t be just replicating what we did in the classroom and making it work, we have to adapt to this new environment.

One of the first issues I came up against was pairwork. How do we make it work? Well, the answer came quickly: we use breakout rooms of course. Fantastic, problem solved. Or was it?

Feedback from teachers:

Breakout rooms are great but you can’t monitor effectively. The students are chatting away, or not chatting at all and you have no idea because you’re in another room.

Feedback from students:

We just chat but we don’t get feedback. I don’t know what I am saying wrong.

Both valid issues but both issues we had in physical classrooms, but now in the harsh glow of the computer screen it is much more glaringly obvious.

So what can we do? Students have to practise. We don’t want to be the conduit for all communication in the classroom.

The students must become the masters!

We have to accept the situation and adapt. We cannot be in every room at once listening and giving feedback so we have to ensure someone is

But our students aren’t equipped to give feedback! And they don’t want to hear it from another student

Well then let’s equip them.

Success criteria:

By giving clear success criteria for a speaking task, learners can give each other meaningful feedback and, it’s not as subjective because it’s been laid out clearly beforehand.

But what are success criteria and where do we find them?

Essentially it is what you have taught your students that day. If you want them to discuss their careers and you’ve taught them:

  • To use the present perfect to describe their current situation
  • To use past simple to describe past jobs
  • X,Y,Z vocabulary related to careers
  • The natural pronunciation of present perfect

Then successfully discussing your career means doing the things above.

Some tips:

  1. Negotiate the criteria with your students to increase engagement
  2. Ensure they have a written record of them during the task
  3. Allow students to choose which of the criteria they will focus on and therefore which they want feedback on
  4. Repeat the activity again, giving them the chance to upgrade.

Our learners can take a more active part in the learning process…we just need to give them the tools to do so.

Language in Isolation

These are interesting times we live in. Interesting in that the entire world has been turned upside down but also interesting in terms of how quickly we have all adapted. One thing I’ve found interesting is all of the new lexis that has just snuck into daily use. I don’t think I’ve ever said the word “furlough” before and suddenly the UK government used it one and now I say it 10 to 15 times a day.

This lesson aims to look at some of the new lexis we’ve adopted as well as what I’ve been calling “checking in”. In this Covid era, the words “how are you?” as a greeting are a bit redundant. We know people are not great. Instead we’re seeing questions like “How are you doing?”and “How are you coping?”, meaning “I know it’s gone to crap but how are you surviving?”. With everyone stuck in their homes, online communication is our key form of communication so this lesson uses chatting.

As most of us are teaching online, I’ve chosen to use PowerPoint instead of a handout and  I’ve put some notes on the slides instead of a standard procedure.

  • Level: Intermediate / Upper Intermediate
  • Time: 60-90 minutes (depending on what activities are done outside lesson time)

Materials:

 

Pre-lesson Tasks: the great equaliser

It’s a crazy time right now but out of the madness there are lessons to be learnt. We’ve already written about some lessons we learnt for creating and setting up effective post-lesson tasks but what have we learnt about the pre?

Well, in the many blogs and articles on online teaching, I’ve read since Covid kicked off, I came across someone (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I can’t remember their name or where I came across it to credit them) who referred to them as the great equaliser.

It really struck a chord with me as this was exactly what I was seeing in our school and classrooms. The learners who were responding best to the move from physical classroom to online classroom were the shyer students and those that were at the lower end of their levels. Suddenly they were being given two of the most precious things for a learner: time and guidance. They were able to focus on their weaker areas and come to the lesson prepared. They weren’t playing catch-up in the lesson because they’d done it beforehand.

Now, there’s not a learner out there (at least none that I’ve encountered) with the same competence in every area. Spikey profiles are par for the course in the language learning world. With this in mind pre-lesson tasks offer a unique opportunity to give our students guidance and support to focus on their specific needs. Imagine a world in which each student comes to the online class having focused their preparation on the area they struggle with. Imagine a world in which our students are coming to their lessons having turned their weaknesses into strengths.

Ladies andgentlemen, I give you the world of online teaching.

The question is, when all this is over, what other lessons will we have learnt and will we take those lessons back to our physical classrooms?

Post Lesson Tasks: Your tech is sorted…time to focus on learning

It’s been a crazy few weeks. Weeks in which, we’ve seen our entire industry turned on its head, and the mad scramble as we all tried to adapt and keep up. I think for the most part, we’ve done incredibly well. Schools moved online in days, amazing teachers adapted to new class”room” environments in their own homes.

For many of us the first step was finding a platform. Our emails and Twitter feeds were awash with communication from Zoom, Teams, Swivl and countless others offering their help in these difficult times. Once that was sorted, it was on to training. There were literally more webinars than I could keep up with as we all tried to figure out what a breakout room looked like on various platforms.

It was all a bit crazy but we learnt so much in such a short period and to our credit, classes continued. A truly amazing example of need driving innovation. But now the dust has settled…somewhat, and we have chosen our platforms, our breakout rooms are set up and we’ve, hopefully, carved out a section of our houses in which we can deliver lessons without dogs, cats, children or partners. Now that the tech is sorted, what’s next?

Now, it’s time to move our discussions back to the teaching and learning.

But isn’t good teaching good teaching regardless of online or in a classroom?


Well, yes, of course it is. But for our students, when it comes to online learning, there is a lot more responsibility on the student. Autonomy is no longer something a nice-to-have, it is essential. It’s not quite so easy to set up an activity and then move around the room guiding learners and ensuring they’re on task.

I read an interesting blog post earlier that encouraged me to write this one. Russell Stannard wrote that in his language learning experience, it was the work he did outside the classroom that really helped him to learn. He admits that this was guided by his teacher but it was he who put the work in outside.

This rang very true for me and now more so than ever our learners need clear guidance on post-lesson tasks. With that in mind, below are 3 tips for setting up effective post-lesson tasks. I am no expert in online learning but this is what I’ve gleaned thus far. I’m sure we all have much more to learn.

Tip 1: establish clear partners and guidance on how to chat

This is all new for us but it’s equally so for our learners. They might be used to chatting online socially but doing so for educational purposes might not immediately feel natural. We have to take their feelings into account and make it as easy as possible. Much like happened in my classroom once. I was being a little lazy and my instructions weren’t clear. I realised after a minute into a pair-work activity that one student was working by themselves because their partner had decided they were in a 3. It had become too socially awkward for the student so they’d chosen to work by themselves. Imagine that in an online scenario where someone has to make the first move.

Remember:

  • Give partners and put it in writing
  • Explain how and when they should carry out the task (e.g. immediately after the lesson / on Zoom)

Tip 2: Post-lesson tasks are not the same as homework.

A lot of the post-lesson tasks I’ve been seeing have been similar to traditional homework. While self-study homework is important for consolidation, the beauty of online study is the opportunity for post-lesson collaborative tasks.

These tasks can’t just be straight grammar or vocabulary exercises, instead consider the following:

  • Reflection discussion questions:

Encourage your learners to consider some or all of the following: how what they’re learning is relevant for their lives, how it is different or similar to their language, how it can be applied to the current situation, what else they need to know or learn on this topic / skill / language point.

  • Production tasks:

Once they’ve considered how what they’ve learnt us relevant to them or thought about what else they’d need to learn to make it relevant, it’s time to practise. These tasks should ideally include some practise with their partner(s) and something that is recorded and can be sent to the teacher for feedback, be that a screen-grab of a chat conversation, a recording of a spoken conversation or a written task.

The idea is that learners can practise and get feedback from their partners before they send it through to the teacher.

The issue with this is always how can we expect students to give any meaningful feedback? The answer is Tip 3.

Tip 3: Give clear success criteria for the production tasks

With clear success criteria, students know exactly what to listen/look for in their partners’ production. They’re based on what’s been learnt in the lesson so it’s not new information but the criteria serve as a reminder of what to look for.

An example of success criteria for a production task would be:

Have a conversation with your partner about your plans for the weekend.

A successful conversation will:

  • Begin with present continuous (e.g. what are you doing this weekend?”)
  • Use “be going to” for plans
  • Use the natural pronunciation of “be going to”
  • Have natural replies (e.g. “oh that sounds nice”)

The above ensures that students can give effective feedback without it verging into offensive as it boils it down to what was learnt in the lesson, which makes it that bit more objective. Students can even use them to ask their partners to focus their feedback on a particular area they struggle with.

It’s not a bad idea to spend some time in the lesson discussing how to word effective feedback (e.g. “you used be going to for your plans but you didn’t say gonna like we learnt in the lesson. This could make it sound more natural”)

Hopefully these tips will help you to set up post-lesson tasks that help to consolidate and extend your already wonderful lessons.

Howard’s End: Reading for natural reactions – high level learners

So, the origins of this lesson go back to the sunlight times when I taught the Cambridge Exams. Forster’s Howards End was a set text for, I think, CPE. I always loved the three letters that begin the book and those who have followed this blog for a long time will know a lot of the earlier lessons had a literature base. This then, is a return of sorts.

The text itself gives us the chance to do some Danny Norrington-Davies style grammar activities and the chance to really look at how we examine gist.

As always when I use some Literature in class it is only fair to draw attention to Gillian Lazar’s excellent book: Literature and Language teaching.

There is a lot of reading in this lesson and this gives us the chance to look at prepositions as part of chunks of language.

  • Level: advanced C1/C2 (High upper Ints could maybe manage if scaffolded well)
  • Aim: to examine tone and how it is conveyed in an authentic text
  • Time: 2-3hrs

Materials:

Procedure:

For all of these activities I would recommend asking the students to look on their own first and then work in pairs or groups.

Reading and Reaction

The reading here aims to give the students the chance to react more naturally to the text than the standard gist questions. Answers obviously some are subjective here. Your job is to probe the reasoning. I have put some answers below. I would give them time to read, and then put them into groups to answer the questions.

  1. How old do you think Helen is? (Why?) perhaps young – refers to aunt, whole style of the piece
  2. What is the relationship between Helen and Meg? sisters
  3. Who do you think Tibby might be? brother
  4. Who are the Wilcoxes and where did Meg and Helen meet them? family they met while travelling
  5. What is the impression given of the Wilcoxes? Sporty – different from Helen’s family

However, accept any reasonable answers. Here the key is to encourage the students to engage and come to their own conclusions.

Vocabulary from context and co-text

This activity is about building a skill rather than teaching ‘key’ lexis. We want the students to be able to work out meaning from context and co-text. The students will enver need the word wych-elm, but they will need to be able to see when a lexical set is being referred to as it is here.

  1. it is a tree and they can see this from the following sentence ‘I quite love that tree already’
  2. There are 6:

‘Also ordinary elms, oaks—no nastier than ordinary oaks—pear-trees, apple-trees, and a vine. No silver birches, though’

Focus students on the reflective activity, we want them to know why we have done the task. Ask them where they can use it next.

Grammar Focus

This is about moving away from established rules and looking at why a tense or structure is used and how they work together. This can be important as a lot of students can trot out the rules for tenses but don’t seem then seem to be able to use them productively. This type of activity aims to address that.

  1. mostly present simple as it is a series of descriptions of things as they are now. e.g. ‘it is old and little’
  2. This extract gives the chance to see different tenses interacting.

I looked out earlier, and Mrs. Wilcox was already in the garden. She evidently loves it. No wonder she sometimes looks tired. She was watching the large red poppies come out.

  • Which tenses are used here? past simple / present simple / past continuous
  • What difference in meaning do the different tenses show us here?
  1. Past simple – used for main activity in the anecdote
  2. Present simple – Helen’s comments on it
  3. Past continuous – an activity that happened over a period of time in the anecdote.

The interesting thing here is the present simple which is used in an interesting way. The other two tenses follow what we would expect in a story.

3. Now look at the conditional in the sentence below:

…if you shut your eyes it still seems the wiggly hotel that we expected.

  • What type of conditional is it? Does it refer to present / past / future / all time? 0 conditional talking about all time
  • Why is it used here? I think to give them impression of this being like a dream – the idea of being able to go back to their assumptions about the house and people who live there.

Reading and Reaction II

Now look at the letter again and answer these questions

  1. Is there anything unusual about the letter? things have been omitted, lots of fractured sentences, the use of burn this
  2. What impression does Helen give us about Aunt Juley? that she is boring
  3. Can you think of three adjectives to describe Helen? Any answers fine
  4. Use your phone to find a picture of what she looks like to you and compare with your neighbour. Any answers fine

Reading and Reaction III

All answers in this section are up to the students, you should put them into groups and let the students discuss them before coming together in all class feedback to check them.

Preposition focus

The aim here is to get the students to focus on chunks of text. Too often students think of prepositions without seeing them as part of larger chunks.

There is the secondary aim in that looking in the letters for the answers gives them scanning practise.

  1. We can scarcely pack in as it is
  2. … and there are the stairs going up in a sort of tunnel
  3. I must get on to my host and hostess
  4. … she kept on smelling it
  5. how good of her to come
  6. the others do not take advantage of  her
  7. I laugh at them for catching hay fever

Reflection

These questions are just to make them realise the point of the different activities so put them in groups to discuss and monitor.

There is a lot more you can do with this text if you wanted, but these are some hopefully interesting things.

 

Christmas Invite: “will” & participle clauses

This one is quite grammar heavy but there are a lot of skills in there as well. The biggest one is analysing grammar in context and this lesson draws heavily on Danny Norrington Davies’ idea of asking students “why” a particular language point has been chosen in this particular situation. We’ve really found that doing this little and often encourages our students to ask the same question of the language in the world around them.

Try it out and let us know how it goes.

  • Level: Intermediate / Upper Intermediate
  • Time: 90mins – 2 hours
  • Age: Adults
  • Objective: To be able to write an engaging invite to an event

 

Material:

This time for the material, I’ve gone with a presentation instead of a worksheet. I’ve tried to make the slides as intuitive as possible but let me know if you have any questions.

Email invite

 

 

Christmas Memories: Used to / Would

It’s been a while since we have put any new lessons up but for a very very good reason, which will become apparent in about March 2020.

I couldn’t resist putting up a Christmas lesson and what better to focus on around this period but memories. I know there are many who don’t celebrate Christmas so while this lesson focuses on a Christmas memory, the skills and language that will be learnt can be used for any regular public holiday or festival memory.

As with some of our other lessons on memories, this one focuses on how “used to” and “would” are used together but this one also adds in one-off memories as well.

If this one isn’t enough for you, you can find the previous “used to” lessons: here and here.

  • Level: Upper intermediate & Advanced (could be easily adapted for Intermediate)
  • Objective: by the end of the lesson, you will be better able to describe childhood memories
  • Time: 2-3 hours

 

Materials:

  1. Textploitation used to would
  2. Textploitation used to would teachers notes
  3. Audio 1: Christmas
  4. Audio 2: New Years

 

Enjoy, and as always let us know what you think!!!