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.

Rewordify: website for simplifying a text

So you’ve got a text and it’s ridiculously interesting but it’s just that little bit too difficult for your students…

If you’ve ever been in that situation, you might want to try rewordify. A colleague of mine put me onto this website a few years ago and I thought it was time to pass it on.

The idea is simple: you put your text in and it dumbs it down with helpful synonyms and explanations. You may argue that this isn’t authentic and that it stops the flow of the text and you are probably right. But what I love about this website is it then lets you create worksheets for all of the trickier words.

Here are two ways I have used it in the past:

  1. I simplify a newspaper article on a current issue for a lower level class. We work through the trickier language using the worksheets. I then let them watch a news segment on the same topic and discuss the topic. The worksheets have allowed them to both understand the video and discuss it.
  2. When teaching CAE and CPE, encouraging them to show off or upgrade their language in their writing can be difficult. I like to dumb down a text using this website and set them the task of upgrading it. I then get them to compare it to the original and see how they did.

It’s a great little website. Check it out and let us know how you use it.

If you’d like to learn about more useful websites, check out this blog.

Hand in hand, arm in arm, we all read together…

I should say that this is not a lesson but rather an idea to put into your reading lessons.

Recently at my school we were running some sessions on developing reading skills and I remembered a website I used to use quite a lot to help students read more quickly and to read in chunks instead of one word at a time.

The idea is simple:

  1. Choose a text
  2. Copy it into online teleprompter software
  3. Choose the speed
  4. Set the task
  5. We all read together…

For students who tend to read one word at a time instead of in chunks, it forces their hand a little.

There are just a few things to take into consideration though:

  • Your students may find it stressful at first. It’s very important that you explain to the students what you are doing and why you are doing it.
  • The task must be appropriate. It should probably just be a gist question as you are asking them to skim read the text really.
  • It’s important that you don’t just test their reading skills. You have to help them to develop. After choral reading, discuss how they felt, what their strategies were. Discourage them from reading one word at a time.

My favourite website to use is this one as it’s easy to use and soooooooooooooo free.

Check it out and let us know how you get on.

(T)ex(t)ploiting a coursebook listening text

So this one is not a lesson as such but more an idea for your lessons.

Coursebooks are rich resources for texts and sadly, due to completely understandable constraints (space / industry traditions / overall themes of a book / editor pressure) they are very often under-used. Listening exercises tend to test comprehension or act as a vehicle for uncovering the target language. While this is a totally valid use of a listening text, I’ve often asked myself if perhaps we could be exploiting them further.

Recently a teacher came to me with a problem. She had finished her double page spread as per her plan, her students had really nailed the controller and freer practice and she had dealt with feedback. All in all, a perfect lesson. But, she had been left with 30 mins in the class so she has dragged out feedback a little and then let them start on some of their homework. She hadn’t really been satisfied with how the class had ended and wondered if I had any advice.

I suggested revisiting the listening text from earlier in the lesson. There is so much that can be done. What follows are just a few ideas that you should be able to apply to almost any listening text.

Reflection:

The idea here is to encourage sts to think about why they struggled (if they did) with comprehension. This can then inform what part of the text you examine. It also means learners don’t just blame their “bad listening”, there will always be something we can teach them that will improve things.

  • What percentage of this text do you feel you understood?
  • What did you find difficult about this listening?
  • What would help you to understand it better?

Pronunciation for listening skills:

The main idea is that if students don’t know it is possible, they won’t hear it. Consider “do you want to” versus /juhwanna/. We cannot expect a learner to know that they are the same. They do not expect written English to vary so drastically from spoken English. It is our job to highlight the differences, little and often.

  • Listen to the text with the transcript. Encourage sts to underline chunks that sound different to what they would expect.
  • Highlight one or two chunks in the text that sound different to the expected written form. Drill them, encourage sts to write personalised sentences and then drill them.
  • Highlight one feature of spoken English (schwa for articles / final consonant & initial vowel linking / stressed words at the end of a sentence or clause) and then encourage sts to listen for other examples within the text.

Speaking skills:

Very often coursebook texts will work on functional language for conversations but if you revisit the text, you may find something else that will help them with their speaking.

  • Give sts the transcript and ask them to mark a circle above words they think will be stressed (spoken clearly). Then listen and check. Examine which words tend to be stressed (info words: nouns/verbs/adj/adv)
  • Do the same but ask them to mark when the speaker pauses with a slash. Listen and check. Notice it tends to be at the end of a sentence, after a comma or after a linking word. This will help sts with the flow of spoken English.
  • Examine any fillers in the text. It might seem strange but the noises we make in one language can be very different to another. Take for example the Turkish /tch/ that simply means “no” but in English can signal a lack of respect or interest and can be quite offensive. It’s worth pointing these differences out.

Learner training:

What we really want are learners that can analyse texts by themselves, that notice chunks, that don’t really need us. If done little and often, these exercises can help create these super students.

  • Ask sts to underline any prepositions on the transcript. Notice what their function is. Are they linked to an adjective, are they part of a phrase, are they related to time or movement? Prepositions are so often overlooked but by drawing their attention to them in context we can avoid having to do lengthy preposition lessons.
  • Get sts to underline any interesting chunks in the text. Discuss the meaning, drill the pron and ask them to choose 2 that they will use in conversation that week. Remember to get them to think about how they will use it. They must plan the context. Make sure you follow up with them at the end of the week or they will never do it again.

So, just a few ways you could revisit your listening texts the next day or during the lesson. Just because the coursebook hasn’t had time to look at these, doesn’t mean you don’t. And remember, I don’t expect you to do all of these for every text. That would be insanity and you’d never get anything done.

The key is little and often!

So try some out and let us know how it goes.

Planning for planning

So, this idea came about today in class. It is just a short one and won’t take up much class time but it may, just may, get your students planning. I’m hoping it will mine.

As I have mentioned before, I spend a lot of my time teaching exam classes, and so writing is a big part in my lessons. One of the things I constantly hear in class is:

“but we don’t have time to plan”

I am sure you have heard that one too. For years I have been getting students to write down as many words about a topic as they can in a minute to prove that they do in fact have time to plan, the logic being that it shows them how much they can actually write in one single minute.

Today, I took things a step further. Having reminded them of the need to plan and having been confronted by nodding students, who I could tell were going to do no such thing, I decided to prove to them the value. Luckily my plan worked. Here it goes:

  • ask students to write down as much as they can about a topic, I chose last weekend, but anything that they will be able to write something about is good.
  • ask them to count the number of words and do group feedback – I had minimum 7, max 21.
  • then ask them in pairs to discuss their plans for next weekend. I gave them 2 mins so that both would have chance to speak.
  • ask them to write down their plans for next weekend as quickly as they can.
  • ask them to count the words – I had minimum 22, max 49

Hopefully the second far outweighs the first, it did in mine and they looked shocked, which was gratifying.

I now got them to look at the two examples, though some had very little in the first. Looking for errors to correct. In general, the second had fewer errors, was more interestingly written and contained double the words.

Case closed!

You could extend it then by asking them to write more, or then as I did to ask them to look at an exam task.

Either way, I found it a handy way to drive home the importance of planning and it did seem to make a difference to their attitude. Let’s see when I mark their writing!

Creating your own listening texts – One sided phone conversations

We recently ran a CPD in our school, EC LONDON, on creating your own listening texts and (t)exploiting them in the classroom. In preparation for this, we created a simple listening and used it in the CPD. This is the lesson that goes with this listening.

You can use the audio below or alternatively, you could just create your own.

ONE-SIDED PHONE CONVERSATIONS

The idea is to record your side of a functional phone conversation and then use it in class to teach the language of that function. We chose 2 close friends, confirming plans for later that day as the function. A good idea is to just give yourself a function and then record yourself speaking into your phone without planning too much. This usually results in a more natural recording with:

  1. false starts
  2. natural functional language
  3. natural pronunciation (connected speech)

It’s also fun. Try it out.

Level: Pre-int and above

Time: 2 – 3 hours

Audio

ProcedureProcedure one sided convos

After we used this lesson in a workshop at IATEFL, we spoke with the wonderful Richard Cauldwell (if you haven’t come across his blog or his book, I highly suggest you take a look) and he very kindly made some suggestions on additions to this lesson. I’ve included them below along with the audio files he created for us from our original recording.

His idea is that we tend to teach connected speech “rules” or “patterns” but the reality of what we say in ordinary natural speech is far different from what we think we say and we really need to be preparing our students for what is actually being said. He proved this by taking a few snippets from our recording.

when you play this snippets you can really hear that what we think we’re saying is not always the reality. Either at the end or at the beginning of this lesson play these recordings for your students in isolation and just spend a few minutes with them trying to work out what’s being said. Then play the whole recording and see if they can get it.

Little and often is the key here I think. If you’re going to play a real recording, try taking a snippet of it and breaking down the reality of natural speech for your students. Otherwise we’re only preparing them for coursebooks!

Tip: There is software that you can buy that will help you with the above but Audacity is one that I’ve been recommended that is free and reasonably easy to use.

 

.

The write stuff – CPD

So, this was a session that I did with some teachers at our school, EC, a few years back, it got great feedback at the time and I am constantly pleased to see that some of the ideas from it are still being used in our classrooms today.

If you have used many of the writing materials posted on the site you will probably recognise some of the ideas if not actual full exercises here.  The idea of the CPD was to try to get teachers thinking about teaching writing, and what that involves rather than just setting writing.  There is an accompanying booklet that goes with the CPD as I don’t think there is much point in giving teachers ideas without giving them a helping hand to put them into practice.  They are busy and often won’t have time to plan a lesson using the new ideas so anything that can be done to make it easier for them to implement ideas is a good thing in my book.

The procedure below is just a talk through the power point which you can download below.

The session format is more workshop than lecture, you need to give the teachers chance to discuss a few of the points.

Procedure:

Slide 2

  1. Discussion – The beginning is all about finding out what teachers do, some may have great practice already, doesn’t mean a refresher won’t help, some may not do so much, it is good to find out why.

1.1 Get them to check against the list on the screen, not all of them are good practice, in my opinion.  Now ask them to discuss why they do these things.

Slide 3

1.2 Answer reveal – this is how i would divide them, this may create discussion, which is the idea, but explain there is nothing wrong with any of the activities on the ‘No, something else’ side, but that they are not teaching writing.

Slide 4

2.1 The focus of this is to ask teachers why model answers are useful.  There is a whole lesson on this on the site.

https://textploitationtefl.wordpress.com/2015/07/26/model-answers/

Discussion – In pairs or groups ask them to discuss for maybe 5 minutes and then do a group feedback session.

The answers should be:

  • Can we assume that students will know what particular types of writing should look like?

No, task types can be different in different languages and writing types don’t necessarily translate

  • How does the student benefit from a model of the type of writing you are using?

They can see what you want them to produce, we all need this.  Also exposes them to the vocan and grammar that is appropriate for the type of writing and other features that make up register.

  • What happens when students aren’t given a model?

They don’t give you the piece of writing you want.  disappointed teacher, disappointed student, less motivation on both parts, downward spiral and so on etc.

Slide 5

This slide focuses on layout, again key in many styles of writing and something that is too often taken for granted.

3.1 Ask the teachers what styles of writing these are and how they know, ask if they think their students would know and why / why not?

Answers: letter – report – essay

What is the difference in layout? – letters have rules for how they are laid out – the report is normally divided into sections – essay features longer paragraphs etc

Why do students need to know these? – if they don’t, how will they write them?

Slide 6

Style and register – again this was looked at elsewhere, here in fact

https://textploitationtefl.wordpress.com/2015/06/10/how-can-i-write-it-if-i-dont-know-what-it-is/

4.1 Ask the teachers to briefy discuss the two questions on the slide and do whole group feedback

answers should include – you get inappropriate writing, or the styles are all mixed up. a very negative effect on the reader.

Slide 7

4.2 Show them the example and ask them what is wrong, for extra interactive work you could ask them to quickly rewrite a paragraph.

Obviously it is far too formal, but I am sure many of us have had a slightly less extreme version of this.  In my experience if shown this many students would be unable to say what was wrong and many might think it was very good.

Slide 8

Planning and editing

5.1 Ask the teachers to decide what other benefits of planning could be, maybe ask them to shout them out and then reveal.

Slide 9

Just acts as a reinforcement of importance of planning.  I find students who don’t plan have many mistakes in their first paragraph, normally as they have directly translated from their own language.  These can be lessened, if not eradicated, by planning in detail.

Slide 10

Lesson ideas, probably a good time to hand out the accompanying booklet, so they can see what each one is.

Materials:

As I said earlier, this was a session that we ran at our school, it was quite successful, feel free to use it and let us know how it goes, or feel free to adapt it and change bits around.

A quick guide to exploiting articles.

During a peak period when my teaching hours went up to 37.5 hours a week, I have to admit that the time I spent planning went down accordingly. I just didn’t have the time. But, I didn’t want to deliver sub-standard lessons and I still wanted them to be relevant and using authentic texts. So I developed a quick and easy way of turning an article into a lesson.

I’ve attached a template below that you can adapt as well as some step by step instructions and an example lesson using the same format.

It’s not perfect by any means as every group and every article is different but it should be enough to get you started.

  1. Lesson template
  2. Example

Step by Step:

  1. Reading: Scan or copy the picture from the article and place it beside the headline at the top of the worksheet. When you hand it to the students, fold the sheet over so they can only see these two parts.
  2. Scan or copy the entire article and place it below the headline / picture.
  3. Vocab Focus: Pull out some words / phrases from the text that you think will help the students to understand the text or that they might be interested in learning. (practising the skill of finding the words from the context is the real aim here).
  4. Organise the vocab so that they have the word form and a synonym or definition. This will help them to find them in the text.
  5. Discussion: The aim here is to get them to engage with the text. It’s not just about comprehension. Give them questions that encourages them to share their opinions and to think critically.
  6. Language focus: This doesn’t need to be a massive grammar lesson (although it can be) but the key is to get the learners to analyse a piece of language in context. Pull out an interesting language chunk and ask them why this tense has been used or if it could be rephrased. Get them looking at verb patterns and how prepositions are being used.
  7. Follow-up: As a follow-up you could encourage writing. Students could try to summarise the article, they could rewrite it as a story or they could write a similar article using the same vocab and style.