Student family trees

This is a great activity for maximizing student speaking time. It’s an activity that you can do at the A1 level, but it remains interesting to students up through any level because they love learning about each other and talking about their families.

Bear in mind: If you think your students won’t like sharing, skip this one.

How it works

One student is invited to the whiteboard and handed a marker. This student is forbidden from speaking. (I’m not strict about this part.)

Another student has to turn their chair away from the board, so that they can’t see the whiteboard. This student’s family tree will be drawn.

The other students are responsible to help the student at the board draw the family tree. They take turns asking question of the student facing away from the board. Things like “Are you married?” “Do you have children?”

The rest of the group need to watch the family tree being drawn. If they think there is a mistake, they have to ask a clarifying question “Is Susie your sister or your daughter?”

Observations or off-topic comments are encouraged. “Only girls!” Or “your mother has seven children!” are the exact responses you want. (How often are A1 students able to say the things they want to say? Let them!)

The end of the game

At the end of the activity, the student who turned away from the whiteboard turns back around. They examine the family tree and tell the group if the family tree is accurate or not.

Before you erase the family tree, you can use it to review a few other fields of vocab, if you want to. “Where does Susie live?” “What is Johnny’s job? Does he like it?” “Is your grandmother still alive? How old is she?”

Plan more than you do

As I try to improve the quality of my lesson planning — having better plans for each lesson, as well as between lessons — I’ve learned the value of planning to do more than I can actually get done in the lesson.

Lessons in tempo

Here’s a fun fact about me: I hate teaching kids. I do it. Apparently, I do it sufficiently well (parents ask for me), but I do not enjoy it. But, all of my non-enjoyment is worth it because it was kids’ lessons that taught me the importance of tempo in lessons.

Kids are unforgiving. If they get even a tiny bit bored, they get distracted. The lesson has to keep moving, has to catch and hold their attention. And, the thing that works best for that — in my lessons — is to never stick with one activity for very long.

And the thing is this: just because adults are more polite — and better trained — it’s not like they don’t get distracted. Learning to make higher-tempo lessons helped me make my adult lessons more engaging. (And makes it easier to prevent the ‘I have to say this in German’ moments I mentioned in my post on L1 use.)

Write down more than you think you have time to do

As a result of this, I’ve learned that there’s a value to planning more than you think you have time to do. That means that, as the teacher, I have to keep an eye on the time and where we are in the plan because I want to successfully end with correcting the previous week’s homework and assigning the next homework. It’s on me to know if we’re going to skip an activity or rush a conversation. (Fun fact: a rushed conversation is better than one that goes on too long.)

If I leave out a grammar point, nobody is upset (as long as grammar is still in most lessons — Germans seem to expect grammar, even if they tell you they don’t want it). And, if a routine activity gets skipped, there’s a good chance they won’t notice.

However, if a conversation has to be stretched in order to make the time, they will notice and think that the teacher came to the lesson unprepared. Even more, a series of short activities makes the lesson seem to go faster and students who walk out thinking “was that ninety minutes? Are we finished already?” are participants who will like their lessons. (And that’s more important than you might think.)

Be a teaching ninja – activities you can include

Most of the language schools I have taught for suggest — or command — a pretty similar course structure: warmup, conversation, grammar. You’d think your lesson plan will include three points. (Or, that’s what a younger version of me thought.)

Sometimes, though, I plan well enough that I finish the lesson feeling like a teaching ninja. The trick is breaking each point down into separate activities.

I’m a big fan of student-led activities (post on them coming soon!) and planning one of them as a ritual ending of the conversation part gives me something I can drop, if the conversation is great (or, just as likely, is derailed into a discussion of something else which is better than what I planned).

Where my old three-point lesson plans might have just said “prepositions of place” under grammar, I now try to have a review activity planned for the previous lesson’s grammar as well as some way of including new grammar (tag “prepositions of time review” onto that “prepositions of place” lesson). I don’t want to pretend that I’m always able to do this, but my best lessons then have both the old and the new grammars being reviewed at once. (Put lists of places and times on the board and have them form sentences: “On the weekend I want to have a coffee in the city.”)

In most of my groups, I have an EFL reading worksheet from New Spork City that I pass out as ‘voluntary homework.’ In my lesson plans, I make a note of what happened in the last worksheet to include a quick “Who read the last story? Is that how your family plans meals? Do you make your meal plans day-by-day or once for the whole week?” It’s not something I’d include in each lesson — it’s voluntary homework — but it keeps the tempo going and adds an extra conversation point. (I wouldn’t plan twenty minutes on meal planning, but five minutes is perfect.)

Practice makes perfect

The whole point of this blog is to help me improve as a teacher. I can’t pretend that I do these things well in every lesson. However, the more I try to do it, the better I get at it.

The same way that you get better at teaching the present perfect and present progressive each time you do it, you’ll find that the more you try to think of extra activities you can pack into a lesson, the more activities you’ll have in your toolbox.

What are the kinds of things that you do to keep your lessons moving along? Are there any activities that you use to fill your classroom?

In Defense of L1 Use in the Classroom

On my other blog, I’ve already written about this. I think that a new blog is an excuse to revisit the topic again.


There’s a truism in English language instruction that using the students’ language in the classroom slows — or even prevents — learning. I’ve even heard school managers say that they prefer not to hire teachers who speak the students’ language for fear that it will be overused in the classroom.

I have some thoughts about this. The summary is that L1 (the students’ first language) is a tool like any other. It’s no less welcome in the classroom that PowerPoint.

Why L1 use is problematic

There’s a risk that, as soon as students realize the teacher speaks their language, they won’t try as hard to communicate in English. It’s a real risk. I can’t count the number of times that students have said to me — or to the other students — “das kann ich nicht auf Englisch sagen” before explaining something to the group.

Then, this concept that can’t be expressed in English becomes a topic. Sure, the teacher can provide the vocab quickly. But what if the grammar is beyond their reach?

It’s the teacher’s fault

There was a younger version of me who quickly became frustrated with the students. “It’s a language lesson. If they can’t say it in English, they should just sit on it until they can.”

Stupid students.

But, it’s not their fault. My realization was creeping. First, I realized that I don’t get to select for students. And, obviously, just talking to them doesn’t help. It’s human nature to want to share.

In fact, I realized, I worked hard to create an atmosphere where they felt comfortable sharing. I worked hard to start a conversation that they wanted to be a part of. After all that, why wouldn’t they switch to German?

The students aren’t stupid. It was the stupid teacher who either lost control of the conversation or chose a topic that wasn’t appropriate to the classroom’s language level.

In general, the solution is to keep the conversations shorter. To keep them a bit more superficial until students have the language skills they need. And, of course, to use the reduced time to include more speaking activities.

Why use L1 at all, then?

I had a funny experience applying at the language school where I do most of my teaching now. The school — located in Germany — is run by a French woman who teaches English and French. I showed up on time and was welcomed in.

We spoke for fifteen minutes or so in German about my teaching history and philosophy. Then, she laughed and asked, almost apologetically, if it would be okay if we switched to English. “I just want to hear how you speak,” she said. I was the first native speaker (still the only native speaker at a school staffed with Germans who teach English) who’d arrived and didn’t immediately say “I’m more comfortable in English.”

“That’s good,” she said. “It’s important you can speak German.” From explaining where the toilets are, or the parking rules, or summarizing a grammar lesson, she expected her teachers to be able to communicate with the students in German.

It was liberating to be allowed to use German (so many schools say it’s part of their philosophy not to use it at all) and I’ve realized a few things: 1) students respect your language learning expertise more if they know you’ve learned a language and 2) there are a ton of words that can be explained simply by writing it on the board. Germans might not know the word “laser” when they hear it, but when they read it, everything is clear.

Even more, it helps to understand what the students are trying to tell you when they use figurative language. “What little Hans doesn’t learn, big Hans will never learn” — “I think you mean, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.'” — “Is it different in English?” — “It is.”

Translating from L1

More than any of those reasons, there are two situations in which L1 use seems called for in the lesson to me. The first, is when students say “Hmm. How do I say redselig?” and I answer “you know the word for gesprächig, is it really different?” “Right! Talkative!”

Naturally, we hope that students learn to find synonyms on their own, but they come to me for help. With time, they learn the strategy of “hmm, I’ve stumbled across a word I know in German that I don’t know in English. What other, similar words could I use?”

And this is a specific example of a more general situation. Students want to relate something they’ve experienced, heard, said or read in German. It’s going through their head in German and they’re basically translating it as they go, rather than spontaneously combining vocab in English.

This happens all the time. On vacation, they’re making small talk to acquaintances and they want to tell a funny story that is a core part of their personality. Or, very frequently for some of my students, they’re communicating with customers in a conversation they can have on autopilot in German. And they hit phrases left and right which they can’t translate.

Translating from German to English, my students assure me, is much harder than translating from English to German. And no matter what the language school’s philosophy is, it’s an important part of how they use English.

Some guidelines

My use of L1 is informed by a few guidelines: does my use of L1 contribute to my students’ work towards their goals? (This can range from language-specific goals to the goals of creating an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable, or praising their progress when they’re still close to it to see it.) Are students ready to quickly switch back to English once L1 has been used? Do they understand that L1 is something we rely on to support the lessons, not supplant them? Do I feel as though I’m in control of L1 use, or do students use it to try and take control?

Conclusion

If you teach for a school where L1 use isn’t encouraged or even allowed, maybe you’re lucky that you don’t have to think about this. On the other hand, though, if you get to use L1 in your classroom, I suggest it can be done well.

How do you handle this? Do you even speak your students’ native language? When do you use it in the classroom?

English is a Circle

Obviously, English isn’t a circle. But, thinking about it as one has made me a bit of a better teacher, I think.

The premise

I guess you can imagine that there is a circle that accurately represents all the things you need to learn to ‘master English’ (whatever that means). In the center, you might see ‘simple present’ and, clustered around it, ‘simple past’ and ‘present progressive.’ I don’t know. I don’t exactly know what the circle looks like, yet.

english-is-a-circle
A rough idea…

Your idea of how the circle is organized might be different (and more accurate!) than mine. The point is: it’s a circle and we start in the center.

I view it as an abstract thing that I build together with my students (they don’t know we’re building it, it’s more a thing that helps me think about how to best help them). We start in the center of the circle and, like an Army conquering territory, we push the front outwards and try to solidify our gains. And, of course, sometimes I do a less spectacular job and we inadvertently abandon hard-won territory.

(I genuinely didn’t mean for this to become so militaristic.)

How it works in practice

That’s the important question, right? How do I apply this to my teaching?

I guess my last view of English was as a checklist: master this, move on to that. Now, I see it as a circle that we have to expand… and which is always trying to contract. So, instead of thinking “we learned this grammar, let’s focus on the next vocabulary unit,” I think “okay, we just pushed the border of the circle a bit in this direction. What can we do to solidify our gains? How can I reinforce this while reinforcing something else, or learning something new?”

Even more, it’s important to understand that all of this connects to effort. Assuming the students (and the poor teacher, don’t forget him!) have a limited amount of energy, we want to spend that energy wisely. So, there are some things to know:

  1. In the beginning, just formin the circle is work. That is because everywhere in the circle is very near to the edge when it is so small, which connects to the next point:
  2. The closer you get to the edge of the circle the more effort you need per unit of time. This is true for time spent in my German circle (yes, German is a circle, too!) I can converse in German all day, but ask me to read or write — things much closer to my own limits — and I get tired quickly.
  3. The circle will contract if you abandon it. Maybe thinking of it as a bubble in your brain is better: if you don’t work to keep the bubble inflated, all the other bubbles will expand and push it back together.
  4. The circle expands and contracts unevenly. Mathematically speaking, it’s probably never a perfect circle. You push in one direction and cover some ground. While you’re working on it, entropy nibbles at the ground you’ve covered before.
  5. You have to respect the energy level of your students. Not just that they might be tired, but also that they might need to invest energy into other things. This is something you can talk about with them. (“Our progress here will depend on many factors. One of them is the amount of energy you have available for your English learning…”)

What a lesson looks like

More than ‘conquering territory,’ I tend to think of each lesson as a workout. When I’m structuring a lesson, I have a few goals:

  1. Let’s all get into the circle. Not just the students, but also me. I have to re-acquaint myself with these students’ current skill level. (Think of this as the light stretching before the workout.)
  2. Let’s take a few laps of the territory that is solidly within the circle, having a conversation (or other activity) that covers the things we know. (Think of this as the warm-up that gets your heart going.)
  3. Once we’re warmed up, let’s make our first push in some direction. It’s easiest, if we can deliberately use what we’ve learned already to support this. But, let’s not burn out too easily. (Think of these as individual ‘sets’ ina workout. One set isn’t enough for real growth, and you don’t want to overdo it on any one set.)
  4. After we’ve put in a solid effort, let’s back off and recoup a little. This can be taking a moment to laugh about something that happened, another review activity, checking the homework, or the teacher being willing to relax his “let’s focus people!” approach and allowing the conversation to wander. (Think of this as the break between sets.)
  5. Let’s make another push in the direction that we want to move. After we’ve caught our breath, let’s do it again. I feel like an amazing teacher if I can make three different pushes in the same direction in a lesson. The students might see it as a single block of ‘grammar,’ but I know that it was a properly structured workout.

In the greater scheme of things

For a long time, I’ve felt confident about my ability to put together well-constructed lessons. However, the lessons I’ve made didn’t always string together into much more than blocks of three or four lessons.

However, this circle metaphor — combined with the workout idea — has helped. First, because I have an idea of what territory we’ve covered (and need to defend) and what territory we want to cover (most students don’t need — or, probably, want — to speak English the way that I do).

It’s not new to me that students need review. Where I think that this has helped has been in understanding the students’ own energy levels and how hard you can expect them to work. (After all, it’s not tiring for me to focus on simple past!)

Have I re-invented the wheel?

Writing this, I’m mostly afraid that someone is going to say “These are the things that you would have learned in serious teacher training. How can you just now be learning this?” Or, perhaps worse, “this is an outdated way of thinking about the language learning process.”

I don’t know.

What do you think? Is this something that every teacher knows and I’m just playing catch-up? Or, is this way of thinking as helpful for you as it is for me?

Conversation Drills

I mentioned conversation drills in my first post on my trouble group. I thought I’d explain them here.

The drill

The teacher walks into the classroom. Or, more frequently, the teacher is in the classroom, laughing with the students in German and suddenly it’s time for class to start. The teacher says the most ridiculous thing: “William, what is your name?”

The class laughs, but William answers. “My name is William.”

In some versions of the drill, the teacher writes ‘name’ on the board. Then, the teacher asks “where are you from?”

“I am from Dresden.” William answers.

The teacher is also from Dresden, but he asks. “Dresden? Is that in France?” Maybe the teacher writes ‘hometown’ on the board.

“No, it’s a city in Germany. In the east of Germany.” William answers.

The conversation continues for a few more questions. Advanced students like to tease the teacher by adding “and you?” at the end of their answers. Others begin writing the sentences that they’ll need for this conversation down. (Especially if spelling is a part.)

Then, when the conversation has covered everything, the teacher says “Great! William, now you ask Andrea!” And the whole thing continues. If William forgets to ask Andrea where she’s from, the teacher can point to the word ‘hometown’ on the board.

Students make mistakes. That’s okay. Everyone knows the answers when the other students are speaking, but when they’re in the spotlight, they choke up. That’s fine.

As the drill continues, everyone has a turn. If students are getting bored — if they can cover more material — the teacher can change up the conversation after half of them have been through it.

Why drill like this?

This is a drill that fits into my concept that English is a circle. It gets students into the circle, and gives them a chance for a feeling of success. The school where I do most of my teaching now has an emphasis on speaking, and I routinely get students who learned English somewhere else and can explain the grammar and pass a vocabulary quiz, but who just can’t speak.

Starting with a few basic sentences — or, if your students speak better, a few basic structures — and drilling them gives them a chance to “make a switch in their heads” (student wording, not my own) and to relax into the feeling of “people around me are speaking English. I understand them.” If they’re lucky, they’ll even get to the point where they understand even a few things without translating in their minds.

My sense is that the adults I teach come to me already convinced that they are too old to learn a language. Giving them the opportunity to feel successful in even a small way is a great way to start the lesson on a positive note.

Further, it’s part of my continuing campaign to make the English lesson a place that people want to come to. After all, after a long day at work, they could just as easily decide that they’re ‘too tired’ for a lesson and text me they’re busy. But, miss one lesson and you’re afraid of the next.

Beginning with a feeling of success — for some people, I think, the only time in the day they get to feel they’re good at something — makes the English lesson they can look forward to, even if they’re tired.

The “Trouble Group”

I grew up surrounded by education. When the teachers in the family talked about ‘troubled kids’ or a ‘trouble class,’ it meant there was something wrong with the kids. (In the 1980s, kids still had things wrong with them. I don’t know what today’s vocabulary is.)

That’s not what I’m talking about.

The trouble is me

When you’re blessed enough to have students who are engaged in class and do the homework, any difficulties you have are not because something is wrong with the students. It’s because something is wrong with you, as a teacher.

The trouble, it turns out, is me.

And, as the next block of lessons begins for my “trouble group,” I want to fix the trouble.

The group

I have a group of five students who pay regularly to come to lessons, and who have been coming for years. (I’m the third or so teacher.) But, where there isn’t much forward progress.

In my time with the students, there hasn’t been much forward progress, because there never was. A previous teacher abandoned the book when it became clear that they’d covered more material in the book than they had mastered in reality, meaning that “moving forward” in the book detracted from class time.

I inherited the group and tried for a year to run a conversation class, the way I would with an A2 or B1 group. But we never moved forward.

Since I started working on teaching vocab better (you’ll get tired of me and vocab, I’ll cover that somewhere else), we’ve mastered vocabulary, but the group is not great at forming sentences.

Some things that have helped

This is the class with which I pioneered bringing a student up to the board every lesson to do the same activity each week. (Same activity, different student.) Doing it once for each person meant that we had five weeks of the same thing, giving the ‘mental muscle memory’ time to form with basic questions.

In addition, planning activities that I can do once, but then put in the hands of a participant has helped. Because this group is good at vocabulary, but not great at producing language, activities where the leader only needs a few fixed questions and instructions worked well.

The plan

In the past, I sort of coupled this group on with my other low-level groups for material, but I shied away from doing some of the drills that are commonplace in lower levels. After all, they’ve learned English for so long that to basically ‘reboot’ the class would be to reinforce that they haven’t received what they paid for.

I realize, now, on an intellectual level, that I’ve done them a disservice. Nonetheless, it’ll be hard. Tomorrow, when I go into that classroom, my goal is going to be to do the drill conversations. Not for half an hour, but to make it our new “welcome to the lesson” ritual.

I’d like to quickly establish a new ‘routine’ for the class that includes the drill in the beginning (because English is a circle — I’ll write on that, soon, too), a bit of small talk, a student-led activity and then a worksheet or something similar. It’s more than I include in a normal lesson, but it keeps each lesson component somewhat shorter, meaning we should be less frustrated with the repetition.

As for grammar, I printed a list of grammars that are needed to be at an A2 level. One of my more general goals for the near future (not just for this lesson) is to get better at ‘stacking grammar’ so that, after one grammar is reviewed, we continue to stress it in some kind of structured (for me, even if the students don’t perceive it that way) manner until it has become truly automatic.

Part of the grammar stacking will be in the conversation drills. Part will be in worksheets and homework. But there need to be other parts, as well.

The Journeyman

Hi, my name is Toby and this will be a blog about me. Not to confuse it with the other blog about me, this will be a blog about me as an EFL teacher. And, while I know what I — the guy on this side of the keyboard — plan to get out of it, I’m not sure what’s in it for you. But, I think it might be more than nothing.

What’s in it for me

Even if nobody reads this blog, I think it’s a good idea for me. The fact of the matter is, reflecting in writing  has always been a good strategy for me. There’s something deliberate and intentional about forcing your ideas into (more or less) well-formed sentences. It slows you down, it gives you a chance to hear that other, more critical voice that might have been drowned out.

So, after more than a decade in teaching EFL in Germany, I’ve learned to embrace the idea that I’m a journeyman EFL teacher, as defined at Dictionary.com: “any experienced, competent, but routine worker or performer.” I’m the kind of teacher who my boss can send to a company and know I’ll do a solid job.

But I’m not amazing. And I’m not sure I want to be. (It turns out that amazing teachers get paid the same amount as solid teachers and seem to invest a lot more of their time per unit of teaching time.)

Nonetheless, I had a realization this spring that I could either spend the rest of my life going through the motions that I have learned and always be ‘a solid teacher,’ but slowly learn to hate my job. (And, probably, to hate Germany.) Or, I could make myself responsible for enjoying my job more.

That’s what this blog is going to be about: my experiments and adventures in having fun teaching EFL in Germany.

What’s in it for you

There’s a thing that Germans say about teachers: “They’re right in the morning and free in the afternoon.” And, while I am not always free in the afternoon, I have gotten comfortable with the idea of being right in front of a group.

To that end, there are going to be several blog posts on what I’ve found to be the ‘right way to teach.’ They might be beneficial to you. They might also offer you an opportunity to correct me. And I invite corrections, because I’m certainly game to improve, provided it doesn’t mean a higher per-unit investment of my time.

Further, my first immediate project — in addition to codifying what I think I’ve learned about teaching — will be blogging about some ‘troublesome’ groups that I teach. I think that taking a pseudo-scientific approach might be good for them. (Pseudo-scientific in the sense of “Here’s what I want to accomplish. Here is what I’m going to try. After x number of lessons, I’m going to reflect on whether it worked or not.” There will be no control groups.) Maybe you have similar challenges and, even if you can’t share solutions, coming along for the ride might help.

Is there more I can do for you? Let me know?