Category: teaching techniques

I need better paperwork

Paperwork is often maligned in English. In fact, I’ve even had (German) students who took offense at some example sentences such as “I just have some paperwork to do before I got home.” Or “all that’s left to do is the paperwork.”

Paperwork, to some it seems, is essential.

Slowly, I’m learning why.

And I’m learning it the hard way: by not having a really great, structured system of record-keeping. I need that.

My system now

The current situation

When I got serious about vocabulary, I made some pretty solid record-keeping worksheets for vocabulary. They still form the backbone of my record keeping. Basically, I have an attendance sheet that I make — it helps me learn the names, as well as being honest about who attended if that becomes a question later — and the vocab worksheets.

That leaves me with a packet of six or so papers–the attendance sheet and five vocab sheets–bound together. I add any other material that we’ve worked on or that I’ve handed out to the bottom of this stack in chronological order.

When I realize that there are more and better things that I could be doing, I make a note to myself and put it on top of the attendance sheet. That’s great for recording that train of thought that you have at the end of the lesson (“a great idea would be to come back and work on family vocabulary and use that as an excuse to drill questions”) but it’s insufficient for really planning out something that’s several lessons long. You know, when you have the inspiration that “we could work towards this goal, by hitting on these intermediate steps…”

I don’t do that well. Partly, I use my to-do list app, and sometimes calendar reminders. But, well, I’m dissatisfied.

What I want

I’m not sure what I want. Here are some of the things I’d like to be able to record and read at a glance:

  • Which “special topics” have we covered already (I do special lessons on Greek myths, but each myth only once per group. After three years, how should I know which ones I’ve covered where?)
  • Which topics have the group requested to cover?
  • Which grammars have we intentionally practiced? How often? When was the last time?
  • Which grammars do I think will need to be practiced in the future?
  • What sort of framework do I have in mind for the next six or so lessons? This has to be something that can be changed and altered and still be readable as I plan. (These requirements, I should add, are the things that make this seem hardest for me.)
  • I think I’m ready to go from a single stack of papers per group to two stacks: one for the material, so I can reference it while leading a conversation, and one for my to record vocab to review and my notes on planning.

I’ll post when I get a system going that seems to make sense to me. Until then, what system do you use to record the plans and progress you’ve made with each group–and how to two diverge? Are there any good ready-made worksheets out there that I should look at?

I’m grateful for any tips I can get.

Effort and Rest

You and I, we speak English. And, if you came to English teaching as a native speaker, you might make a mistake that I made: it seems easy, right?

Get that it isn’t easy

Sure, you know that people are paying you to teach them, so it’s obviously not something that’s super easy, but it’s important to understand that it’s not just ‘not easy,’ it’s ‘hard.’ If you are teaching ‘abroad’ (whatever that means for you), then try learning the local language. Learning English is at least that difficult.

More sports metaphors

I’m not an athlete, but I use a lot of sports metaphors in thinking about learning language, mainly because they seem to fit better than comparisons with learning chemistry, for example. Language isn’t something you know, it’s something you do.

Imagine you want to get in shape. You’re so dedicated to getting in shape, that you join a gym and sign up for a weekly class. The trainer comes in and gives you a five-pound weight. “Do three curls with that,” she says. You do the curls.

“Great. Now here#s a seven-pound weight. Do three curls with that.” I could probably do the curls with both weights, but if the weight is going to be increased by two pounds with each set of exercises I do, I’ll soon be either 1) unable to do the reps or 2) injured.

Neither of those really brings me closer to my goal.

Why doesn’t it look hard?

When you think about it with weights, it’s easy to realize that you’ll soon hit a point where you need to back off and build up some strength first. But why does English seem different?

I think it’s because most of the effort is going on between students’ ears, where we can’t see it. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Students who have just mastered “what is your name?” and “my name is…” have lifted their first weight, ever. You need to respect that that’s an accomplishment, and even though they only know one thing, they have to practice it until they can handle it.

And, when they come in the next week, they might be starting from scratch again, because it’s seriously hard, even if you think “this seems simple.”

The risk of overdoing it

Nobody will get hurt. And, to the best of my knowledge, you can’t “sprain a brain.” So, why worry?

The short answer is this: because you’ll lose students. Either they’ll think they can’t learn with you (this is the best case scenario because then someone else will at least be making money off of them) or they’ll think they’re too old, too stupid, or just not ‘language types’ and they’ll give up on English altogether.

What is effort?

The same way that Usain Bolt and I have different perceptions of what is hard, each student will find different things strenuous. This is an area where my idea of English as a circle is helpful for how I think.

As a general rule, the closer you are to the edge of the students’ own circle of English, the more tiring it is for them. And, when the circle is practically just a dot of “my name is…” then everything students do in English is ‘close to the edge.’

So, how do you manage effort?

If you workout — we’re back to the sports metaphors again — a typical workout is structured along the lines of super hard work followed by a rest period. The trick is to not get too much hard work, and not get stuck forever in the ‘resting phase.’

(A whole extra topic is the fact that language is different from exercise because you can enjoy being fit every day. You really only enjoy your foreign language abilities when you travel, so taking time off from ‘training’ to just let students revel in their ‘language fitness’ is recommended.)

When you’re leading a lesson, try to alternate between working hard and taking a break. This can happen both within an activity (allow yourself to be ‘sidetracked’ in order to facilitate a break before returning to pushing them to learn) or it can be between activities (things like the recurring activities are a great way to break up two more difficult activities).

What does rest look like?

That’s a good question, because, to the native speaker it all basically looks like speaking. What is rest?

When you’re teaching a beginners course, rest can be returning to their native language. I start the lesson in English — even the first one — and use my first ‘rest break’ to introduce myself in German. Other topics for a little chat in German are my tips on how to learn, motivation, things that are different between English and German, and, of course, praise. (“I know it’s hard, but think about how much more you said this morning than you could say six weeks ago… I think you all deserve a pat on the back, and your teacher deserves a whiskey.” — That always gets a laugh.)

Even before you’ve reached the end of A1, you can start ‘resting’ in English. After all, if you’re running intervals, you don’t stand still after one interval, you just return to jogging.

Some things you can do are to return to ‘conversation drills‘ that you’ve already mastered together. It’s almost a relief to go from “What do you do in your job?” to “Do you have kids? Where does your son live?”

Another strategy — especially within a grammar activity — is to be ‘distracted’ by the content of the activity. If you’re pushing hard to practice the structure “Berlin is bigger than Dresden” you can suddenly be doubtful. “How big is Berlin? How many people live there? Dresden has a zoo. Is there a zoo in Berlin?” It’s all vocabulary to review, and it lets the students rest their brains before you return to “Is Potsdam bigger than Dresden?”

How do your students rest in class?

Do you think my fitness metaphors are spot on, or simply absurd? How do you manage the level of effort you are demanding from your students? This is a relatively new idea for me, and I’d love to hear your ideas.

Recurring activities

Where I teach, lessons are generally structured into the following rough lesson components:

  1. The warm-up
  2. The conversation topic
  3. Grammar
  4. English for specific purposes

It’s a fluid list. Some groups don’t have a ‘specific purpose’ and not every lesson covers grammar (I’m a big fan of focusing on a certain grammar for four or five lessons, and then taking a break). For many lessons, you can add ‘correcting the homework’ to that list.

It seems like plenty to do in 90 minutes of two hours, right?

Sometimes I like a little more

This shouldn’t surprise you, because I’ve mentioned that I try to take more material than I can cover in a single lesson. (Short explanation: try never to feel like you have a hectic lesson, but try to keep the pace up, so nobody things “that was a slow lesson.”)

One of the ways I do this is by having what I think of recurring activities. They generally bridge the ‘conversation’ part of the lesson and the ‘work’ part. (If you count homework, grammar, and specific purposes as work.)

My criteria for a ‘recurring activity’ is that it should be simple enough that, if I explain it in one lesson, the students can do it without my help in another lesson. Right now, in my beginner group, hangman is a good example of this.

Before we open the book, I just draw the hangman gallows on the board and give the marker to a new student. (I keep track of who has done it and who hasn’t.) Then, they come forward and lead the group in a game of hangman and I’m only there to be strict about “is there” and “there is” or “there isn’t” and the correct pronunciation of the English alphabet. (The “there is” construction in German is different, so it takes some getting used to in English.)

Then, in the best case, there are a few minutes of classroom discussion where I don’t have to say a word. The students are able — within this activity — to do everything in English on their own.

I call that “maximizing student speaking time.”

I don’t force it

If I look at my watch and there isn’t time for the activity and everything else I have planned, I have no problem skipping it. After all, it’ll still be there for the next lesson. That means that an unusually good conversation can be allowed to continue without the students feeling cut off, but that a conversation that falls flat can be shorter and the lesson can still have the feeling of being “well paced.”

Some great recurring activities

Here are things that, at one time or another, I have included as a recurring activity:

  • Hangman (obviously, see above)
  • The student family tree activity. This takes a bit of time, but my (German) students are genuinely interested in learning more about each other. One student per week means that the vocabulary keeps coming back.
  • The review envelope activity. Students just pass this around and either answer the questions themselves or challenge the person across from them.
  • Trivia quizzes. Students draw a card that has a question with the correct answer marked, and they challenge the group to answer it. The group is allowed to discuss things between themselves before either agreeing on an answer or allowing each member to give their own answer.
  • The German naturalization test. This works like the trivia quizzes above, except with questions that I have translated from the German naturalization test.
  • Draw the floor plan of a student’s living room. This works just like the family tree activity above, with one student silently drawing while another student looks away from the board. The other students have to ask questions that elicit the information needed to draw.
  • Describing vocabulary. I made a collection of simple objects and put them on slips of paper in an envelope. I pass them around and students have to get the other members of the group to say as many words as possible in ninety seconds. This is great for ‘technical English’ groups because you can make them focus on the functions and dimension of the objects.
  • A question race. Students are timed to see how much time they need to get their classmates to say all the words in a 20-word list (not using the words themselves). Then, I record their time and another day a different student gets the chance.

What do you do?

Have any of the activities above flopped for you? Do you use any of your own activities? Which ones?

Some sports metaphors I use in class

I’m not much of an athlete. But, I’ve found the vocabulary of sports is pretty useful in the classroom. There are a few parallels that people can intuitively understand.

After explaining to my students that I like to run, and that I’m going to be a marathoner when my gets are out of the house, I say that they can think of learning English like training for a marathon.

The English lesson is your ‘long run’

Most training programs for runners include one long run per week. After all, a marathon is just the ultimate in long runs, so it seems logical that we’d work towards them.

Here’s the thing though: you can hurt yourself if your long run is right after — or, even worse — on the same day as some other training. Your body needs time to regenerate.

The ‘other stuff’ is your other training

Whether you have a grammar worksheet that is basically a strength drill for one muscle group (or grammar), vocabulary practice with flashcards or worksheets, or a reading exercise that should just get the metaphorical blood pumping once again between your long runs, the other stuff is also important.

At this point, I point out that they’re effectively paying me by the hour and I have no great incentive to teach them as fast as possible. (You can tell I teach adults.) The same way that you will eventually become fitter by running once a week as opposed to never, only coming to the English lesson will improve your English. But you’re not going to be reaching your own learning potential.

Then, I point out that nobody has ever suffered an English-related injury. (Some teachers, I know, would like to inflict the occasional injury, but most of us restrain ourselves.) Nobody will get hurt if they do their homework in the car before coming into the English lesson.

But neither will they have that great training effect of doing something, letting their brain process it in their sleep, and then doing it again in the lesson.

“Imagine,” I say, “that I am a fitness coach. We all run twelve kilometers. That’s not nothing. We’re tired. But, next week we want to go twelve and a half, so I say ‘Before the next training run, try to get in two runs, six and seven kilometers long. And, it wouldn’t hurt to try to knock out three sets of twenty push-ups.'”

“Now, some people write this down. Others get out their phones to enter it. A lot of people just think they can remember it without recording it. But this guy” — here, I usually pick a student to pick on — “he figures it’s easiest to start doing the pushups while we’re still talking and he then goes home to run twelve more kilometers that same day and says ‘Now I can forget about the homework, it’s finished.’ How useful is that?”

They agree it’s not useful.

Know what your marathon is

Not all marathons are the same. Some have hills. Others are at high elevations. Some are in intense heat. Others are over forest trails. Training for all of them is basically the same — you run — but also very different.

When you’re learning English, if you don’t tell your teacher what your marathon is, the teacher will train you for a pretty generic marathon. Mostly, by re-using training materials he’s made for other runners. And you’ll be in better shape when you’re finished.

But, you might not be ready for your marathon — whether it’s a business trip, driving across the US, or meeting your soon-to-be daughter-in-law’s parents who only speak English — and it’s not fair to blame your trainer for not getting you ready if you didn’t communicate what you needed.

“So,” I tell my little athletes, “you need to always be looking forward and saying ‘what will I have to do in English soon? Does my teacher know about that?’ and let me worry about getting you ready.”

My feeling of it is that only about half of my students have ever said “this is why I’m learning English, this is what I want to do,” even after being asked. Most just know “I need it for work” or “it’s important for travel.” But the students who do know are the ones I’m able to help the most.


That was a long ramble. And I’m sorry.

I just wanted to take the opportunity to share with you a strategy that has helped me help students. I don’t talk in the vocabulary of marathons in every lesson. It’s something I bring up once per block, or so, or when I’m explaining why there is a worksheet to drill a grammar that they now, in this moment, think they have mastered.

Let me know if this helps you. How do you talk about these things with your students? Or do you maybe not have to?

You’re the teacher now, so act like it

I think the most valuable thing I learned as a new teacher, was that your students expect a teacher. Maybe you’ve bamboozled your way into a job. Maybe you feel fully qualified to teach an EFL course, but you’re new. Maybe you’re fully qualified and think that you’ve bamboozled your way into a job. None of that matters.

People signed up to learn English from you. When you walk in the room, they see a teacher. (Assuming you dress more or less appropriately.)

Don’t ask them what to teach

My own weakness was always asking the students what they wanted to learn, or if what I taught was helpful. After all, I’d never worked in an office and here I was teaching ‘business English’ by the tried-and-true method of reading ahead in the book.

Unfortunately, what happened was that I was delivering what my students perceived as decent lessons, addressing their needs to some acceptable degree… and then telling them that I was a bad teacher. And, if you tell someone something often enough, there’s a risk of them believing you.

You have a plan

In Germany, at least, the teacher has a plan. That means that today’s lesson builds on yesterday’s lesson in some way. If you’re feeling like showing off, you can go in and say “in the next three lessons we’re going to be talking about…” and make it clear that you have a plan.

Later, at the end of the course, they’ll judge you by what they learned. But now, when you’re making first impressions, they’ll say “what kind of teacher are you?” And if the answer is “not a teacher,” you’ll be digging yourself out of that whole for a while.

How to fake a plan

When you’re beginning a new course, it can be hard to show up with a plan ready. Sometimes I’ve been given groups that are “great talkers,” and when I show up they’re barely putting sentences together.

Other groups have taken written placement tests and I was told to prepare for an A2 group, but they’re speaking at a B2 level and just need to polish up their grammar.

Start off with a test

I have a test that I made by adapting the questions in the back of the “Murphy’s English Grammar in Use” book to be a bit funnier (in my opinion — I’m a funny teacher, but a teacher.) I show up on the first day with a tried-and-true get-to-know-you activity and then I cheerfully announce “I heard that this group likes tests. Is that correct?”

And we do the test together, out loud, in as low-pressure of a situation as I can make it. “This is just to let me know what we need to cover. Nobody gets a grade.”

Then, I come to the next lesson prepared to do a block of two or three lessons of grammar review. And, wow, people don’t even realize that I still feel like a fraud most days.

What can you do if you can’t ask them what they want to learn?

It still seems counter-intuitive to me that I would get penalized for asking “was this material helpful,” but it certainly seems to be the case.

So, how can you get those great bonus points that teachers get by teaching exactly to students’ needs? I have a couple of strategies.

Connect lessons to student mistakes

If you’re not following a book with grammar. Or, even if you are and some students keep making the same mistake, introduce a grammar review/drill period with “I’m always correcting you on the ‘he does’ not ‘he do’ mistake. And you know that teachers don’t like to work, so let’s try to fix that so I can work less.”

Take lessons from company materials

This is something you can do with students who are ‘too busy’ to do anything outside of lessons. Hit up the company website and either come in with well thought out qustions about it “what is a pulse generator? What does ‘negative voltage’ mean?” Or, turn the material you find into exercises. (Gapfill, matching)

Get students to bring material in

Some students are great. They want to learn — often, on a deadline — and they think about their English lesson outside of class. Ask them to bring in material such as an email they received in English but couldn’t understand. Or, an email they sent in their native language but would like to be able to send in English.

If you’re lucky, you might get a student who is willing to keep an English diary. I give this as a ‘voluntary assignment.’ I say “keep some paper on or in your desk, where you can find it in a hurry. Then, whenever you realize ‘that’s something I can’t say in English’ write it down and bring it it. We’ll talk about it.”

I’m always clear that there might be a delay between when I receive the material and when we can discuss it in class. “I’m not as smart as you guys. I might need to go home and ask Google what it all means.”

The important thing is, I do my best to radiate teacher-confidence and I still consistently prepare lessons that feel ‘tailored’ to student needs.

With time, it gets easier

If your first lesson is tomorrow, don’t feel bad if you can’t sleep tonight. And, if you have your plan prepared and realize that something isn’t going to work, don’t panic. Just act like you’re prepared and divert to another activity.

You might bomb your first lesson.

But, with time, you’ll learn which activities you can do at a moment’s notice. And your students won’t think “she came in here and her first plan didn’t work” they’ll think “she came in here and at first I couldn’t understand what she wanted from me, but she did a good job matching the lesson to my needs.”

In teaching, as in most of my life, it seems that the first and most important lesson is “fake it until you make it.” And you will make it.