The review envelope

As part of my quest to find ‘miniactivities’ that can be a cornerstone of each class, I had what I think of as an inspired idea: I collect the grammar review that I made specifically for the group and, a few weeks after we’ve done the last worksheet, I cut them into strips and put them in an envelope.

Then, in the next several lessons, we pass the envelope around once or twice and each person takes a strip out and reads it aloud, providing the correct answer. The paper strips that have been removed are thrown away and, after a few lessons, the envelope is empty.

It’s a great way to 1) keep the class moving along and 2) bring back grammar that was ‘mastered’ only a few short lessons ago and, if you try to make your review funny, 3) work a few laughs into the lesson.

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.

“Trouble group” update

After mentioning that I’m focusing a lot of energy on a single group (nicknamed, perhaps unfairly, the trouble group) I thought I’d bring things up to speed.

The situation now

It took a bit of courage on my part to change the lesson organization away from ‘free’ conversation back towards more controlled conversations, but on the second lesson after the break we started using more of the conversation drills I’d planned.

That was a big step forward. Combined with my goal of packing the lesson with as many activities as possible (a different student leads the group in a game of hangman between the conversation and vocab review/grammar parts, for example), I think I’ve managed to increase the pace, while maximizing the students’ production of properly formed sentences.

Sticking with a topic

Because we’ve abandoned the book (rather than going back by a whole book), we don’t have the level of structure that other groups have. In the past, that has meant that we had a different topic each week.

Now, I’ve stuck with the topic of professions, while doing things like brainstorming what professions we have in our families, or what professions we have worked before. Instead of one exhaustive list on one day, we’ve used different ways to approach the professions I can imagine students wanting to talk about (as opposed to knowing all professions) while changing the questions. (“Do you have children?” – “Do they work?” – “What is the boy’s profession?”)

I didn’t sit down and make a detailed plan. Maybe I should have.

Still, even without a plan, I’ve been able to do things like matching professions to verbs and practicing questions with do and did. (“Does a zookeeper answer the phone?”).

Invisible repetition

My goal now is for the lessons to include more ‘invisible repetition,’ which is to say that we can focus on forming the same kinds of sentences with basically the same vocabulary for as long as possible without participants thinking “I don’t need to go to the English lesson. We’re just going to do the same thing as last week.”

I don’t know if I’ve reached the goal.

It comes at a cost

I’m pleased with how the lessons are going. And, I think that students will see that they’ve made an improvement around Christmas time. But, that improvement comes at a cost. We laugh less than we used to (and I think that’s important — at 7:30 in the evening, you need to want to go to the English lesson) and I worry about that.

For now, I’m accepting the cost, but I know that the next thing on my horizon is going to be finding more activities that I can throw in periodically which will add a bit of levity to the lesson.

I’ll check in again before long and tell you if I’m still as happy with the plan in the near future as I am now.

Do you have any suggestions? Tips? Experiences you’d like to share?

Reading in the EFL Classroom

I’m an avid reader. Many of the things that people think ‘define’ me are things that I’ve discovered through reading. In short: I’m a fan of reading.

But, I’m also a fan of making music, and I don’t drag that into my EFL classroom. So, I guess that means a good place to start this is with a simple question:

Why reading?

I think most of the ‘why read’ conversations focus on what reading offers kids. The people I teach, however, are no longer kids and they either are, or most decidedly are not readers. Why would I do that to them?

There seems to be the idea that speaking and listening are the best ways to interact with the language. And, for a number of reasons — we do speak quite often and it offers a really short feedback loop — I think they should always be the primary activities in the classroom.

But primary doesn’t mean solitary.

My students have to read and write emails, navigate signage in museums, understand posted warnings, and make sense of information sent to them from colleagues, customers and suppliers abroad. In short, they have to read.

Alone, those would be reasons to include reading in the EFL classroom. Even more, though, reading provides students with a lot of (ideally) perfect English that they can model their own language production on. Further, a short story covers a situation — with vocabulary and dialogue — that a classroom discussion just can’t approximate.

Additionally, in a classroom where most vocabulary is taught verbally, a written text may be the first time students encounter the correct spelling of a word.

Even more, students who enjoy reading in their native language but think it is ‘too tiring’ in English may simply need a bit of scaffolding between comic book English and Agatha Christie. Once you can help them read in their own time, you’re helping them turbo-charge their learning.

Reading in the classroom

There are a number of ways to include reading in the classroom. Some ideas include:

  1. Bring in an article to read and discuss. This is obviously dependant on the level of the students and may require simplification/shortening. (I generally don’t like to present more than a singe page of text.) I think there’s nothing wrong with saying “we’re going to read and discuss this article” but I tend to warm up to it. “Remember what we discussed last week? I went home to learn more about what Matthias said and guess what I found… a reading exercise!”
  2. Break a conversation down into steps and write them down. At almost any level, you can write the questions you want to ask down on strips of paper (and possibly number them), and have students pick up individual strips and challenge other students with the question. This works equally well with statements for students to agree or disagree with.
  3. Use a short text to set up a situation for discussion. It can be something as simple as “Olivia lives 30 minutes from her work. Olivia drove home from work. When she was outside the city, her car stopped. She couldn’t start her car.” And then move on to what should Olivia do? For better students, make a text with three or more characters and discuss them: “What did Olivia do wrong?” “What would you do if you were Sigfried?” “Who was at fault?”

Reading as homework

You might not know this about me, but I have a collection of short stories for the EFL classroom that I force upon my students as ‘voluntary homework.’

Before I give out any reading as homework, I try to make my expectations clear: do I expect them to read this with a dictionary? Do they have to understand it, or just try? How important will this text be to the next English lesson?

Generally, in my lessons, the answers are “Give it a try, but don’t get your dictionary out. Set a timer for thirty minutes and, if you can’t finish it in that time, realize that I did a bad job picking out the story and come in here next week and tell me that.”

As for how important will the reading be next week, that depends. If they’re reading something to discuss in the following lesson, I tell them that. (But, I also stress that they should come if they don’t have time to read it — some students will just not come.)

When I hand out a short story every week or every other week, however, we can’t discuss it in each lesson. Instead, as part of my goal of having more to do than there is time, I write down in my notes what the story covered and plan a short “Who read the story last week? We know that Steve never reads. Can you tell him in two sentences what happened? Does your family do things this way? How does your family do it?”

Doing that does a couple of things: it lets the students who didn’t have time to read — and some people genuinely don’t have the time (or time management) — pick up the next story in the series and know what is happening. Also, it provides five minutes of conversation on something that probably isn’t worth 30 minutes in the class plan, but still interesting. Lastly — and I think this is really important — it gives the students who are proud of doing all the homework a chance to let the teacher know they did the homework. (I could write a whole post on the fact that some students do the homework more for you than for themselves, and you need to let them be proud of that.)

How do you use reading?

Reading is something that I’ve become comfortable using in the classroom and as homework. Maybe I’ve become too comfortable. How do you use reading to support your students? Are there activities I’ve overlooked in my routine? What could I do better?