Tag: EFL teaching

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?

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?


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.

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?