Tag: teaching EFL

An update and a plan

One of my goals in blogging about teaching has been to focus on improving as a teacher. To that end, I’ve started writing about one group, in particular, that challenges me. You might want to start at the beginning.


Feeling a failure

My evening courses take a break for the month of February. That means that I’ve had three weeks to process things, but it also means that one block of lessons ended at the end of January and the next block begins next month, in March.

And that means that students have to sign the next contract. There are always students who leave groups, and certainly, there will be new students in March. Even though I still take it personally when students leave my groups, I generally know that I shouldn’t and I’m generally okay with them leaving.

The the “problem group” however, I had a student who was always challenging. (The whole group was challenging, remember?) He was from Vietnam but had lived in Germany since the GDR and spoke German with a thick accent. In English, his accent wasn’t better, but he was motivated to learn.

You know where this is going: he left the course. Of course, he didn’t blame me. Instead, he did the German thing of bringing a bottle of sparkling wine and saying farewell. And, who knows, he might have reasons aside from not making progress.

But, I know that he didn’t make the progress he wanted to make, and I blame myself.

This means that I’m motivated to do better.

The plan

As you’ll recall from the first and second posts about the problem group, you’ll know that one of the things that worked was using “conversation drills,” but that one of the problems I had was that, quickly, it became repetitive.

Learning from it, I’d like to start out with a few different ‘drill conversations,’ to be able to rotate through them.

Also, you’ll remember from my post on reusing things, that I’ve become a fan of reusing activities in things like an envelope review. So, in addition to my amazing vocab worksheets, I plan to use a sort of gentle, drawn-out grammar-review strategy that I’ve started using with other groups. (I’ll try to write more about how I’ve started going about it, soon.)

One more thing I hope to have finished first is a set of matched role cards for the telephone, with a card for the caller and a card for the ‘recipient’ of the call (who will work at a hotel or whatever). The goal is to use them as a recurring activity that adds structure and predictability, but gets more simple conversations going.

Lastly, something that I used to do and somehow got away from, was a vocabulary review strategy that had students translating entire sentences–containing the target vocabulary–from German. (Because I think L1 belongs in the classroom.) The idea is that, in addition to reviewing vocabulary, students would have to form well-formed sentences or questions, and practice this.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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.

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.