A Useful Tool for Busy Teachers

I have taught in a lot of different contexts: from language centres (or eikaiwas) to a university to an international IT company. However, the context I am immersed into right now is something unique (at least, for me). The most challenging thing was to get used to the fact that I teach the same group for 12 weeks, Monday to Friday, 3 hours a day, which makes 15 hours a week.

The amount of lesson planning I had to do seemed enormous. First week into my new job, I felt like I was snowed under with work and there was no light at the end of the tunnel. This meant that I had to find a way to optimise my lesson planning process. If not the creative part of it then the admin part at least.

This is when I came across Teachwise App.

This start-up claims to cut preparation time by 75%. To be honest, it is difficult for me to estimate the exact percentage, but from my experience, it definitely makes lesson preparation more efficient and less time-consuming.

Once you have created an account, there are three main functions available to you: Resources, Community and Lesson Planner. Now, the Lesson Planner is not a free function, but in my opinion, it is totally worth it.

Before switching to Teachwise App, I used to type my plans in MS Word or Notepad on my laptop. Since no lesson ever go exactly as planned, I had to do a lot of amendments afterwards, which meant creating new files, etc. I also had to do all the formatting to make my plans look a bit more user-friendly because during the lesson, I have to be able to quickly navigate through them.

With Teachwise, I simply click a button, and all the activities I did not finish in the previous lesson get copied into my next lesson(s).

Basically, it is like Lego. For each lesson, I have various activities typed in. I can then tick them off as completed or carry them across next several lessons. I can change the order in which they follow and edit them if necessary.

The Lesson Planner itself looks like a calendar. You create a profile for each student/group (you can add students to groups as well) and then create recurring lessons to be displayed in the calendar. You can delete or cancel single lessons, change their duration, etc. Pretty handy for a busy freelancer!

Obviously, you can do the same with your Google Calendar, and you can even attach files or write notes for each meeting there, but it will not let you rearrange the activities in your lessons easily or transfer them to the next lesson.

The Resources pool on Teachwise is also pretty cool, I have found some interesting activities for Business English. You can save the activities you like to your library or add them to your lesson plan just with a click of a button. You can also add your own activities to the resources for other teachers to use. Sharing is caring!

Finally, for those who like having a paper copy of their lesson plan, you can download any lesson plan from Teachwise as pdf and print it out. Simples!

There might be some other functions for freelance teachers I have not had a look at yet, so it is up to you to discover.

All in all, Teachwise App has definitely made the admin part of lesson preparation much less daunting for me, which means that I have more time for creativity 😊

Final Thoughts

This Friday is the last day of Autumn Term at the language school where I work. The A1+ group I’ve taught since November has gone from 8 people to 14 to 10 to 4 to 6. I’ll be teaching A2/A2+s from January and will meet some of my ex students, which makes me happy because I do miss having them in the classroom. I’ll also have one online student in my class. Hello, hybrid teaching! I’m a tad nervous about it but my new classroom is a bit better equipped for this (there’s an actual monitor on the wall, not just a whiteboard and an OHP) so I guess I’ll be fine, especially considering how supportive my colleagues are.

So, what have I learnt in the past 2 months of working at a big language school in England?

  1. Environment is the key
    I’m extremely lucky to work at a school where the main rule is that we teach students, not the coursebook. This means that the coursebook is just a springboard. However, the best thing is that I am not pressured to finish the coursebook in a certain amount of time as I had to do in some of my previous workplaces. It’s all about how what I teach matches students’ learning needs. Awesome! I eneded up teaching a mixture of coursebook-based lessons, lessons designed by other teachers, and self-designed lessons. I also had a chance to get as creative with the coursebook as I possibly could.
  2. How to get the most out of coursebooks
    The coursebook we have been using this term is Speakout Elementary. Since I had all the time in the world, I made sure to exploit each listening and reading task as much as I could in order to help my students build language skills they had problems with.
    Audio recordings in this textbook are quite natural and fast (at least in the second half of the book), so we did a lot of decoding practice with them. I especially love the DVD sections which feature authentic clips from various BBC programmes – those are even better for decoding! My students enjoyed decoding practice tremendously and got quite competitive 😀
    As for the texts, I used them to teach students how to recognise different parts of speech and analyse word order (a big problem for Arabic and Japanese students), as well as look at how familiar words are used in context. These tasks appeared to be less exciting for my students but definitely useful.
    Another great thing about Speakout is their pronunciation section. For A1 level, it’s mostly weakening, contractions and basic intonation, and I made sure we looked at all those features. The dialogues used in the FL sections are really good for working on intonation and connected speech.
    An interesting anecdote: there’s a dialogue on p.95 in which an angry passenger lashes out on a flight attendant who failed to get him a vegetarian meal. I was really unsure if I should use it with my students since this was definitely not the way I wanted them to speak to other people, but in the end I decided to give it a go and see how they react. My students said it was very rude, and one of them remembered being told off by a bus driver for using ‘What?’ instead of ‘Sorry, could you please repeat that?’. We looked at the intonation, i.e. which melody and tonality the passenger used that made him sound angry. I then asked my students to look at the transcript and rewrite the rude phrases making them more polite. This task was a bit challenging for them but they did their best.
  3. Teaching low levels is not as scary as it seems
    It’s actually quite the opposite! Working with low levels is extremely rewarding because they tend to progress faster. We have lessons 5 days a week, 3 hours a day, and I can’t express how amazing it feels when a student who could barely produce a clumsy sentence in Present Simple starts producing nicely structured sentences using the words we’ve learnt and Past Simple (and even Past Continuous) just in a month or so! We even ended up doing a bit of Dogme and just chatting about things that were important to them, e.g. education, job hunting, etc. The vocabulary that emerged was quite high-level at times but they were so eager to learn and use it. We all felt inspired.
  4. It feels a bit weird to teach students whose L1 you don’t speak at all (I only know 2 words in Arabic). I belive in the positive use of L1 so I do not prevent them from having a chat in Arabic as long as they’re doing it for the right purpose. However, because I have no idea what they’re talking about it’s hard for me to judge. They do try to briefly fill me in on what they were talking about, but still. Oh well, the drawbacks of monolingual classes. Or maybe I should find an Arabic tutor 😀

Back to Basics

After a really long, long time I’m back to teaching A1+ learners (up until recently, the lowest level I had ever taught was A2+). To make things even more interesting, I don’t know a single word in their L1 (I happen to have an almost monolingual group).

During my first week at work I was so nervous that I could hardly eat anything. I realized that I don’t really remember how to teach low levels. I spoke too fast and demanded too much from them.

After reading a bunch of articles about teaching low levels and getting observation feedback from a senior teacher, I finally felt better. I learnt to adapt my speech when needed, scaffold more and explain new words by mimicking (my mom says I could become an actress).

I also decided to try doing authentic listening with them. I had no idea how it would go and tried to choose one of the easiest videos on Tubequizard.com. And you know what? It turned awesome! All students were engaged, including those who tend to zone out most of the time. They were so surprised how simple words they knew sounded together. They were able to describe some basic processes, e.g. “he didn’t say don’t – he said doun!”. We tried saying things the same way – just for fun. I emphasized that they don’t have to speak this way, but if next time they hear doun and understand that it’s actually don’t, that’s great, that’s why we’re doing this.

Here’s a photo of my board work:

Authentic listening for A1+ learners

P.S. I know that /n/ in don’t doesn’t really turn into /m/ but there’s is certainly some lip rounding happening there. In fact, some students were uncertain if they had heard /n/ or /m/ so we ended up looking at it.

P.P.S. We actually work on connected speech and intonation a lot, and it’s so much fun! More fun than I expected because I usually do this kind of stuff with higher levels. My next challenge is to analyse texts a bit more intensively in terms of sentence structure and use retelling to develop their sense of language.

Lesson Plan: Raiche – Drive

I have never taught a lesson based on a song. Yes, for real. However, this song just got so deeply under my skin that I had no choice but to create a lesson plan for it. It is quite meaty because there is a lot to unpack and explore but it is a very engaging and inspiring lesson. At least that is what I think 😀

Lesson Details

Level: B2+-C2

Format: groups (could be adapted for 121); online / offline

Duration: 90′

Materials: access

Procedure:

Continue reading “Lesson Plan: Raiche – Drive”

What I Learnt from a Year of Being a Freelancer

I never wanted to be a freelance teacher, but COVID-19 did not ask me what I wanted. I was given lemons, so I had to make the best lemonade I could 🙂 This week, I am celebrating my first anniversary of being self-employed, and I figured that the best way to do this is to write a post with some useful advice for those teachers who are thinking of going freelance or have done it recently.

1. Setting Up

The first question every teacher asks when weighing their options is “How can I make sure I have enough students?” What I recommend is find some online schools to work for at the beginning. You will not be able to set your own hourly rate, but it will give you certain stability, and you can then give the remaining hours to your private students. Gradually, as you are getting more private students, you can decrease the number of hours you work for those schools.

Personally, I do not recommend teaching on platforms because the competition is really high there, so you really need to market yourself, and this is not something everyone enjoys doing. I tried several platforms and did not like any of them, but of course, it is up to you, and I do know teachers who are thriving on Preply or italki. Just not my cup of tea.

Next thing you must do is officially register as self-employed. This usually means that you have to set up your own private company. The procedure is different in different countries, so this is something you will have to figure out by yourself. Once you have set your own company (i.e. registered as a sole trader), you can start providing teaching services to both businesses and individuals. Keep in mind that as a sole trader, you will have to issue invoices to your clients, keep sales records, do accounting, submit your tax statements, etc. Make sure you understand your rights and obligations and consult with an accountant or a lawyer (or both) if there is a need for this. Know the law! For example, in Norway, you cannot issue invoices created in Excel because it is a legal requirement that they are numbered automatically, so I use PayPal Invoicing Tool.

On a positive note, as a company, you can have business expenses. This mean that if you happen to buy some textbooks or attend a conference, their cost will be deducted from your tax.

2. Finding Students

I would say go with the local websites. Post free ads and rely on the universe to help you out 🙂 You can also post in groups for English learners on Facebook, but make sure this is not against their rules. However, the best way is still the good old word of mouth.

Do not expect quick results. Typically, it takes at least a year or even a year and a half to build a solid client base.

You can invest in paid advertising if you wish so, but I would first do some quick research on its effectiveness and consult with a marketing specialist to make sure that your money is not wasted.

Finally, try to schedule a free ice-breaker call with each new student. This way, you will be able to see if you kind of click with this person, how serious they are about learning English, what their learning needs and goals are. As for terms and conditions, I am quite strict about it. No money – no lesson, so all payments have to be transferred one day before the lesson. Any cancellations or changes should also be made not later than one day prior to the lesson, otherwise, the money will not be returned. I explain these rules during the initial call and if the new student agrees to them, we sign a written agreement and schedule the lessons. I personally do not like the idea of teaching a free trial lesson because I prepare thoroughly for every lesson I teach and deserve to be paid. Students have the right to terminate our agreement at any time if they do not like the way I teach, and I make sure to tell them that it is totally okay to do so.

3. Timetable and Payments

When you are a freelancer, it is really easy to stop keeping track of your actual working hours and end up working pretty much all the time. I teach from Monday to Thursday and then I have Friday to plan lessons and do the admin stuff (mostly sending out invoices). Saturdays and Sundays (especially Sundays!) are untouchable. The only exception is the ELT Lesson Jam 😉

Do not hesitate to use paid websites that offer ready-made lesson plans. I personally love Linguahouse and ESL Brains: their lesson plans are superb, you will need just a few tweaks here and there, and you are all set. Onestopenglish and Fluentize are also great.

Another nagging problem is which payment system to use to get payments from foreign students. According to the majority of freelancers I have talked to, the best one is Wise (former TransferWise). I found it a bit confusing, to be honest, so I use PayPal. The fees are higher on PayPal, but those can also be written down as business expenses, so no problem here. Plus, their Invoicing Tool is awesome.

4. Social Media and Marketing

I have briefly touched on this in 2. Basically, in many cases, free ads and word of mouth are enough to get the ball rolling. To build a strong public profile, be active on social media. Write about your work, how your lessons go, questions your students frequently ask, etc.

If you wish to build your personal brand, you might need to hire a marketing specialist to write a content plan for you and manage the advertising. Alternatively, you can take some introductory courses to be able to do it yourself in the future, but in any case, this is something that does not come naturally and has to be learnt. Be ready to invest time and money.

It is a good idea to create your own website. You can use free website builders, such as Tilda and WordPress. I am currently working updating my website; I am using Tilda, and it is awesome although not always intuitive.

5. Community

As a freelancer, you might feel disconnected from the ELT community, but it does not have to be this way. There is an amazing group on Facebook run by Cecilia Nobre, where you can always ask a question and get plenty of support.

There are also ELT Lesson Jams organised by Freed with me, Liza Fedotova and Blanka Pawlak as hosts, where teachers from all over the world gather to share their lesson ideas (by the way, the next session is this Saturday, 14:00 CEST, hurry up and register, we are awesome!).

You will also find the recording of this Fireside Chat interesting; there were four of us and we covered pretty much all the basics of being a freelance English teacher.

So this is it. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or contact me via Twitter or FB. And good luck!

Reflecting on Teaching Groups Online

Since I became a freelancer, I haven’t had a chance to teach groups bigger than 2 people, so when I was offered an intensive summer course, I immediately accepted. I was given a group of 11 B2-level Italian teenagers aged 14-16 and we embarked on our language learning journey.

The students were really nice, and I genuinely enjoyed working with them. 99% of my students are in their late 20s or early 30s; I don’t know much about modern Russian teenagers, let alone European teens, and I must say I was impressed by how motivated and hard-working most of them were. They even did homework! I don’t think I was supposed to assign any but I did (short 10-minute tasks). Of course, not all of them were equally active, but I am totally okay with some students being less active as long as they aren’t being disruptive, and there were no discipline issues at all so all good.

I learnt 2 things from this experience:

  1. I actually like teaching teenagers, they inspire me a lot
  2. Teaching groups of 4+ people online isn’t my cup of tea

Basically, what I didn’t like was the fact that I was unable to move between the pairs/groups quickly. In a real – physical – classroom, I can do it easily and I can also hear everyone at once, so I can catch bits of speech here and there and get enough data for the feedback stage. In a virtual classroom, this becomes a challenge. A colleague of mine suggested keeping students in the same pairs/groups and visit half of the BOs during the first task and then visit the other half during the second task – this way, you can spend more time in each BO and get more data. Yet still, it felt different. The students were nice, the lesson flow was good, but something was just not there, and it felt artificial.

I’ve been thinking about it and I came to a conclusion that what felt artificial was the fact that students were separated from each other when I paired/grouped them. In an offline classroom, they’d be still there, all of them; there’d be that specific background noise that you hear when many people are talking to each other in small groups at once. And I’d walk around, behind their backs, inserting an occasional comment or asking some unplanned follow-up questions, etc. I can make comments and ask questions in BOs but I can’t hear all of them at once, I miss that buzz, that sense of unity, sense of involvement. I think this is something you can’t feel as strongly in a virtual classroom.

Distance education is more inclusive, it’s hard to deny that, but being in a physical classroom and interacting with your teacher and classmates face-to-face is an important part of a learning process that can’t be replicated in a virtual environment. Call me old-fashioned but that’s how I feel. As a learner myself, I do take short online courses but I’d never do a degree online; I’m not doing Delta Module 2 until they resume face-to-face courses because those opportunities for spontaneous communication and the sense of belonging face-to-face courses provide are invaluable to me. This is what made my undergraduate courses and CELTA so rich and memorable, and I’ve never felt anything like that on any online course I’ve taken before. Maybe just one course where we only had 5 participants including me, and this brings me back to what I said above about groups of 4+ people not being suitable for online teaching (in my opinion).

This post might be a bit muddled but I wanted this reflection to be as authentic as possible so I’ll just leave it as it is. I’d really like to know what you guys think about teaching groups online. I’ve discussed this with one of my colleagues, and we agreed on the prefect group size being 4 people (6 max), but I’ll be interested in reading various opinions, including those opposite to mine.

PSLLT 2021

As some of you know, instead of attending the IATEFL conference, I ended up attending the 12th Annual Pronunciation and Second Language Learning and Teaching conference. This was not planned at all and I learnt about this conference one day after the registration had been supposedly closed, but the organisers were kind enough to let me register and attend. To make a long story short: this conference literally blew my mind, gave me an understanding of what my next CPD step should be (will be announced later), and pushed me to start planning how I am going to re-design my pronunciation course.

Below are short summaries of some of the talks I attended yesterday and the day before yesterday (I simply cannot summarise all of them!).

1) Foreign language learners’ views and attitudes towards the type of label used in perceptual training: phonetic symbols vs. keywords
If you ever wondered, which is better – phonetic symbols, keywords, or something else (e.g. pictures) – here is the answer: more students prefer phonetic symbols, so it is definitely worth teaching them. The use of keywords only will most likely confuse them and create a double cognitive load because, as we all know, letters do not equal sounds. I usually use phonetic symbols + keywords to create a stronger link. You could also try using pictures, e.g. flags, geometric shapes, etc.
Another thing to try is the Color Vowel Chart developed by Karen Taylor and Shirley Thompson. I have not used it with my students but it seems to be pretty popular among ESL/EFL teachers in the U.S. and Canada.

2) Whose input matters? The influences of various input sources in adult L2 phonetic learning
The aim of this research was to see if adult learners actually differentiate between teacher’s pronunciation and other L2 learners’ pronunciation, and which they prefer as a model.
A fake language was used. Participants were exposed to 3 models: teacher, students, and test (teacher and student). Different voices were used to ensure reliability. For the test model, they had to decide which pronunciation is better based on the knowledge of how these words sound when produced by a teacher or student.
Results: Participants showed a preference for the teacher talker pronunciation. This means that not only are they sensitive to various phonemic features (in this study, aspiration), but it also matters who produces target words. For us teachers it means that we have to be aware of what kind of pronunciation model we give to our students (does not come as a surprise, right?).
Personally, I think that aspiration, for example, is an important feature and should be practised and acquired by students as it enhances intelligibility because in fast speech, an unaspirated /p/ can sound very similar to /b/. However, as for /th/ sound, it seems that more and more people nowadays do not articulate it as clearly as they kind of should. Some speakers pronounce it as /f/ and /v/, some go for /t/ and /d/ or /s/ and /z/. As Dan Frost said, when middle-class women in their 20-s stop using these interdental consonants, we will know that /th/ is officially dead, and this might happen even earlier than we think!

3) Talks about teaching prosody: Put prosody first and Using lip synching to teach L2 prosody
These two talks introduced great ways of working on prosody which is usually the most crucial point in acquiring a more intelligible L2 pronunciation, especially if we talk about learners whose L1s are syllable-timed. One of the activities was very similar to what I do with my students, but it was using phrases instead of numbers, so I will definitely give it a try! Another activity focussed on students doing regular lip-synching exercises to better understand how rhythm in stress-timed languages works. They would start with slower songs and slowly progress towards faster ones. I have never tried anything like that with any of my students and am excited to actually try and see how it goes. These talks also made me think that I do not focus on prosody as much as I should (probably due to the fact that my students are mostly Russians, and Russian is a stress-timed language). I do have one Japanese student and several French and Italian students, so I already know who my guinea pigs are going to be 😀

4) Multiple talks about the use of visual feedback in pronunciation training
Research has shown that students are likely to improve their pronunciation faster if they can see their speech; for this, we can use software like Vowel Viewer, Audacity and Praat (I am already working on this). Unfortunately, to be able to use these tools effectively, you need some advanced knowledge and understanding of lab phonology, which is, obviously, not taught to CELTA and Delta candidates (so a degree in Linguistics/Applied Linguistics will be of great help).

I officially pronounce PSLLT conference the best conference I have attended in 2021!

Image source: https://brocku.ca/psllt-2021/

Lesson Plan: A Cooking Recipe

It’s a vocabulary and TBL lesson based on this authentic blog post: Super Creamy Vegan Mushroom Sauce Pasta. Originally, it was designed for a 121 lesson, but it can be easily adapted to a group one. It’s good for any student(s), but especially for those who LOVE cooking 🙂

Level: B1+ and higher
Objectives: to introduce a set of useful lexical items for reading (and understanding) and writing cooking recipes; to provide practice in writing cooking recipes
The ultimate goal: to write and publish a cooking recipe of student’s choice
Duration: 1.5-2 hours
Materials: The Recipe, Gap-fill
Procedure:

Continue reading “Lesson Plan: A Cooking Recipe”

My Top-10 Resources for Teaching Pronunciation Physically and Visually

I am a strong advocate of the physical approach to pronunciation teaching. I mean, how can you pronounce a sound if you have no idea about what’s involved in the process? Articulation comes first, and only then it is followed by imitation. So if you want to teach pronunciation physically and visually, here is the list of 10 invaluable resources for you to use:

  1. Introduction to Articulatory Phonetics: Vowels and Consonants.
    These are two short but informative videos aimed at teachers and linguistics students that give you insight into how vowels and consonants are articulated.
  2. Seeing Speech
    This is a product of collaboration between researchers at six Scottish universities, including my alma mater, Edinburgh University. The sounds on this website are visualised in three different ways: MRI, ultrasound, and animation. This is a great tool to use in class.
  3. SPAN: Speech Production and Articulation Knowledge Group
    This is a project similar to the one above. Some differences are: MRI only; separate words and sentences are recorded as well.
  4. Tools for Clear Speech and Sounds of Speech
    These are two different resources for animated versions of English IPA sounds. Both of them are using American English, which means that some vowel sounds are missing though.
  5. Interactive Pronunciation Animations
    This one is good for introducing the sounds of British English to young learners. Funny cartoons contextualise each sound and make it memorable.
  6. English Club’s Learn English Pronunciation
    This page offers a range of resources, from an interactive phonemic chart to various pronunciation games, that will keep your students engaged.
  7. The Sounds of English
    This is basically a ready-made British English pronunciation course on YouTube. Not a single sound is missing! What I like the most about these pronunciation videos is that they focus on contrasting sounds and minimal pairs as well. Can be used both in class and at home.
  8. Pronuncian.com
    Good for practising minimal pairs and getting ready-to-use lessons on American English pronunciation.
  9. Youglish.com
    This is an amazing website that lets you listen to the pronunciation of whole sentences, not just single words. You can search for any phrase, e.g. a famous movie quote or just some common everyday expression, and listen to all possible pronunciations. Other resources you can use for this purpose are TubeQuizard and Playphrase.me (the second one is limited to three phrases per search).
  10. Tongue Twister Database
    I personally think that tongue twisters are a great way of practising pronunciation, from single sounds to the features of connected speech to stress and rhythm. This is probably the biggest tongue twister database out there.
  11. BONUS! A 15-minute morning pronunciation practice with the amazing Hadar Shemesh. As someone who is taking singing classes and studied drama and acting (for a short while though), I know that your vocal apparatus needs to be warmed up before you can use it fully. This video introduces a range of exercises for the muscles involved in speech articulation. A tip from me: don’t resist yawning – it’s unavoidable!

Know any other useful resources? Give me a shout, and I’ll add them to the list 🙂
Have a question? Get in touch, and I’ll help you out 🙂

Banana? Banana!

This is a lesson plan I presented during the last ELT Lesson Jam, organised by Myles Klynhout, Rachel Tsateri and me.

Intonation. One of the trickiest aspects of pronunciation to master. Yet, so much depends on it. Even the simplest, the most innocent words, pronounced with a certain intonation, can sound rude and even threatening. So, how to raise awareness and provide our students with an opportunity to practice intonation?

Banana!

What I do is I say the word ‘banana’ in different ways – neutral (flat tone), unsure (rise), surprised (fall-rise), and irritated. Students have to identify the emotion involved in each different case. I then ask them to say the word using these emotions. After that, I offer them to brainstorm other emotions and try saying ‘banana’ using them (e.g. ‘enthusiastic’, ‘bored’, ‘surprised’, ‘relieved’, etc.). They then work in pairs saying the word ‘banana’ and trying to guess the emotion.

Step 2 is a role-play (image 1). Each pair of students gets a scenario. They have to role-play it, but they can only use the word ‘banana’ (they can use this word as many times as they wish). They have some time to rehearse (you can monitor and help out). After that, each pair has to perform their role-play in front of the class, and the listeners have to guess what is going on (roughly). The student whose guess is the closest to the original scenario gets a point. The student with the highest score wins (you can give some award to them).

Step 2. Role-play

Step 3 is real-life dialogues. Student A asks a question, and student B replies with different intonations. Student A has to guess how student B feels. You can rearrange the pairs ad conduct this activity one more time.

Step 3. Real-life dialogues

Step 4 is, obviously, a freer practice. Students share some short stories about moments when they experienced strong emotions. They have to use intonation as an instrument to make their stories as vivid as possible.