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.

My L2 Journey

I started learning English when I was 4. My mom, who has never succeeded in learning it (although she was quite good at Spanish), thought that English language was the future and so I ended up in a kindergarten where we had English classes. I remember learning animals, numbers and colours. Unsurprisingly, the elementary school where I went had English from grade 1. Of course, we were taught using the grammar-translation method, although we had some speaking as well. I even remember giving presentations in grade 7 (it was a different school though). Whenever we would have a family trip abroad, I would be the voice of our family.

My first encounter with CLT happened when I was 13. It was a summer language school in Switzerland and my very first experience of going to such a school. I think I was way more excited about socialising than language learning. Our teacher, Ms Cartier, was a fan of project-based learning as I understand now, but back then I simply didn’t understand that whole project-based-learning thing. I felt utterly puzzled, I couldn’t understand why we were doing what we were doing and how it could help me become better at English. In other words, my affective filter was way too high to leave any chance for me to enjoy the learning process. So I ended up learning social skills and some Russian slang (yes, there was a whole bunch of Russian students, including me) and hardly any English. Now I say to myself: ‘Make sure your students understand why they’re doing this particular task’.
A year later, when I went to a summer school in England, I kind of already knew what to expect and enjoyed the lessons and creative atmosphere that is impossible in a grammar-translation, ‘chalk & talk’ classroom.
When I was 14, I tried home-stay learning. In the next 4 years, I stayed in various houses in the UK and even in Wales for 2-3 weeks.

And then I decided to get my degree in Britain. I signed up for an intensive IELTS preparation course and discovered that my English was not as good as I thought it was. I also kind of hit the infamous Intermediate plateau (even though my level back then was estimated as Upper-Intermediate). I realised that the time has come for me to take my learning into my own hands. I started reading blogs and short articles in English but the main source was TV-series.

It wasn’t easy to get new episodes in English for Russians back then. No one heard of online streaming services like Netflix or HBO. You had to know places. And then you’d have to get English subtitles separately. Sometimes, they wouldn’t be synchronised with the video, so I had to learn how to synchronise them. Otherwise, I’d try different versions until I’d find one that was perfectly synched.
I learnt a lot from watching TV-series. Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars were a great source of teenage American English, Supernatural taught me some swearwords and slang, Game of Thrones presented me to a higher-level English filled with long and tricky-to-pronounce words, and Bunheads showed me how you can play with words (‘I-am-ready-to-drive-through-the-country-just-to-kill-you potential’ was my ultimate favourite).

Edinburgh was nice, apart from the fact that I couldn’t understand a single word the locals were saying. I did know that English is not the same everywhere in the UK (thanks to those 3 weeks in Wales), but somehow I thought I’d be OK. I wasn’t. In the first two weeks in Edinburgh, I learnt that ‘aye’ means ‘yes’, realised that RP was useless there and got into tiny trouble with the police (but that’s a different story). It took me 3 years to finally start understanding the proper Scottish used by people in the streets (as opposed to the so-called ‘posh’ Scottish which the lecturers spoke). What helped the most was volunteering with Age Scotland, a charity organisation that helps elderly people all over the country. My task was to call those people on the list who were still waiting to be matched with a permanent buddy and check on them. Our conversations would last from a mere minute to one hour, and it improved my listening skills tremendously.

Learning a language is a life-long task unless you have a certain goal that lets you stop at some point (like it was for me with Japanese). 24 years later, being an EFL teacher, I am still learning and I will never stop. Languages are way too dynamic and broad and diverse to be something one can fully master. There are so many Russian words I don’t know, especially slang words young people are using nowadays. The Russian language I speak is different from the Russian language my mom speaks. We all speak our own unique language. So which language should we teach then? And does it make sense at all to build borders around the language, classify it, vivisect it, make it fit our understanding of what it should be? Standards are useful because we all need something to rely on, but should they be followed vigorously? The longer I teach the more I think about this and the more questions I have. I know that I know nothing.

Lesson Plan: The Overton Window

I don’t believe in P.A.R.S.N.I.P.S when it comes to teaching adults. Things are happening in the world, and they’re not always great, so why should we avoid discussing them? That’s why I decided to bring up this topic in class and see where it gets us.

The lesson is based on this authentic video. You’ll also need this worksheet and these slides.
Level: B2-C1
Duration: 60-90 mins
Procedure:

Continue reading “Lesson Plan: The Overton Window”

‘Fun’ in the Classroom

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I suck at incorporating ‘fun’ in my activities. In fact, I do not even understand why they have to be ‘fun’.
I remember when I was talking my CELTA one of my tutors told me that I could try making my tasks more ‘fun’. For example, ask students to match the headings with paragraphs by asking them to walk around the classroom and finding these on the walls. It is more ‘fun’ than just doing it while being seated, right? I felt quite sceptical about it. I thought to myself (and I still do): “But is not learning new words and grammar and simply communicating in English, even though it is not perfect, already exciting enough?”
Going back to the tweet (I love it!) at the beginning of my post, you can indeed simply ask your students to choose a number rather than wasting toilet paper, can not you?
What I mean by fun is engagement, and engagement is created by a positive atmosphere in the classroom, encouragement, and support. If you give students these three, they will feel more comfortable with communicating in English and attempting difficult or unfamiliar types of tasks.
I hardly have any ‘fun’-containing activities in my lessons. Most of the time, students discuss challenging topics like the problem of the ageing population in Japan or poverty. Dull, huh? However, I keep getting comments from them that our lessons are difficult but fun because they have an opportunity to talk to their classmates in English and learn their opinions on various topics.
That is it. That is what makes lessons fun: communication. Not the pieces of toilet paper or whatever one does to bring more ‘fun’.
Stop re-inventing the wheel. Simplify instead and give students what they came for because if you ask what this is most of them will say ‘to speak English’. And I bet they do not care about all those extra decorations we try to put striving to keep activities ‘fun’.
It is not the decorations but the content and learning outcome that matter.