Archive | September, 2013

Strategies for a New Course – an #ELTChat Summary

16 Sep

Like the cuckoo heralding spring, the first #ELTChat of the year has arrived.  As many teachers around the world are getting ready for their first lessons with new classes, this chat aimed at sharing ideas and strategies for starting things off on the right foot.

Taking part in a lively conversation were ….

eltchat participants

….. and apologies to anyone who’s been missed out!  The chat took place on Wednesday 11th September.

There were about five key themes that emerged:

  1. Getting to know you / Icebreaker activities
  2. Those first few lessons
  3. Routines & Systems
  4. Focusing on the learner(s)
  5. Tech

Getting to Know you activities / Icebreakers:

The main problem most people confessed to here was in learning and remembering everyone’s names.  Suggestions to help with this included taking a class photo / individual portraits (which could also then be used in any learning management system, e.g. edmodo), or using student generated namecards, or making notes in the register – though it was pointed out you have to be careful about what you write!

Some great “getting to know you” activities were shared:

  • Writing sentences about yourself on the board and students guessing which are true / which are false
  • Writing sentences about yourself up on the board and students guess the lie
  • Students guess what’s in your bag
  • Writing six keywords / phrases on the board around a star – students guess the importance / relevance to you.  Then they do the same activity in small groups.
  • Taking in a selection of items of personal importance (realia) and students guess the importance / significance of the items to you
  • Creating fake facebook profiles for each other
  • Giving students GPS co-ordinates to your location in the town and having them track you down with their smart phones and introduce themselves
  • Students coming up with the titles for their autobiographies and then explaining them to each other
  • Finding things in common
  • Writing their likes and dislikes down on separate slips of paper, scrunching them up, having a “snowball” fight and then having to return the slips of paper they end up with to the original owner.
  • Sticking bits of A4 to the students’ backs and having everyone go round writing adjectives on the paper that relate to the person they’re writing on.
  • The ID cards activity (SS interview each other and perform introductions) from “Keep Talking by Penny Ur” (though I think Keep Talking was by Friederike Klippel, so not sure if the activity’s in this or in one of Penny Ur’s many other books).

Links from this section:

The First (few) Lesson(s): 

There’s inevitably a bit of crossover between this and the previous section, but there was more of a focus on establishing the class and putting everything in place for a successful course.

  • Start building group dynamics (it takes 8 hours of contact to effectively build a group rapport).  Students may not be used to working collaboratively or in teams of any kind, so it’s important to establish group working principles early on.
  • Negotiate the learning goals for the class.  Find out what their expectations for the course are and help them to set achievable targets for the first week / month / term.
  • Get any Learning Management systems up and running and familiarise the students with the systems.  Tell students about any technology you’ll need them to use during the course.
  • Negotiate the classroom rules with the learners – make sure everyone quickly understands what’s acceptable or what’s not acceptable classroom behaviour as this will impact the entire academic year!  This could be done as a classroom contract to be designed and written up by the students (outlining expectations on both students AND teacher) and to be signed by all.  Or younger learners might enjoy drawing up posters that stipulate the rules that have been negotiated / imposed (!).
  • Two books were mentioned:  Jill Hadfield’s “Classroom Dynamics” and “Teaching Unplugged” by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury.

Links from this section:

Slave to routine

Routines & Systems:

The beginning of a new course is that period where everyone is getting used to each other, working out what they can expect from each other and what is expected of them, developing the interactions and systems that define the community of practice.  As such it’s important to remember that in establishing routines and systems – IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE FIRST LESSON – and the key thing for any routine is maintaining it.

Once a routine has been solidly established, then it’s possible to build in more flexibility and variety within routines can be a key way of keeping students engaged and motivated.  A routine doesn’t mean doing the same thing all the time, it’s more about building a framework to operate in and to plug different activities, songs etc into.  (Editor’s note:  this didn’t come up in the chat, but Charles Rei’s post “I Only Have One Lesson Plan” is a great example of this principle).

Routines suggested during the chat seemed to fall into three categories:  (1) Behavourial – timekeeping, acceptable behaviours, classroom rules (see above) etc;  (2) Administrative – setting up tutorials and the like;  (3) Pedagogical – developing study skills, learner training, incorporating activities into the lessons (public speaking / show and tell / vocabulary revision / etc).

Focusing on the Learners:

There was a sizeable chunk of chat looking at the differences between young learner and adult classes and what the differences might mean for starting courses off on the right foot.  For example, is it more important for young learner classes to have routines than adult classes?

The consensus was that kids need routines to feel more settled and that routines are therefore very important for young learner classes, though these routines might focus more on rules and procedures, and involve more ice-breaking or more warmers.  Adults on the other hand, need to feel more part of the process and not just passive recipients of an imposed system.  Everyone however, regardless of age, likes to know what to expect and routines can provide that certainty, though it is important to try and manage these expectations so that learners’ previous experiences of education don’t impose themselves – breaking dependency on the teacher.

With adults, you can use the first lesson(s) more as a demonstration of how things might be different to their expectations and as a clear statement of how things on this course are going to be.  But don’t set yourself unsustainable standards….

Group work and project work are good ways of creating team spirit and building rapport within the class.


As mentioned briefly above, the first few lessons is also when you need to establish with the classes what, if any, technology or online components are going to be used with the course and to get the learners signed up and engaged with it all.

If there is going to be an online component, then it is also important to establish the rules and boundaries that go with that – in other words to negotiate (see also above) the netiquette.

ELTChat QR Code

One other area of tech that came up was QR codes.  If you’ve not met QR codes before, then the image on the right is an example:

Essentially a QR code is a bit like a bar code that you can generate for pretty much anything on the internet.  (The one on the right, for example, will take you to the ELT Chat homepage).  They can be read by smartphones with a QR code reader app – not sure if they can be read by anything else…

You could, for example, generate QR codes for students to find out about you from your online information / profile.  Or use them as links to your online components.

More advice here:

And Finally:

#ELTChat has talked about first lessons before…  to read Genevieve White’s summary of “First Lesson Activities” click the link.

Apologies if I missed anything or anyone off the summary – please feel free to add things in via the comments section.


100 years of English Exams

13 Sep

Dropping through the door of the school this morning was a lovely bundle of goodies from CELA (Cambridge English Language Assessment):  the latest copy of “Research Notes”, several posters and two books!  I guess this is one of the perks of being a Cambridge test centre – the occasional freebie.  The books are (1) Hawkey and Milanovic’s “Cambridge English Exams – The First Hundred Years” and (2) Weir, Vidakovic & Galaczi’s “Measured Constructs – A history of Cambridge English language examinations 1913 – 2012”.

You may have been able to spot a theme there…

Cambridge English Exams the first hundred years                                   Measured Constructs

Obviously, it’s not been possible to read the combined 1000 pages plus in any great depth so far, so what follows are really only initial impressions.

The first book comes across as a bit of a corporate hagiography.  It is supremely glossy and full of lovely colour images to break up what would otherwise be quite a large amount of fairly dense text.  The content does look interesting, for anyone who’s interested in these things, but the book seems to deal more with the evolution of the Cambridge brand, product range and corporate partners than anything else – I’m not entirely sure who the book is aimed at, or why they might want to read it.  I was also quite surprised that this website not only gets a mention (on page 325), but that one of the diagrams from my “Changes to CPE” post is reproduced.  It is always nice to know that someone rates your work highly enough to reproduce it and I should be quite clear that it was attributed to this website; nevertheless it raises some interesting questions about copyright and reproduction permissions.  When an organisation like Cambridge University Press reproduces content without having asked permission, does that make it OK for the rest of us to do it as well?  (NB:  I have not sought permission from Cambridge to reproduce the images in this post…)  To read more on this topic, check out Sue Lyon-Jones’ post “Copyright, Plagiarism and Digital Literacy“.

The second book, Measured Constructs, is to my mind the much more interesting of the two, though it is also likely to appeal to a specialist audience.  It offers an incredibly in depth description of the evolution of the Cambridge language exams series, from a construct perspective – in other words how the testing of language knowledge and language skills has changed over the years.  In achieving this, the book delves into the “significant, theoretical and practical advances in pedagogy and socio-political developments” within ELT since the turn of the last century.  Thus, as views on the nature of language acquisition, learning and purpose have shifted  – so have the constructs of the exams and so it is possible to read this book not only as the evolution of the language exam but as a history of ELT itself.  That said, it is likely to be of more use to those with an academic interest in testing and evaluation.

60 Wishes in the Wishing Box

3 Sep

All this year, International House have been running events and competitions to celebrate their 60th anniversary – regular readers may remember the IHTOC60 (IH Teachers Online Conference) back in May and “The Tai Chi of Reading“.

During the Online Conference, IH launched a lesson plan competition – which I entered and was awarded second place!

My lesson is called “60 wishes in the wishing box” and it’s a fun way (if possibly a wee bit complex in places) of developing learners’ abilities to express wishes and predict consequences.  It’s aimed at Intermediate to Upper Intermediate level students (CEF B1 / B2) and is suitable for teen and adult classes.

To find out more about the lesson plan, as well as Dorka Brozik’s winning lesson on birthday vocabulary for VYLs and fellow runner-up, Adi Rajan’s pre-intermediate lesson on comparatives and superlatives, just follow the link:

If you have problems downloading the “60 wishes in the wishing box” lesson plan and materials, it’s also available from Scribd.