Many teachers produce their own materials, either from necessity or to provide something more tailored to the needs of their students. However, writing materials for a whole lesson, which really engage the learners and focus effectively on language, is quite a challenge. Teachers learn through experience, but are rarely given much support or training in this area.
In this session, given at IATEFL 2014, and recorded earlier for the British Council Seminar Series, I looked at a simple recipe or template (based on Hutchinson and Waters 1987) for producing complete lessons, and considered a variety of do’s and don’ts taken from my experience as a professional materials writer. There are plenty of practical examples and tips, as well as mini tasks to try.
Click the picture for the link to the recording (also including an interesting presentation non using corpora in the classroom, by Adam Kilgarriff).
The handout with a summary of the main points, and the links, is available below as a PDF.
One of the often used arguments against published coursebooks is that the texts, especially at lower levels, tend to have been specially written. When I first started writing coursebooks I was very keen to use authentic texts, and, indeed, the first edition of IELTS Foundation is full of them.
There are plenty of points in favour of using authentic texts. Firstly, the enormous sense of satisfaction to be gained from being able to read something designed for a native speaker. It’s no coincidence that the language learning app, Duolingo, encourages me in my learning by announcing, ‘You can now read 96.7% of all real Portuguese articles’ (though I doubt that very much!). Finding that they are able to read an authentic text may also encourage the learner to read more extensively outside of the classroom, which has to be a good thing.
It’s also important that students are exposed to different genres of texts, and, especially for the teacher creating materials for their own class, authentic texts provide a relatively easy way to bring something up to date and topical into the classroom. They can provide us with the opportunity to look at the same topic reported in different ways, or give students a starting point from which to follow the news topic as it unfolds, in their own time.
However, in recent years I have been moving away from using unadapted authentic texts. The most obvious problem is the level of the language. When I was first trained, we were taught, ‘grade the task not the text’, but, while this is usually possible, I’m no longer sure that it’s always in the students’ best interests.
Taking this kind of approach is intended to help students develop strategies to deal with texts where a lot of the language is unknown. There is certainly a value in this, but is it as valuable as giving them a text from which they can get so much more? Hu and Nation (2000) concluded that most learners needed to comprehend 98% of words in a text in order to gain ‘adequate comprehension’
Personally, I think there’s still a value in a text pitched slightly higher than that, especially if we give the learners support, but without a doubt, if the level is pitched too high, class time will just be taken up with explaining tens of words which, in all probability, the learners will not learn and may never need to use again.
But aren’t graded texts dull and decontextualized? Won’t they give students a false sense of security, and fail to prepare them for real world reading?
Or is there a middle way?
I think there is, and that it is based around a proper respect for genre. I now unashamedly write a lot of texts for my coursebooks. Unashamedly, because I think that, as a writer, my writing skills are often just as good as someone writing for the Daily Telegraph etc, and, therefore, my texts are, in their own way, just as authentic.
So before writing a text, I look for samples of the kind of genre I’d like to write (this often gives me ideas about the topic as well, but the genre is most important). Then I look to see how these texts are structured, how formal the language is, what kind of structures appear (making sure that these are the structures I’d like to pull out to work on in the grammar section of the lesson) and what kind of vocabulary is in there.
I might run the texts through something like the Oxford 3000 textchecker to see what level the vocabulary is at, and think about how I could replace some of it, or use something like https://readability-score.com/ to see how complex the syntax is, which I might be able to simplify without affecting the style too much. I then use all this information to write my own text, at a more appropriate level and length, using grammar structures and vocabulary which are true to the spirit of the original sources, but which will be of use productively to the students.
Regular readers will know how I love a middle way!
I’ll be speaking about this and other tips for teachers wanting to write their own materials for the British Council Seminar Series in the next couple of weeks.
Firstly in London on 4th March. Tickets available here (free)
And then in Belfast on the 11th March, which will also be live streamed (also both free). Sign up here.
A free downloadable lesson, based around an authentic video. Research shows that feeling grateful for what we have and the people in our lives is a key factor in feeling happy. The video shows a group of people carrying out a task designed to increase their happiness in this way. It’s quite moving.
Suitable from Intermediate/B1+, the lesson starts with a short text to introduce the topic and get the students thinking about how people recognise and celebrate gratitude in their cultures. It then moves onto the video, where students watch two people visiting a friend and reading aloud a letter they have written , thanking them for what they have done. There is some focus on vocabulary, and some useful phrases that students could use themselves to say thank you. Finally, the students are asked to write their own thank you letter, which they may or may not choose to actually deliver.
A free downloadable lesson, based around an authentic video. Selma and Kenny couldn’t be at their grandson’s wedding, so they recorded a toast- and some advice.
Suitable from PreIntermediate/A2+, the lesson starts with some discussion about marriage before students are asked to give their ‘top tips’ for a successful marriage. They then watch the video and compare Selma and Kenny’s advice with their ideas.
The video is quite easy to follow, though the couple do talk over each other at times (there is a transcript). It’s funny and quite touching.
There is then a focus on idioms connected with love and marriage, and then we look at some of the ways Selma and Kenny use imperatives to give advice. Students can then use this language to reformulate their original pieces of advice.
The inspiration for the recent #eltchat on lesson planning came largely from @michaelegriffin’s post 29 statements about lesson plans. It seems that people have strong views about lesson planning, with some advocating a pure ‘jungle path’ approach (to use Jim Scrivener’s term) and others seeing benefits in planning, though not necessarily in following a plan rigidly.
The chat (05/06/13) started with two main questions posed by @shaunwilden: Is planning the same as preparedness and do we need to plan at all?
The summary of the talk: Teacher training has tended to focus on technical preparation, yet teachers often find themselves unprepared for the human unpredictability of real lessons. This workshop aims to open up discussion on the moment-by-moment improvisation which is at the heart of teaching, and to suggest ways of developing ‘preparedness’ for the unpredictable.
@teflerinha suggested that both preparation and preparedness were important, and @efl101 wondered if planning became preparedness with experience, and similarly @josayers commented that ‘planning some lessons moves us towards being more prepared for all lessons.’
Is planning something newer teachers need to do more than experienced teachers?
There was certainly something of a consensus that newer teachers needed to spend longer planning. For example @ OUPELTGlobal ‘When I was starting my career planning helped. With experience, I needed less planning.’
However, several people also felt that getting trainee teachers to plan in detail could be counter-productive. @harrisonmike commented ‘over planning can make you less prepared ‘it isn’t going as I planned PANIC’’ and that it was a problem that ‘minute by minute planning is indoctrinated in ITT.’ @Shaunwilden agreed that ‘training courses make teachers overplan to be honest ‘ and that ‘overplanning makes one less prepared and less flexible.’
On the other hand, @teflerinha pointed out that ‘planning in ITT serves a different function than planning in real life.’ ‘planning makes you think things through.’ And @shaunwilden added ‘It’s a way of showing a trainee can analyse language, has taken on board input etc.’ And @teflerinha again ‘To get teachers/trainees to think about why they are planning each stage and how it relates to the whole- and for observers to see that thinking.’
Many people felt it was a process novice teachers had to go through. For example, @OUPELTGlobal said ‘Yes, have to admit that all the planning I did helped in later years, but it didn’t feel great at the time.’ And @pjgallantry ‘you’ve got to know the ‘rules’ of a lesson, before you can bend/break them – hence why Lesson planning is important for new Ts..’
There was also a brief discussion about the value of scripting instructions. It was agreed that this can easily be taken too far (@efl101 had seen 5 hour lesson plan completely scripted), but that it could be useful for inexperienced teachers with lower levels (@harrisonmike)
@hartle said, as a very experienced teacher, ‘My plans maybe 5 lines, but still there, as a basis.’
Does writing a plan mean you have to follow it?
@jo_cummins: said ‘I always make a lesson plan. I don’t always follow it. I often don’t even look at it.’ This seemed to be an important point, that it might be the process of writing the lesson plan that was important, rather than having it as a crutch in the lesson, which might well end up going in a very different direction, in response to the students.
@shaunwilden gave an example of how aims and objectives might change, ‘e.g.you started thinking you were going to introduce language, and then on planning realise it’s more review.’
@OUPELTGlobal asked ‘@OUPELTGlobal: Does planning inhibit sts from “interrupting” the teacher? going off the plan?’
And @jo_sayers made the point that ‘predicting actual learning is much harder than we think and we are often wildly optimistic.’
@teflerinha responded ‘Totally agree, but still useful to have an idea what we’d like to achieve, and then be flexible..’
@pjgallantry added ‘you always have to factor in ‘Factor X’ into a LP – anything from Ss being unhappy over st to teacher having a screaming headache’
@TeacherAlan1 raised an important point, asking ‘Is anyone required to show their lesson plans to admin? Or require your teachers to show them to you? This might easily influence how much teachers feel they have to follow their plans.
But @michaelegriffin made the point ‘My current thought is that lesson plans only get in the way if we let them. Ss don’t feel blocked unless T blocks.’
Can students tell (or do they care) if you have a lesson plan?
@colm_smyth ‘I guess students can tell by structure of teacher’s board work, teacher’s composure and activity transition’
@michaelegriffin ‘I think teachers sense if a teacher is prepared and that may be based on having a lesson plan’
@rliberni ‘Do ss know when things are unplanned (as opposed to unstructured)? I think they probably do’
What about planning a series of lessons?
@teflerinha commented ‘What I really DON’T like is planning a series of lessons in advance, or using last year’s because can’t respond 2 what happens’
@oupeltglobal replied ‘I agree with that. Teacher should react to the students they have – different sts & different plans’
And @cioccas ‘Can’t plan far in advance when you’re constantly changing to meet changing needs in the class.’
Post lesson planning
@efl101 asked ‘how often do you analyse/review plan after lesson 2 compare what actually happened and why and what u can learn etc?
@shaunwilden answered: ‘I did in my first few years as a teacher but then sort of fell out of the habit of noting it down’ and @hartle ‘when I 1st started teaching I did a lot. Now, I analyse what happens in class more, interactions between stds, successes.’
@efl101 responded ‘same but think it would be interesting to see if there are patterns etc. but time often prevents proper reflection’
And a great point to conclude from @mstrep: ‘Good planning makes a good teacher. Ability to improvise and adaptability make a great one’.
Recently listening to Cecilia Lemos’ great talkon recasting as a form of correction, and how she had decided it was not always very effective, I started thinking again about teacher echo.
Recasting is repeating an utterance which is incorrect, in the correct way, hoping that the student will notice it. As a technique, it has its roots in the ‘strong’ communicative approach, and is based on what parents tend to do with young children, as they are learning. However, there is quite a lot of evidence that students rarely do notice recasts. For example, Havranek (1999) recorded 1,700 examples of recasts and found that:
– Half the errors were committed again shortly afterwards
– Less than a third of learners even remembered the correction (and if they did, it didn’t mean that they later produced the language correctly)
– Peers did not notice the correction of others
So, if repeating an incorrect utterance correctly is probably of quite dubious benefit, why would teachers ‘echo’, or repeat correct utterances?
The most common reason given is that it provides learners with another opportunity to be exposed to the language. This comes from the same roots as the notion of recasting, and assumes that learners learn a second language in the same way as children learn their first language. But, as we have seen, learners don’t tend to notice or respond to the teacher’s repetition, even when there’s something salient in it.
The second reason teachers give for echoing is that it helps other students to hear what the first student said, as students are often prone to mumbling. This may certainly be true, but does it encourage the students to speak up and make the effort to communicate with each other? Or, rather, does it give the impression that the only communication which counts has to go through the teacher?
Which brings me to my third point (which, to be fair has never been offered to me as a reason for using echo). Habitual teacher echo massively increases the amount of teacher talking time. Now, I’m not against teacher talking time, per se. Good quality input from teachers is a wonderful resource. However, automatically repeating every utterance like a parrot is not good quality input. It just takes up valuable space and time.
And furthermore, people do not actually communicate in this way in real life, so it gives the impression that the interaction is not real in anyway, that it’s simply a mechanical exercise.
So, in answer to my own question, I would say that teacher echo is very rarely helpful, and that, while it may be a deliberately contentious over-statement, it is quite controlling and greedy. There are also a lot of much better things you could be doing to provide high quality interventions (more on this in a future post).
If you do want to see how much echoing you actually do, it’s really worth recording yourself teaching. This is pretty easy to do unobtrusively with a mobile phone, and may surprise you. It’s also likely to improve the quality of your teaching, as raising awareness is the first step towards making conscious decisions about the kind of interactions you want your class.
If you are currently taking CELTA, can I suggest my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, available from Amazon and Smashwords, containing everything you need to know for CELTA teaching practice.
A free downloadable lesson, based around an authentic audio recording from Storycorps.com, where Virginia recalls a good deed her father did during the Great Depression in America.
Suitable from PreIntermediate/A2+, the lesson starts with a short text giving some background to the Depression of the 1930s, and invites students to think about parallels with the situation in some countries today and what can, or should be done by individuals and governments.
Students then listen to the audio, which is quite short and simple, listening both for gist and specific information.
There is then a focus on narrative tenses, specifically simple past and past perfect. This could work as part of an introduction to past perfect, or as a review at higher levels. Students then try to retell Virginia’s story, using tenses appropriately, before going on to tell their own ‘good deed’ stories.
Click on the photo here, or the photo of Virginia in the lesson plan, for the link to the audio.
To keep track of systematically with a view to collecting information.
To keep close watch over; supervise.
Classroom monitoring can, I think, involve all of these aspects, and doing it well is a key teaching skill. We’ve all seen (or probably been) teachers who either breathe down students’ necks, making them desperately uncomfortable, or who wander off and start doing admin tasks at the back of the room (though the latter might just be monitoring very subtly!)
Monitoring to check the activity
As students start a task, it’s very important to check they know what they’re doing and that they are able to do it. So, although you might want to back off in order to make them feel less self-conscious, you probably need to at least subtly look around and see if people are on-task. Listen in unobtrusively, perhaps while doing those admin tasks, and make sure they’re ok. If one pair or group is uncertain about what to do, go and help them. If more than one pair or group is uncertain, I’d advise against going round and helping them all. It’ll take too long, and waste precious time for those waiting to see you. This is how I failed my O level maths (that, and too much gossiping). Just stop the activity and set it up again. And this time, check your instructions.
This kind of monitoring is simply pragmatic, and about helping things to run smoothly. It’s most important at the beginning of a task, but you can also do this kind of monitoring while a task is in progress to see if a group have finished early, if they need more support or more challenge and so on. Especially if you’re teaching young learners, you can also assess if they are starting to tire of the activity, and if you need to swiftly bring it to a close before all hell breaks loose.
Monitoring to assess language and/or skills
The other main reason for monitoring is to assess the language the students are producing (or their skills). This is vital if you want to be able to use your skills to actually help students develop. If you aren’t listening or paying attention, how can you possibly have any idea what they can do, or what they still need help with? “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, of course, students are still able to listen to each other, and to themselves, but I hope you get my point.
Perhaps you’ve heard about the secret handshakes that Masons are supposed to use to recognise each other? There’s a secret way that trainers who were trained up at International House (IH) can do this too….they crouch. Well, maybe not all of us, but I’ve recognised a few fellow ex-IHers this way. The idea is that by getting down on the students’ level, you’re less obtrusive and threatening. I think there’s something in this, but if students aren’t used to it, it can be a bit discombobulating for them (I knew I’d get to use that word in a blog post one day!)
It also isn’t great if you’re wearing a shortish skirt.
Being unobtrusive is important, however. You could try sitting at a short distance and looking elsewhere while your ears work overtime. If you really want to freak them out, look at one pair while listening to another, and then comment on what the second pair said. In a smallish class, it can also work quite well to sit on a chair in the middle of the room and lean forward. It signals that you’re listening, but isn’t too (literally) in your face. If students are writing, you’ll need to get closer. Try walking behind as these means they don’t have to stop what they’re doing and turn their book round to show you. It also helps to learn to read at strange angles.
Try not to get too involved with a group as this means you can’t tell what’s going on elsewhere. This can easily turn into small group teaching, while the rest of the class feel ignored, get bored, start throwing paper aeroplanes…. This (small group teaching, not throwing paper aeroplanes) might be OK in some circumstances, though. For example, with a longer project-like activity, once you are SURE everyone knows what they’re doing and can work independently.
What should you be listening for?
Obviously this depends on what the students are doing. Here are some suggestions.
Are they using the language you’ve been working on in class? Bear in mind that if they aren’t, it might be because you (or the coursebook writer) hasn’t designed the task very well.
Is the language you plan to focus on already being used naturally? If not, that will provide a ‘gap’ for you to feed language into later- as in task-based learning.
Can you identify a gap, or language they need to do the task more effectively? If so, make a note, teach it at the feedback stage, and then let them do the task again.
Grammar or vocab exercises
Monitoring should tell you which students are finding it easiest, and which are struggling. How many are struggling? (Do you need to deal with this whole class or on an individual basis?)
It’s also a great opportunity to think about who you are going to nominate at the feedback stage. You don’t want to put people on the spot [unless they really deserve it ;)] by asking for answers they don’t know. It can also be a good idea to give a weaker student a boost by nominating them when you know, from monitoring, that they’ve got the answer right.
As well as carrying out feedback on a task, or conducting an ‘error correction slot’ (where you write mistakes you heard on the board, anonymised and ask students to try and correct them), you could write down examples you heard of language which was particularly successful or useful.
Alternatively, you could choose not to feedback at that point, but to note down what you’ve learnt about their needs and plan a future lesson around them.
If they haven’t used the target language they were ‘supposed to be’ practising, you could take some examples of what they did say (which was correct), give praise for it, and then try to elicit other ways of saying it which do use the target language.
Or you could ask students to feedback on other aspects of the task- such as how well they worked together- and give them your own feedback on what you noticed.
If, on the other hand, you’ve just been filling in the register while they did the task, you can’t do any of these things…
If you found this post useful, why not check out my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, a quick easy reference to all the teaching skills required for CELTA.
Back in 1978 the psychologist Melissa Bowerman observed her 13 month old daughter, who was starting to talk. (Psychologists do a lot of this. In fact, I sometimes wonder if that’s the main reason they have children.) Anyway, her daughter was observed pointing at a ball, and saying ‘ball.’ She knows the word ball, you might conclude.
But then, over the next few months, the child also used the word ‘ball’ to describe a balloon, an Easter egg and even a pebble. So what exactly had she learnt? Probably that ball was something (more or less) spherical. That’s certainly part of the meaning, but we’d probably also have to add:
You play games with it, such as tennis or football
It doesn’t break when you throw it
It usually bounces
It can be between around 3 cm to about 12 cm in diameter
All these points go to make up the meaning of the word ‘ball’.
Now obviously when we teach our students new words, they probably already have the concept of ‘ball’ from their first language. However, there are plenty of cases where the semantic boundaries are blurred. Not all languages divide up the world in the same way. For example, in Polish, the word ‘buty’ doesn’t just mean boots, it also means shoes. In English, we generally use just one verb ‘to put on’ when talking about clothes and accessories, but, according to Michael Swan,
‘Japanese speakers use one verb for garments on the upper body, another for those on the lower body, yet another for garments on extremities like feet and hands, another for articles that go on the head, and another still for jewellery like earrings or a watch.’
Even if there is a direct translation, and you or your students know what it is, the word might still not be used in exactly the same way, or might have a slightly different connotation.
This is why we need concept questions.
Concept questions are something which teachers often learn about in their initial training and then promptly discard once no-one is watching. It feels ridiculous, unnatural and patronising to be asking a series of questions to which we already know the answers. Certainly, concept questions can be overdone and, particularly if they’ve been badly devised, they can be completely ridiculous.
A famous example from an International House CELTA course:
‘He didn’t know if he was coming or going.’
Was he coming?
Was he going?
Did he know?
Done judiciously and thoughtfully, however, a good set of concept questions can produce light-bulbs turning on over students’ heads all over the class, with a minimum of fuss and without lengthy and over-complex explanations.
How to create concept questions
The first thing to consider is what exactly the word or phrase means. You will probably feel you know this, but it can often really be worth looking it up in a dictionary to get all the elements of meaning (as with ball above).
So, for example, the word ‘cosy’. The Longman Exams dictionary says:
‘’A place that is cosy is small, comfortable and warm: the living room was warm and cosy.’’
So key elements would be
Used to describe rooms
I’d also say that we could use it to describe clothes (and then small wouldn’t be part of the meaning)
So then we can think about examples that will test understanding of these key elements. These can be short and simple questions, or we can use pictures, diagrams, mime- whatever’s appropriate.
For example, you might have two pictures. One of a small cottage front room, with a fire and the other of a draughty hall in a castle. Then you can ask, Which room is cosy?
If you are cosy, are you usually warm or cold?
If you are cosy, are you comfortable or uncomfortable?
You can also use negative checking, by asking a question where the answer should be ‘no’ and then asking a follow-up question to make sure they weren’t just guessing!
Is a castle cosy? No.
What kind of house might be cosy? A small, comfortable one.
What kind of shoes might be cosy? Slippers
Personalisation can also help
Which is the cosiest room in your house? Why?
And if you think students do have a fairly good idea, try asking for more information to check.
Give me an example of an item of clothing that could be cosy? (dressing gown, sweater) And one that couldn’t be? (bikini)
Using language which is more complicated than the language you are trying to check.
If you’re cosy are you snug and secure?
Checking the situation, not the language
John’s grandma knitted him a cosy sweater for Christmas.
-Did she knit him ear-warmers?
Going too far and dealing with meanings which just confuse the issue.
What do you put on a tea-pot to keep the tea warm? – A tea-cosy (see picture above)
Incidentally, some people believe that you should never use the target language in a concept question. As we have seen, this isn’t the case when dealing with vocabulary, though it may apply to grammatical structures…
It’s going to rain.
Is the weather going to be bad?
When to concept check
Although we refer to it as concept checking, it’s much more than just checking understanding; it’s actually at the heart of teaching. It’s about finding out what students do and don’t understand and helping them to ‘get’ the concept.
That said, you do need to use it fairly sparingly, and most of all wisely. Part of being a teacher (and the hardest thing to teach someone) is knowing just how much clarification students need, and giving it to them in just the right amounts, at just the right moments.
If you are currently taking CELTA, can I suggest my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, available from Amazon and Smashwords, containing everything you need to know for CELTA teaching practice.
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