A word in edgeways

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I am a bit of a reluctant writer. I very much enjoy writing, but I’m deeply aware of the over-abundance of words written about anything and everything and am loathe to contribute yet more to the never ending stream of information. I have an image of this blog post eating itself. If the content focuses on the complete superfluity of words, does that somehow negate the words I use?

I remember very little about my grandfather, but I do remember one thing. When visiting one weekend I must have been sitting mutely as he commented ‘that one is a thinker’. It stayed with me. Firstly because I took it as a compliment. Secondly because at that moment he was right. I will never purport to being a great thinker, however at that precise moment I was thinking. I was thinking how strange it was that people kept on repeating the same things, the same stories and opinions to different people on different days. The same stuff, changing slightly in detail and opinion with each telling as new angles and shades of meaning became apparent, but essentially the same old things over and over and over again. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to say anything unless it was really worth saying.

Had I decided to live my life by only saying things which were new and significant I doubt I’d ever have said anything at all, and I certainly wouldn’t have been much use to all the students and teachers I have worked with. Especially as we know that when learning a language repetition and revision are key to success, and rehearsing what and how to say something is greatly beneficial to students of all ages.

I do stand by the sentiment though, in particular in relation to my current profession. There is far too much writing about teaching which simply repackages what we already know. Now I am freelance and have the freedom to be selective about the projects I take on, I have more time to engage with the many teaching websites, blogs and publications, and some of them are excellent. When I was working full time as a teacher I simply did not have time to sort the wheat from the chaff and was generally mistrustful of blogs. I did however spend a lot of time searching for lesson materials, hoping that the perfect quiz/article/video for my lesson topic would be miraculously waiting for me.

Staff rooms are jam packed with resources for teaching every kind of lesson. The internet is a minefield of sites sharing teaching tips, worksheets, lesson plans, games, activities, the list goes on. Many teachers, myself included have photocopies of extra resources squirreled away in folders kept just in case there is some sort of TEFL communicative activity emergency.

You can interpret this as a real commitment amongst teachers to share and collaborate, which is wonderful. But it can also indicate a reliance on extra activities and resources as a substitute for real teaching and learning. It’s easy to blame the coursebook as being deficient, and therefore justify the constant search for something to supplement it with. But I would argue it’s much better to spend time improving the tool you are given than in the endless search for the perfect activity. Doing more with what you already have frees up valuable time to think carefully about your lesson aims, or learning intentions, and how you will ensure that your students take something new away from every lesson they attend. It allows you to really plan how you will clarify new language and improve your students’ skills by helping them to engage with essential language and learning strategies.

Supplementing the coursebook, creating your own worksheets, using authentic materials: these things are all great. But having time to reflect, research, discuss and drink coffee is also great.

To free up a bit of your precious time here are a few of my go to no prep activities using only the coursebook:

Picture quiz

Give students 30 seconds to memorise a picture and then close their books. Put students into pairs and ask quiz style questions (e.g. what colour were the man’s socks? What hand was the woman holding her mobile phone?). Score 1 point for each correct answer.

Text bingo

Tell students the topic of the text they will be working with (reading or listening). Pairs brainstorm a set number of words they expect to appear in the text (content rather than grammar words). Use this as your gist task – the pair who correctly predicted the most words are the winners.

Vocab hunt

After following the usual procedure for teaching reading, put students into pairs and distribute mini-whiteboards or scrap paper and markers. Give definitions for words/phrases in the text which students race to find and write on their mini-boards. Focus on a mixture of the vocabulary you pre-taught as well as other useful words or phrases that your students have encountered before. Make sure you go through the text in order to provide support. The first pair to hold up the correct word get the point. At the end you can ask students to go through the text and highlight all the words you defined, writing short definitions for the ones they found tricky.

Banana dictation

After completing gap fills provide further practice by including a banana dictation. Students take it in turns to read the sentences to their partner but instead of the missing word they say ‘banana’. Their partner provides the missing word from memory. Students can then make up their own gapped sentences using the same structure to provide even more consolidation.

Vocab swap

Students choose a new word, collocation or phrase from the lesson and write it on a scrap of paper. They walk around the room to find a partner and define their word for their partner to guess. Once both students have guessed they swap papers and mingle to find a new partner to repeat the activity.

So what I’m trying to say is say less and do less. Or rather do more with what you already have. Have confidence in your own ideas and creativity. After all, any piece of material is only ever as good as the teacher utilising it.

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