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It’s 8PM, news time, and you are in front of your TV set. The news presenter is smiling, but after the first news they start mumbling looking for the next paper to read. All kind of “ahhh”-s and “mmmmmm”-s are muttered but nothing consistent for almost a minute. You wonder what is going on, has the presenter suddenly lost track of the news sequence? Have they forgotten what’s next? Is there any kind of an error? This is quite unlikely to happen on TV, news editions are thoroughly prepared and presenters have a wide range of resources in order to overcome a difficult situation.
Like in a news edition, your English class has to have a good flow and the students have to feel there is a strong preparation behind, with no silences; no “ahhhh”-s and “mmmm”-s.
You have to provide a good staging and sequencing of activities in which every next step is somehow linked and related to the previous one and elements seem connected and well timed.
Planning well the session will reduce difficult situations to the minimum; experience will make the class flow and your students will feel the natural and smooth pace of it as though you have taught it hundreds of times.
After your initial introduction (in Oxbridge we have the quick question, but it can be any other introductory activity) it is time to think of introducing your first activity. Again, the more engaging the introduction, the better. Avoid announcing a difficult grammar point with its technical terms as this only will put students off. Instead, anything related to what the students have said or any interesting word from your introductory part can spark a conversation that you can use to lead into the first activity. If you start with a grammar point for instance, you can use questions on the topic using that grammar point which also tests learners’ knowledge and elicits info. Pick a second activity in which you see a natural link and exploit it, lead in with questions that encompass ideas from both activities. In following activities try to use grammar introduced earlier. This keeps a thread running throughout the lesson. Sometimes, if it isn’t going well, make an abrupt change to try to jumpstart or improve the class.
In this style it is much more fun and interesting for the students as it changes the engage-study-activate style to a rhythm where they are constantly learning and activating with every single activity.
All textbooks and lesson plans suggest an order for their activities. The activities are put in this order for a number of different reasons: level of the learners, the group size, the goal and objectives of the learners (e.g. Is it a general course, a specific course, a seminar devoted to one particular subject), the age of the learners (is it for young or adult learners, age range, etc.).
Still, this order is not unalterable. It is always you who must decide what is best for your students.
Some factors to keep in mind when thinking about how to order your activities:
-How easy or difficult the activity content is. We might want to start with the most difficult activity first, while our students are still fresh. Or if they are already tired after a hard day at work we might choose just the opposite, start with something light-hearted so that they loose and then, once tiredness has gone away, accomplish a more difficult task.
-How relevant the activity content is for the learners. If you are certain about the relevance of one content over the rest, you might prefer to start with it and make sure you have plenty of time to activate it with your students. You don’t want to run out of time and leave the class without doing it.
-Your learners’ specific needs. If your group has good listening skills but poor pronunciation, you might want to prioritize activities targeted at improving this concrete skill. Or you can find their accuracy quite good but not so much their fluency. In this case maybe the topics will be preferred over structure or vocabulary activities in the activities order.
-How appropriate you find the activity for the group/learner. No matter how good an activity can be, it might not be appropriate for this particular group or student. In this case you will probably decide to skip it or to do it in a different moment.
-Your learners’ preferences. If you are certain that an activity, no matter how interesting it might be for other learners is, is not going to be well accepted, you might decide not to do it at all and give preference to other activities, more likely to be well accepted by your students.
-Last but not least, your own personal preference. Again, a very good activity for another teacher might not be of your own taste. This is also relevant as if you dislike the activity your students will dislike it as well.
In general, variety of activities is a good aim in a class. Activities of the same kind one after the other may be too repetitive, unless your learners want to explicitly practice the same kind of material for specific purposes (e.g. legal vocabulary activities; activities to do with accountancy, front desk vocabulary and topics, etc.). Both young and adult learners prefer to alter activities for different purposes and different categories in order to assure a good and fun class.
In an Oxbridge class the usual order again varies according to the type of course the students have chosen. In a general course we usually start with structure activities and then go to topics and vocabulary according to the level. In the specific courses though, in first position is the specific activity that gives the course’s orientation, e.g. in a Medicine course we start with the first specific activity from the Medicine world and next we do more general content, such as structures or common vocabulary.
Just like your favourite song, an English class has a rhythm. A wrong rhythm (too slow or too fast) can either demotivate or frustrate students. A good rhythm means that you allow enough time for each activity to be practiced without tiring students with it.
Below are some tips for achieving a good pace in your class.
a. You have to know which activities you want to include in your class according to the class time. For a 60 minute class you might choose only 4 activities while for a 90 minute class you might choose 6 or 7. That means you have to know your class by heart.
b. It is very important to know when to kill an activity. Don’t stretch it too much even if students are responding. They do so but might want to move to something different. Continue with the same activity only if you are absolutely convinced that your students are engaged and the subject is very relevant for them.
c. Think of providing a variety of categories. Some teachers love structures. Some spend too much time on topics. Too many activities of the same kind is ok once, but not every time. A sixty-minute class on structures is too much even for structure addicts!! If there is at least one topic, one vocabulary and one structure activity your class will be a complete, target-focused and well-conducted class.
d. Your objective for each activity is THE TARGET LANGUAGE TO BE PRACTICED and learnt! Once you think you’ve provided enough practice of it and your students have acquired it, it’s high time to move on.
To sum up, your class has a good rhythm when you ensure good practice of the target language of at least one topic, one vocabulary and one structure activity; when you start upbeat and allow time for recapping and concluding, and when you include smooth links between elements. All this is a question of experience, common sense and reading your students reactions; but above all, PREPARATION!
Here are some practical tips about how to effectively link activities and customize the content of a class:
• For example: Jordi, you just said that you love having breakfast early in the morning. What about lunch? Do you usually have business lunches?
• Isn’t it amazing that in the last few years we’ve experimented such a big technological boom?! This also affects business relations, doesn’t it?
• Now that we know what are your preferences in terms of food, let’s see what phrases can be used when you have to order food in a business lunch.
• It is precisely this news that caught my attention and I really wanted to share it with you!
• Having discussed about different food idioms, let’s move now to the business context that we can use them in.
• I would like to stress your attention on some food idioms. The reason for this is that they can easily be used in a business lunch and …
• At that point, let me stress one important issue of business interaction: business meals.
• Much more important than food idioms is how they can help you close successfully a business deal on a business lunch. Have you ever taken your business partner to a business lunch? Have you been a good host?
• Let me share with you an interesting experience. Little did I know that not knowing enough food idioms would ruin an important business deal.
• Right, let’s move very quickly to the second subject that I wanted to discuss with you: business meals.
If you learn to link any two activities and giving them the context that is most relevant for your students, your classes will be much more interesting and useful for the students.
In the transitions between activities is when you can “personalize” a lesson which is apparently not quite suitable for your students. You can have a general English class but with few connecting and well-chosen elements with business focus, you can “customize” and make the class appear much more relevant than it is.
This is possible only because there is no such language as business English. Business English is yet the same English but used in a specific business context. Therefore if we provide the business context, everything can be then introduced as belonging to this specific field. Let’s take a very easy example: food. Talking about food at first sight may be a long distance from business issues but if you have a good vocabulary activity about food for your business students, don’t discard it. Instead, ask them where many business deals are closed in Spain. At a business dinner or lunch, in many occasions. Being able to order and understand food vocabulary is very important when you are having lunch with a foreign businessman. No matter if you are the host or the guest, you will need to know it and use it properly. A skill to have in mind in business deals!
Or let’s take sports for instance. Another brilliant example of the practical usage of your sports vocabulary. Think of how most of the business meetings start, by breaking the ice, and what better way of doing it than asking the interlocutor about the last football or basketball derby! A fantastic trait to predispose your business partner to listen to be open to your business proposals.
In conclusion, every single activity can be made relevant for your students, no matter what their background is, only by introducing questions related to their specific field in the intro of your activity and also in its conclusion. That way you will reinforce the idea of the appropriacy of the activity for the learners.
Use the same technique to link apparently unconnected activities. Use anything you can remember from your students’ answers and any related content in the previously activity.
Absolutely anything can be linked in a logical way, just be imaginative and good observers!
Here are some pointers that will help you increase your rhythm:
How to start and finish a class is a key element as the former predisposes your students and sets the tone of the class and the latter recaps what the students have learnt and makes them aware of all they’ve been able to practice.
The way you start determines the rest of your class! Whether you will choose some small talk or crack on with the essential, it is lesson part that is relevant for your learners.
Do you know why we always start with Quick Questions in Oxbridge?
- We could start by asking how your weekend was or what you did yesterday. But this is what everybody else does. By starting with the QQs, students perceive they belong to a system with its own identity.
- This places them in their Oxbridge class and they know that their teacher has exactly the same knowledge and abilities to convey a good message as their predecessors.
- From minute 1 of the class the learners change the linguistic code and, no matter if the meaning is absolutely clear or not, they know they are using L2 from the very beginning of their class.
- Small talk doesn’t have to reduce class time, but it often does. Students are learners but also customers. They pay for 60 minutes of English class, not 10 minutes of small talk and 50 minutes of relevant class.
- “In one of my classes, Joan used to always be 5 minutes late”, shares a teacher. Once I asked him why he was always exactly 5 minutes late. If he was able to come exactly 5 min after the class start, he would be able to come on time. “The first 5 minutes we do nothing important”, was Joan’s reply.
“Hello, this is your English class, let’s start thinking in English”. You wouldn’t probably say this to students but that’s what you transmit when you start with the same formula. Students feel there is a system behind their classes, this is not just another English class. QQs are Oxbridge’s trade mark. They put students into a positive tension. They start paying attention; you don’t need to “call for discipline”.
Compare the following starts: “Today we are going to learn the past perfect continuous tense”. This exciting topic for you can be tedious and discouraging for your students.mA different start avoiding pre-announcing what the class will be about is also possible.
- Remember that the purpose of the QQs is not to teach vocabulary or structures. They teach to just answer in a short way using the same procedure, even though the message is unclear. No need to spend time explaining vocabulary. This is a mistake many inexperienced teachers do. They don’t know how to react to the students’ pressure to understand the message and try to clarify unknown words. This kills the pace of the class and the purpose of the QQs as there is no other criteria of selecting them but the fact that they all contain an auxiliary or modal verb and an inversion. Therefore explaining a random word means a bad teaching style.
- Quick Questions have to be done as quickly as possible and preferably, without an apparent order. If you go asking students randomly, they will always pay attention to the questions, all of them will think of the answer before you even call the student’s name.
With lively discussion-based classes where the students talking time far outweighs the teacher talking time, the wrap up at the end is very important. Mention what grammar was worked on and topics discussed in class, so students know they have taken the best of their lesson. Also, this time is crucial to point out the positive aspects of the students’ development and the areas that need improvement.
The way you finish your class is what your students will remember once it’s over!
When you reach minute 45, 60, 90 of your class, you could either say “Well, that’s all for today”, or let students realise that your class makes sense and has had a purpose. The previous sentence reveals lack of interest and suggests that you are looking forward to the class finishing and getting out of there.
Good time management necessarily provides 5 minutes for recap and concept checking. You will make sure that your students remember key target language and they will leave the class feeling they’ve learnt and know more than before the class.
Remember: the class is not complete until you do the recap. Then, it’s time to go.
It has to be remarked here that there is a difference between an activity wrap up and a class or general wrap up.
The logical parts of the activity: introduction, practice and wrap up should always be present. At the end of each activity we have to make sure the students have accomplished the goal. Usually we do that by means of some concept check questions (CCQ) that revise the most relevant target language of the activity and give the teacher an idea of what has been learnt and what needs reinforcement.
The logical end of the class can also consist of some concept check questions, which would include bits of all the activities done in the class, but it can also be a general recap of the lesson plan. Not only you can check again the content accomplishment; it is good for the students to hear again what they’ve practiced and learnt in the lesson summarized briefly by you. The more explicit this summary is, the clearer idea will the learners have of what they’ve achieved and worked on in the lesson plan.
You can also include some suggestions for improvement and some advice for practicing after class. A good idea would be to refer to any visual elements (films, videos, news) that were included in the lesson plan, but also something from your experience that you find interesting for the students: podcasts, interesting internet links, books, songs, series, blogs with learning content, etc.
In the Oxbridge blog we post weekly all the videos related to the current news activities that are used in our classes. The videos are not necessary for the class practice but they are extremely interesting for students to watch at home, once the content has been dealt with in class. We post two videos a week, which are always interesting as they are taken from the immediate time context. Usually these are news, events, interesting and updated facts, technological breakthroughs, new releases, etc.
You can also find other interesting blogs with learning content, such as the British Council learning corner.