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Teaching Ideas

December 06, 2002

Tricks o' the Trade

Steven Gershon

Obirin University

All teachers who have been in the ELT biz for any length of time end up toting around in their head a well-filled grab bag stuffed with little pedagogic tricks and gimmicks. These are all the useful classroom insights, instincts, reflexes and techniques that are transportable, in one form or another, to almost any teaching situation, almost anywhere.

Some of our grab bag goodies are geared to our own unique teaching style, many of them may be more transferable than we imagined, providing other less experienced teachers, or those who have gotten bogged down with practices that don't seem to work anymore, a fresh way of doing things.

With that in mind, I'd like to pull out of my own grab bag just a few "tricks o' the trade" that usually make my classes run a bit more smoothly. Of course, I should quickly point out that these classroom gimmicks are simple, practical and, above all, obvious to most of you--things you probably already do. Nonetheless, I find that sometimes it doesn't hurt to state the obvious, if nothing more than to satisfy ourselves that we are not the only ones doing what we're doing.

Anyway, here's a peek at a few things (in the form of self-reminders) that I've stuffed into my pedagogic grab bag…

1. Keep a stack of lesson warmers, fillers and enders close at hand

Learning a language is a practical, skill-based endeavor. It's like a sport, involving both mental and physical apparatus--a sort of linguistic athleticism. And when athletes are about to play a sport, they need to limber up, stretch the muscles slowly so they don't pull or tear once the action begins. Students also need to warm-up at the beginning of a class, having come in 'cold' from the L1 environment. Starting straight off with 'the lesson' can be a real jolt to the verbal muscles.

Athletes also sometimes benefit from a sudden "second wind" mid-way through a long endurance event - a boost in energy just when they are about to peter out. For students (and teachers) this is where fillers come in handy--short five-minute activities we can pull out when the lesson is bogging down and the students need a break from the usual work at hand. These can often revitalize enervated (dozing) students and provide just enough of a change of pace to get them through the last 20 minutes of the lesson in a constructive way.

The same goes for lesson enders. These are particularly useful when, as sometimes happens, we come to that point in the lesson when we have 10 minutes left, the previous activity has fully run its course, there's not enough time to do the next meaty activity we had planned, and we don't want to finish the lesson early (especially when the department head is teaching in the next classroom!).

What works as a warmer, filler or ender? Almost anything, as long as it…
a. is short (5-10 minutes)
b. is non-threatening (involving language students feel comfortable with)
c. is fun/and or interesting
d. gets everyone thinking and/or communicating in English

Ones that work for me are: word games like hangman; guessing games like 20 questions or what's my line; a group brainstorm focusing on a single vocabulary item and whatever the students can associate with it; a round of pictionary (with the whole class guessing or in small groups); a short dictation (about me--students are almost always interested in information about the teacher); a tongue twister ("She sells sea shells by the sea shore; the sea shells that she sells are sea shells, I'm sure", etc.); an idiom of the day. Whatever works for you…just collect them, keep them nearby and pull them out when needed.

2. Prescribe a healthy dose of Classroom English

Our ELT comrades who teach in multilingual classrooms in English speaking countries have it easy. When they throw a pair or group task at their students, they can be fairly confident that the students will tackle it wholly in English. The students have to--they can't fall back on their first language when nobody else in the group speaks it. This is built-in motivation for the students to get (and remember) the language they need to do everything in English during a lesson.

We who teach in a homogenous language environment like Japan have to work harder to make sure our students really are using English as much as possible in the classroom. It's easy for them to fall back on Japanese, and often they do, out of habit, embarrassment or plain ol' laziness. However, they also rely on Japanese when they just don't have the necessary English to do what we want them to do.

For me, fixing this problem is, first of all, a matter of viewing all phases of a lesson--not just the tasks themselves--as opportunities to speak English. Secondly, it's making sure the students have or get the "classroom" language they need. And thirdly, it's letting the students know I expect them to use it.

Here's my "bottom-line" list of necessary classroom language:

"Help" English
Basically, these are the expressions needed for seeking some kind of linguistic help?from the teacher or a fellow student--for meaning, pronunciation, spelling, repetition or clarification. Oddly, it's one area of practical English that even intermediate and advanced level students often do in Japanese (or incorrect English), perhaps because their previous teachers have not bothered to make sure they know it and use it. I, therefore teach (and quiz) my students on useful "help" expressions like the ones below at the beginning of the academic year?and force (well, lets say "strongly encourage") them to use with me and with each other:

Could you say that again, please?
Can you speak more slowly, please?
How do you say ____ in English/Japanese?
How do you pronounce/say this word?
What does ___ mean?
How do you spell ___?

Task English
We can also call this "Classroom" English - expressions students need for getting into pairs and groups, negotiating tasks, checking answers with each other, etc. Once again, I find that students tend to do these things in Japanese simply because it's easier, i.e. they don't have the language to do it correctly in English. I deal with that by teaching them expressions like these:

For pair work…
Do you have a partner yet?
Lets work together for this activity.
Are you ready? I'll start.
I'll be A and you be B.

For group work…
We need one more person in our group.
Can I join your group?
Who wants to go first?

For comparing answers…
What did you get for number 1?
I got ____ for number 1. How about you?
I have the same/a different answer.
I didn't get that one.

All of the above language is not only immensely useful for students (in and out of the classroom) but also easy to teach. Of course, like with everything else in language teaching, it's not a matter of simply teaching it once in the first week and then sitting back while the students use it enthusiastically every lesson from then on. It takes continued vigilance from me for a good few weeks. But sure enough, if I do take the time to teach it, reinforce it and remind them to use it, it does eventually become the default mode. The amount of English flying around the classroom soars and, best of all, the students feel more confident and empowered (a real buzzword in ELT these days!).

3. Practice the art of mindful elicitation

Most lessons involve some form of elicitation--getting students to give the teacher the answer to a question (or exercise) or some information gleaned from a task. It's one of those things we learned in teacher training, asking good open questions, not always repeating what the student says, probing for a more accurate answer, etc. Most teachers, myself included, have their own way of eliciting, dependent on their personality, style and experience.

One thing I've found is that if I'm not careful (and believe me, sometimes I'm not careful!), the phases of the lesson when I'm asking students for answers can really bog down and zap everyone's energy and interest. Lots can go wrong, like…the student who doesn't know the answer and remains silently paralyzed while the whole class watches; the student who does know the answer, but speaks so softly nobody can hear; the keen student who always shouts out the answer before you have a chance to ask anyone, etc.

Here are a few things that I've discovered help out a bit:

Give students a chance to compare answers before asking individuals.
This is particularly useful for listening and reading tasks. Remind students to use the "comparing answers" language you taught in the first week!

Ask the question, then ask for volunteers, finally ask an individual.
Students often need time to think before being able to say an answer. Asking the question first, then waiting a few seconds to seek a volunteer, can mean the difference between getting a deadly silence and quick, appropriate response.

Don't ask students who look as though they don't know.
How many times have I wasted valuable class time, and worse, embarrassed a student, by asking for an answer that the student, had I noticed his/her expression and/or body language, obviously didn't know? Too many.

Move around to see who has the answers
I have a tendency get away from the front and move around the classroom when I teach. This is useful while students are comparing answers to listening or reading tasks or when they are preparing for a reporting back session after an information share activity. I can then check (surreptitiously) who has a good answer, and help the weaker students come up with an appropriate answer. Then I can try to elicit answers from those who have them.

Keep a distance when listening to answers.
Because I move around, I also tend to call on students from various areas of the classroom. Although this keeps students on their toes, I am careful not to call on students when I'm standing too close to them. Why? No, not because I'm so intimidating, but because they will speak too softly and nobody else will hear them. Solution: call on students when you are on the other side of the classroom. You then have a legitimate reason to ask them to speak up.

Lets finish with a short, simple one. In fact, this is one I have learned the hard way, many times--and continue to re-learn at least once every semester…

4. Don't base a lesson on the assumption everyone will do the homework.

I'd like to have 10 yen for every 90 minute lesson of mine that fizzled out miserably within the first 10 minutes when I discovered that 17 out of the 30 students didn't do the homework on which the lesson depended.

What do I do in those situations (aside from shout, scream, stomp my feet and banish the delinquent students)? Have a viable back up lesson plan (that doesn't rely on homework). And tell myself I will never, ever do that again.

Don't get me wrong. I think homework is useful and important, especially if the class meets only once or twice a week. So, given that a gram of prevention is worth a kilo of cure, my well-intentioned advice to myself is to try as much as possible to keep homework as a follow up to something we have already done in class, rather than as the necessary impetus for the next lesson. I know, don't tell me. Your students are different. You've trained them. They always complete their homework--all of it--on time. I hate you.

Like I said at the beginning, none of the above tricks o'the trade are especially esoteric. You probably already know and do them, and have lots of others in an even bigger grab bag of your own. Great. Let me know what they are.

Steven Gershon
Steven Gershon taught EFL in Britain, France, and China before arriving in Japan. He has been teaching in Japan for 13 years and is currently the Director of the English Language Program at Obirin University. Being a glutton for punishment, he also writes textbooks. When he is not teaching or writing, he is swimming at Tipness, scuba diving in the Philippines, wind surfing at Enoshima or slurping lattes at Starbucks.

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