My Classroom Basics

One of the things I remember very much wanting as a new teacher was a kind of “toolkit”. You know the sort of thing – a bunch of quick, easy things which you can use there and then to become a natural and confident teacher. Experience & hindsight, somewhat predictably, have taught me that there is no such thing as a “toolkit”, at least not in the sense I wanted. But we do develop sets of core methods, or principles, or ideals, or things we rely on more than others, and these could be classed as toolkits, like this one, by Rob Lewis which explores some of these ideas for himself. I think they are highly personal – you might look at my list and think I am being a pompous ass, or you may think I am absolutely right. But certainly these ideas are the starting point from which I base my lessons, where I can.

1. Peer Feedback

All the time. For everything. As standard. Ad nauseum, as well I suspect.

It started for me in the “old days” of using cassette tapes and having to rewind the cassette – I initially started doing this as something to give my students something to do while they were waiting. I realised very quickly (through reflection and a bit of reading) that this was a useful stage in learning – it gives learners the opportunity to share their ideas, consolidate their thinking, and promotes learning through negotiation. It also generates speaking time in the class, useful extra practice of speaking skills and the rest. So yes, come along to my ESOL class, and indeed my teacher training sessions, and you will be “checking your answers with your partner”.

2. Collaborative Working

Peer feedback is a version of this, but this goes further. It forms an integral part of speaking activities (like information gap activities, for example) as well as writing tasks. For me, the bext thing about collaborative working is that you can set a task off and, if you plan it with care and consideration for things like “are the learners interested?” then it can be phenomenally successful. One of the things I enjoy most about it is the unpredictability – you can get so much more language from learners trying to work together to do something rather than a more restricting, teacher controlled session.

Interestingly Lightbown & Spada talk about the benefit of collaborative working as more motivating than working competitively. Not disregarding the benefits of competitive, of course – a game or quiz can be fun and engaging on all sorts of levels, but working together creates a more positive atmosphere and generates greater levels of motivation.

The other joy of collaborative working is that it allows lots of room for differentiation: you can set the same general task for all the learners, but expect different outcomes for each learner, or group of learners. A collaborative reading task, for example, allows you to get some learners looking for more complex information, others looking for more easily identifiable information, leading to a whole group access to the text building on different skills.

3. Communicating for a reason

Bad speaking activity: “Talk to your partner.” Less bad speaking activity: “Talk to your partner about what they did at the weekend”. Good speaking activity “Find out from your partner what they did at the weekend.” But wait, I hear you say, the end product is the same. Of course it is, but the classroom instruction gives learners a clear jumping off point to start the conversation, makes for a more natural activity (I use more carefully there), and in my experience, is generally more successful. I think this is because the speaker has something they need to say because they’ve been asked.

This applies to all skills focussed lessons or activities. Some of the worst skills lessons I have every observed usually involved the teacher saying something like “just read this.” My discussions afterwards centred around “why were they reading?” and “What was the task?” and then there’s “Did the learners actually give a damn what the text was about?”

It’s really easy, or at least it is for me, to be excited by a given text or topic and to feel so excited about it that you forget your students are not at all interested in what you have just selected for them. Of course, some texts are just funny or have a narrative hook, like the text I adapted for a lesson on travel and work in and of themselves. They are intrinsically motivating and interesting in the sense that you are curious to see how it all works out.

Of course, the best idea is to let learners select their own texts and use these as the jumping off point for learning. You could have a regular activity where each learner brings a text to analyse/discuss, or simply to make sense of!

4. Grammar is learned not taught.

So don’t teach it. Or at least don’t present it. One of the educational myths perpetuated by PPP is the misinterpretation of the first P – in this era of the projector & whiteboard many CELTA trainees interpret it as “Stand and talk in front of a powerpoint slide.” Instead, then, this is an opportunity for learners to be exposed to the language before they then explore and really experience the language. I’d say we could call this EEE but that sounds like a Yorkshireman after a nice cup of tea, and we have enough 3 letter initialisms which claim to sum up the teaching experience.

But my point is that if I teach grammar (teach as in “make learn”) I don’t explain the rules. Not if I can help it. It does drive some people to distraction, but my main tool in this is the simple premise of….

5. Ask don’t Tell

A CELTA trainee once lost her rag with me and said, politely but tersely, “Can you just tell us?!” So I capitulated. But this does form the heart of my classroom practice, which is simply to challenge the learners to tell me, and therefore work out the answers and make their own sense of the information they need to understand.

6. Lesson first, resources second

An easy trap for anyone to fall into is to place all the emphasis on the resources. One of the things which I always get when I am covering a lesson is “I’ve got the resources for you.” which is well intentioned but wrong. Yes I want resources, and I want good ones, but want want to know first if I am covering a class is what the lesson is trying to do: the general aim of the lesson. I can manage without detailed learning outcomes; I’m a big boy and can work those out. I’m also a fairly experienced, and if I’m honest, a bit arrogant, and have probably done that before and can think of an appropriate resource.

It’s also always tempting to repurpose or refocus a lesson or activity to fit the resources you have found, which just seems the wrong way round. I understand why it happens, and in the real world of teaching 20+ hours a week it’s just easier to tweak the lesson not rewrite resources, but it’s still the tail wagging the dog.

7. Learners are the single most important resource in the classroom

And what people forget most of all is that the best and most useful resource in any classroom are the learners. We take in handouts, slap presentations up, twiddle funky things round an interactive whiteboard and all the rest, but the are window dressing resources when compared to the ideas and resources inside the learners’ heads.

Being learner focused is not just about needs analyses, diagnostic assessments and learning plans, although these have a place, and not at all about pat learning styles analyses. Learner focus is about engaging and challenging learners by bringing their lives into the classroom, and developing learning around those lives.

By which I don’t mean the hyperfunctionalism of the classic UK ESOL “Mrs Khan goes to the supermarket” activities. I mean being interested in their stories and the things happening in their lives, whether it is going to the supermarket, or whether it is about a robbery which happened on their street, or something in the news, or a story or legend from their own country, or a lesson stemming from an impromptu “How do we…?”

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So there you are, a little look inside my head at what makes my teaching tick. I would invite you to disagree, shout at me, and certainly expect comments like “that’s all very well but…”. But most of these are things I do as standards, or at least aim to do, and if I don’t do them then I feel I have taught an unsuccessful lesson. I would expect some similarities with your own list and perhaps if every teacher wrote a list like this we could make some really good generalisations about what works?

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