Old, New, Borrowed and Blue

Just four ideas and thoughts about classrooms…

Something Old

Drilling. It’s not terribly funky, and the basic psychology behind it has been unfashionable for decades, but drilling is an amazingly useful tool, and like many useful tools, easily used badly by bad workmen and women. How do I use it? Primarily for pronunciation, especially at higher levels, where drilling functional structures is a little unnecessary. I use it to focus on stress in particular, and it works well for assessing learner performance. If, like me, you have a lesson plan pro forma which has an assessment column, drilling can go in there because individual repetition through a drill is an easy way of checking if a learner has got the pronunciation and can at least produce it once. (This does take us to one of the essential fallacies of the learning outcome in an ESOL class, which is that it is a rare thing indeed for a learner to be able to actually use the target language with full control after one exposure in one lesson, but that’s another question altogether.) At low levels I still use the old standard mill drill: students mill round the room asking each other the same question for the same or very similar answer: this frees you up and allows you time to go round listening to a more relaxed context. I tend to chorale drill first, but then Individual drilling I keep random: I tend not to go round the room from left to right, because everyone at the end switches off until it’s nearly their turn. I also use peer correction, using a previous drillee as a model rather than repeating it myself.

Like concept questions and finger correction, this is something I was atrocious at during my CELTA days (still not sure how I passed that course), but have since become pretty confident at. I think initially you feel self conscious because it feels terribly old fashioned and “schooly” but honestly, if you can get past that and embrace it with gusto (and you must, or drilling will simply not work) it is a handy technique, or rather range of techniques, to be deployed when necessary.

Something New

OK, so this probably isn’t an original idea, but it’s an idea which came to me this week when I was fishing round in my bag for something else and found four large paper clips. The learners were already in four groups, so I gave them one each and then two minutes to come up with reasons why their paper clip is the best paper clip in the world. It was a fun task, and the learners came up with some great ideas as well as generating some interesting language discussions around superlatives when the adjective ends in -y (most shiny or shiniest?) and the intonation used in TV ads.

Something Borrowed

First an idea I borrowed blatantly from my colleague, Cathy, and have been passing off as my own for ages, so time, I think to come clean. After doing some writing you get the learners to copy each sentence of their writing onto slips of paper. You then jumble these up and put the learners in groups. Each group takes a slip and has to decide if it correct or not, and if it is wrong then they need to correct it. They then bring it to you to check, and if it is right they get a new slip to work on. This goes on til everyone has finished and the slips are all gone! and the group with the most correct slips is the winner. Each learner then gets their sentences back and can check their original writing. I’ve changed this slightly and do this with only one or two incorrect sentences from each learner (takes less time to set up) which I select when I mark then type up and cut up. But it works, and for this, how a staple of my classroom practice, I would like to say thanks Cathy.

Pretty much everything I do is borrowed from someone else. Some book, a website, a discussion with a colleague, Twitter, a Reality TV show, an idea from a training event, all sorts. I am a proper magpie when it comes to teaching ideas, and you should be too. Why bust a gut thinking up a way to teach present perfect for experience when this has been taught in thousands, possibly millions of classrooms all over the world for decades? Those of you with a more academic bent may have heard of principled eclecticism, the post methods era, where teachers pinch and borrow from whichever approach happens to suit that class: we are not just resource magpies now; we are methodology magpies. A bit of task based learning, some lexical approach elements, a splash of dogme half way through, and some audiolingualism and total physical response to close. The skill of the teacher lies in choosing which bits to pinch and how to string them together. I borrow mercilessly and joyfully, although not always acknowledging and thanking. So to all the colleagues, writers and unwitting contributors to my teaching toolbox, thank you.

Something Blue

You probably spent most of the time reading this post thinking “How is he going to shoehorn blue into this post?” Well, here’s how.
In the last couple of weeks, partly because we were discussing and reading about the myth of blue Monday in class, we’ve had discussions about colour symbolism in class and this has been a rich source of interest for speaking in class. What does blue mean in English? (Depressed, risqué, rude) Is it the same in your country/culture/language? What about the meaning of other colours? We also came up with a question on “blue” idioms – “once in a blue moon”. This also highlighted some confusion “what is ‘over the blue moon’?” and subsequently to more idioms on the theme of celestial bodies.

So there you go, I managed to get blue in there somehow.

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