following a thread


shared by FraserElliot on flickr

A storm has blown up once again in the blogosphere over grammar McNuggets and it got me thinking about how I serve them up with my present class of beginners. So I decided to pick out one particular nugget and follow the thread from its first appearance to its present state.

The nugget I’ve chosen is the simple past.  On the suggested syllabus and pacing schedule supplied by the school, the simple past appears somewhere towards the end of term two.  It cropped up much earlier for us.  In the fourth week of the course (we have two classes a week of an hour and half so this was after about 10 hours of class) we looked at jobs: the lexis of jobs, the conditions and responsibilities, the qualifications and training, and of course we answered the question, What’s your job? Two of the students in the class are retired, so they needed the following language to be able to answer the question:

I’m retired.

I was a secondary school teacher.

I worked in a bank.

I gave the chunks, we used them in conversation.  We looked at “was” and identified it as the past of both am and is.   We looked at “worked” and I pointed out that the “ed” ending denoted the past.  We used worked in context in our conversations but we didn’t delve any further. This short note on morphology was the first bite of the nugget.

When I was writing up the summary of that particular lesson I decided it was time to expand on my style.  The initial summaries had simply been lists of useful language gleaned from our mini conversations. E.g.:



 Hello, good morning!

How are you?

Fine thanks / very well thank you/ OK

And you?


 What’s your name? 

My name’s …  

And you?

Pleased to meet you

You too / and you

They had evolved over time and I started to include comments and short tasks but now that the –ed nugget had emerged, I could start to use a more narrative style:

Remembering questions

Here are the questions you remembered. You know a lot of questions from only three weeks of classes!

Over the next three or four weeks, we didn’t go back to focus on the past at all, but I peppered the summaries with regular verbs and examples of was and were.  Here is the description of one of our conversations a few weeks later:

3 favourite foods

 We talked about the food we like to eat at different meals.  It was a great conversation.  We talked about a lot of different things.  Here is some of the new vocabulary we looked at:

 Tastes:  bitter, sweet, sharp.  Can you think of food for each taste? For example, coffee is bitter.

Herbs and spices: cinnamon, mint, vanilla.  Do you like them?

 Can you remember the words in bold? What do they mean?

We talked about making fresh juice in a blender and José Antonio told us a story about his grandfather who put a big watermelon on the table for the little José Antonio forty years ago.  He talked about the delicious heart of the watermelon.  We talked about the difference between grape juice and mosto and wine.  José Antonio explained that real mosto is light and thick and perfect for barbecues.   You can drink a lot of mosto but you don’t get drunk. We also talked about barrels of sherry and bottles of wine.   And then we talked about siestas. Do you have a siesta

Looking back at this, it’s clear that some at least of this conversation with José Antonio involved past verbs.  I guess we dealt with them as they cropped up.  I can remember we quickly talked about the fact that some verbs are irregular in Spanish and the cuteness of kids mastering (or not) the irregular endings. I explained that when the past was irregular, I’d give them the form they needed but that we wouldn’t start a list quite yet.  Looking back over the summaries in those three or four weeks, the following examples of the simple past cropped up again and again: looked at, talked about, described, practised, listened to, remembered, played, introduced, explained – and I started to add negative forms too: You didn’t have any questions from the last lesson.

We generally kick off the class by looking quickly at the summary of the lesson before and airing any questions or doubts. Not once did the students ask for clarification of a past verb.  I like to think that the initial explanation and the gentle drip-drip exposure meant that they were slowly acquiring the form.

In the first lesson after the Christmas break, it seemed the right time to look a little closer at the simple past.  This was more than a month after we’d first noticed the –ed ending.  Here are the notes from our summary:

In this lesson we talked about the Christmas holidays and we looked at:

 1 How to form the past simple

2 Ordinal numbers

3 How to say dates


Here are our notes for the past simple:


? questions DID + subject + verb Did you have a good holiday?
+ affirmative Verb + ED We stayed in Puerto Real.
- negative DIDN’T + verb We didn’t go away.  


Remember we used the past simple to talk about jobs.

José Antonio:  I worked in a bank.

Lourdes: I was a Science teacher.  


The verb to be is irregular in the past.  Look at this table.


present Past
I amYou/We /They  are

He/She / It is

I wasYou/We/They  were

He/She/It was


Some verbs are irregular.  Here are some common irregular verbs we used in the lesson:


Present Past










The presentation part of the lesson was very short, board-based and grew out of the language that had emerged from our chat about the Christmas holidays.  During the chat I’d been using a mini whiteboard at my elbow on the shared table and I’d made notes of useful and new language with a box set aside for past verbs. The students were using past verb forms with very little prompting.  There were questions about the use of the infinitive with didn’t, but as most verbs were in the affirmative that area will need more exposure and practice I guess.

In the next lesson (which was a Monday) we talked about weekends and looked at a very small set of irregular past verbs: had, made, went, did, and commented on how much we could say with just four verbs.  We collected examples of collocations. In the summary I set them the task of thinking of more.  We looked at these again at the beginning of the next lesson.

We looked at expressions with each verb.  Can you think of more?

We had a big lunch.  We had a coffee at home. We had a beer in the sun.

I made Paella.  I made some pastries. 

I went shopping. I went for a walk.

We did some cooking.

The lesson after that we talked about the upcoming exam (more about that to come in another post) and the students asked that they not be tested on the past verbs.  I was fine with that, but actually, when it came to the speaking section of the exam, they all used various simple past forms with no problems at all.

So what?  Well, it was interesting for me to see how this particular nugget emerged. It needed a little pushing, it needed time to grow and it’s still growing. But looking back at how I had “taught” this area, there was very little classroom time devoted to teaching. I shared links to simple presentation videos on youtube that the students watched at home (3 or 4 minutes maximum and everybody did watch them) so I guess there was more “teaching” going on there as well, and I was consciously using and re-using and embedding examples in my post lesson emails and in the summaries on the blog as well as in teacher talk during class, but I was still pleased to see how painless the whole process had been. And only once did we actually focus attention on the form and on practising the form. The rest of the time it’s just come up in conversation.  Oh, and yes, we’ve looked at pronunciation, but you know, that classical –ed extra syllable sounding has hardly been a problem at all.  I think there’s a lot to be said for growing grammar slowly at this level.

At present I’m taking a back seat as I watch the present continuous slowly sprouting.  It isn’t on my suggested syllabus until the third term, but the students have already spotted the –ing ending for nouns and are slowly moving towards a natural translation of estar + present participle in Spanish. I think it’ll probably be time to acknowledge its presence very soon.

Posted in musings, reflecting on teaching, thoughts on learning, thoughts on teaching | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

the last link ?

paperchain for blog

This post is a very late response to a blog challenge that was doing the rounds last year (well, OK, a couple of weeks ago). Apologies to Hana and Sandy who both “tagged” me just before the Christmas break, and just after I’d gone into self-imposed internet exile.


So, there are five steps to the challenge – and here are the first three:

1 Acknowledge the nominating blogger/s.

Thank you very much to both of you for including me in a not-too-good blogging year!

2 Share 11 random facts about yourself.

As it’s January 2 here are 11 random facts about 2013.

1 I like first times and 2013 had quite a few.

2 We got our first family dog. We’re all ridiculously soppy about her.

bambina for blog

3 I learnt to body surf properly for the first time (I know, but hey, it’s never too late, right?)

4 I climbed my first rock face and had my first “bouldering” experience.

5 I went back to Italy for the first time after fifteen years.  It was a huge linguistic challenge as I hadn’t spoken Italian since I was last there in the 90s.  It snowed and the train rides were beautiful.

snow in italy for blog

6 I visited Peru for the first time. Loved the ceviche!

7 I learnt an important (and I pretty obvious) lesson. Make the most of work trips. If I get another chance to visit Peru I’ll make sure I tack on enough days to see Machu Pichu!

8 I tutored on my first Trinity TESOL diploma courses, both online and face-to-face.

9  I presented at the first Image Conference in Barcelona. A great event.  Thanks Kieran et al.

10 I went up in the London Eye for the first (and probably only) time – expensive but the views at sunset are worth it.

11 After almost 16 years in Spain I cooked my first paella (well Anna did really and I was chef’s assistant- thank you Anna!)



3 Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.

These are the questions Hana asked me:

1. If you could change one thing about education in your country, what would it be?

The testing culture – and the over-emphasis on rote learning – at least in formal assessment. Along with the “worksheet” culture and mountains of mindless homework that (sometimes? often?) goes with it. To quote my youngest on her frustration with her Spanish homework: This exercise is stupid, it just tells you what to do, it doesn’t ask you to think (verbatim)

2. Have you ever thought of quitting your job as an educator? Why?

No, because my job/s have changed and morphed over the years and that’s been more than enough to keep me challenged and engaged.

3. What’s your earliest memory as an educator?

My first 30 mins in teaching practice. I was asked to “look after” a class of 30 4-year-olds while their teacher attended a meeting. It was their third week of school, for many in a language they didn’t yet speak. I was told I had to speak to them in Welsh only. It was thirty minutes of high energy chaos!

4. Is education valued where you live? If not, what is the main reason?

Yes, it’s valued in so much as it’s seen as necessary in the incredibly difficult job situation at the moment. But there’s also a lot of pessimism, education is by no means enough. It’s a tough time for everyone, but especially for our little corner of south west Spain.

5. How do you think we could help to make teaching a more prestigious job?

Big question!  On an individual basis by doing the very best we can in our own immediate context, by supporting and encouraging and when and where possible inspiring others to do the same – but to change the social-political culture of a country or region? No answer there, sorry.

6. Apart from burning-out, what’s the biggest danger for a teacher?

Possibly loss of self-esteem, the tendency to use the “just” tag: I’m just a teacher. And maybe sometimes isolation or loneliness. If you don’t work in a positive, happy staffroom, teaching can be a lonely job.

7. Did anyone try to put you off teaching in the past?

Yes, me! When I was in school it was absolutely the last thing I wanted to be! I hate to admit this but I did my PGCE so that I could get another grant-funded year at university. I enjoyed the training, but didn’t feel like a teacher until my first TEFL job in Italy the year after I finished.

8. Why do you think teaching can bring so much satisfaction but also frustration?

Because it’s a people job, because it can give you the chance to help people, to make a difference. And because sometimes the reality of the job – paperwork, tests, ministry programmes etc etc – can get in the way.

9. What makes you happy?

Spending time with people, doing things together, learning or doing something new. Above all with family and friends.
10. When did you last laugh out loud?
About half an hour ago, playing with the dog (everyone else is asleep!)

11. If your child/best friend wanted to become a teacher, what piece of advice would you give him or her?
Practical advice, I guess, if I could. Where to find out more, how to go about doing it the way they want to. I wouldn’t persuade or dissuade but discuss options I guess.

And these are Sandy’s questions:
1. What advice would you give to someone starting out in your profession?

I’ve answered this one above ;)
2. Are you a tidy person or a clean person, or both, or neither?
I have to work at organizing papers. I’m much better at organizing computer files! I clear my desk every day (mainly because it doubles up as the kitchen table!) and I like to keep my work area clear and tidy, but at the end of each working shift in front of the computer it all gets shoved into an incredibly untidy cupboard! My teaching materials are more or less the same. I try and make sure that anything that needs to be shared with anyone else (lesson notes, register etc) is clearly-marked and tidy, but stuff that’s for my eyes only is usually a mess!

3. How often do you go to the cinema?

Nowhere near as often as I’d like to. When I was living in Madrid, and before having kids, two or three times a week. There’s a great cinema culture there with films from all over the world, especially the Spanish-speaking world. I miss it a lot. Now I get by with boxed sets of TV series (usually a couple of years behind everyone else! Just starting Breaking Bad now).

4. Do you have a favourite word (in any language)?

Maybe Italian exclamations like, Magari! Mannaggia! and Boh!

5. What’s your favourite meal? Can you cook it?

I love Thai soups, vegetable curries, homemade pasta sauces. I can cook passable imitations ;)

6. What’s the phrase you constantly hear yourself saying?

Does that make sense?

7. What’s the worst job you’ve ever done?

Printing greetings on balloons.

8. What’s your favourite method of procrastination?

Ah, so many! Writing blog posts, maybe? ;)

9. Do you like classical music?

Yes, but I know nothing about it.

10. I don’t know much about poetry. Is there a particular poem you think I should read?

I’m really, really bad at choosing one example of anything! I bought this anthology – The Rattle Bag –  when I was teaching literature and it’s a great way in – I’ve been back to it again and again for poetry to use in class.

11. And, a little bit of advertising. :) What’s your favourite eltpic? (You don’t have to justify it!)

eltpic 2000 by Ian James.
image by @ij64 on flickr (eltpics)


I’ve completed the first three steps,  but then I’m afraid I’m now going to break the chain. Thank you Lesley for a great example of how to do that with style! 

Here are the two steps I’m not completing:

4 List 11 bloggers.
5 Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

I’m afraid I’ve always been hopeless at these chain things and I’m responding so late  most of my blogging friends have already taken up the challenge.  I must admit that the idea of drawing up a list of 11 people to tag is daunting and I really don’t want to pass that task on to anyone else.

By way of apology, here are eleven responses that have popped up over the last few weeks, including those by  Hana, Sandy and Lesley.

Hana Tichá

Sandy Millin

Lesley Cioccas

Kevin Stein

Michael Griffin

Cecilia Lemos

Ty Seburn

Marisa Constantides

Rachael Roberts

Adam Simpson

Vicky Loras





Posted in blogging | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Christmas post

Just a quick post before the holidays.
my english blog first posts

This is the Christmas present I just shared with my beginners class. It’s a blog where we can store all our lesson notes and video links. I hope it’ll help them look back over what we’ve done in this first term and give them a sense of progress and achievement. I’m also hoping it’ll motivate them as well to keep in touch with the language and the lessons – and maybe each other – over the holiday.

Here’s the link if you want to take a quick look.

Have a great break wherever you are and whatever you’re doing!

Nadolig Llawen  :)

Posted in class blogs | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

getting the balance right

Balancing Act
This is part four in the series about my beginners class.

In this and the next post I want to take a step back and look at the slightly bigger picture.  We’ve now been having classes for  a month and there are quite a few issues that I want to reflect on and explore over the course of a series of lessons.   The first is the question of balance.

There are a lot of things to balance in the classroom (and outside) of course:  activities and personalities, needs and wants, presentation and practice, extension and revision.  But there are two things in particular I’m exploring at the moment with my class; the balance between input and output, and the role of L1 in the classroom.  Getting the balance right in both of these areas is a constant tight-rope act.  And it doesn’t just depend on me either, though I think I tend to feel that the responsibility is mine when things are maybe tilting too much one way, or the other.

Input and output

First to define terms, for my context at least. So, what is input?  Well in our case it can be language modelled by me, for example the first basic exchanges that I drilled in class, or the expressions I use repeatedly in the emails I send to my students with the lesson summaries and notes on homework (hello everybody) , or the language I use in the summaries themselves (today we talked about jobs). The language in the youtube clips we look at in class, or the students watch at home, the short reading and listening texts “borrowed” from coursebooks, the language offered in response to students’ requests, the answers to students’ questions. This is all input, whether it’s focused on or not.  And that’s another balancing act – to focus or not to focus – but one I’ll go into later!

And output? This is any chance the students get to use the language, whether simply repeating for sounds, repeating a dialogue we’ve built together, performing a simple role play, or piecing the language together to say something about themselves, their lives, their thoughts, their opinions – or the jokes they want to crack.   It’s also the written exercises and short texts I set for homework.

So far, so simple, but then comes the question of balance. First there’s the internal balance. How much input should come from me, from a text, from the students themselves?  What form should that input take?  What’s the right balance between chunks, individual words and underlying structures?  And what about the balance in the output?  How much controlled repetition do they need to feel confident enough to use the language? How much time can we dedicate to cobbling together meanings from chunks and words held together by good will and cooperation?   So many questions, and I’m afraid that there are very few solid answers.


My instinct is to try and create as even a balance as possible between all these factors, but also to allow space for each student to find the balance they need.  Of course, this is utopic.   From lesson to lesson, from student to student, the balance constantly tips in one direction or the other.  And of course, that’s fine too, and perfectly normal and natural,  and I’ve found that writing the lesson summaries, reflecting on the activities in the classroom as I write the summaries, blogging about the details of the classes, all these things are helping me to be more sensitive to imbalances, but not only to feel them, but also to give me time and space to think about how to right them.

So, in one lesson we may spend, what feels to me like much too much time on the initial questions and doubts that arise from going through the summary from the previous lesson.  In one extreme case 30 minutes of our hour-and-a-half lesson was spent looking at little things that came up from the lesson before (the prepositions in and at – again! – confusion between pronouns and possessive adjectives,  doubts about don’t and doesn’t) . These 30 minutes were spent in a question and answer session with me at the board and discussion and examples from the whole class.  I think it served to clarify things for some, I don’t think it deepened anybody’s confusion any further, plenty of theories and contrastive analysis was shared,  but I really, really don’t think it was the best use of time.  There was a lot of input from me, but not much output from them.  There may have been some processing going on, maybe some confidence building as the students felt their questions were being answered and that the linguistic ground below their feet may have been a little firmer, but to my mind there was far too much me, and not enough them.  I tipped the balance for the rest of the lesson with a listening task recycling vocabulary from the lesson before and a short focus on the use of possessive ‘s followed by fairly intensive practice in a definitions game.   The focus was away from the board and me, with the students working in pairs and groups and quite a lot of focused, controlled production.  The lesson was OK I think, but I went away with the feeling that there was an underlying imbalance – not just in that lesson, but in the general dynamic –  that needed addressing.


In the next class, rather than hand out paper copies of the summaries as I had done so far, I projected them on the whiteboard, and we quickly whizzed through them, making any notes and clarifications on the board.  It took ten minutes instead of thirty.  I had included a gapped summary of the listening text where the students needed to complete the information. They did this in pairs. It threw up a couple of problems with the vocabulary.  It also allowed for a quick revision of the ‘s which came from them not me. I helped me feel better about that particular balancing act.  We’ve done that for a couple of lessons now, projecting the summary on the board.   It allows us to move on more quickly to the “meat” of our lesson.

But of course, that was just one stone righted.  The lesson that followed the first projected summary uncovered a new imbalance.  It was a very input heavy lesson.  First I asked the students to brainstorm all the questions they could ask using what, how and where from the course so far.  It was a fairly impressive list after just three weeks. But we didn’t really do much with it apart from admire it.  They all knew all the answers for each other already so there didn’t seem to be much point in asking the questions.  Instead we moved on to introduce a new question and a new topic – jobs.   Again I asked the students to brainstorm all the jobs they knew, prompting them by asking for a couple of cognates (dentist, manager).   They happily filled out a mini whiteboard with jobs. We worked closely on the stress patterns, the weak forms, the pronunciation in general.  I provided a couple of items, but mainly the vocabulary came from the students.  I highlighted the use of a/an with jobs, pointed to the use of a with a consonant, an with a vowel ( I left the question of sound and articulation for a later lesson). We watched a video clip where people talked about their jobs, and then finally, in the last quarter of an hour, the students talked about their own jobs.   These 15 minutes were possibly the most useful of the whole lesson, but then again, maybe without the rest of the class, the following language wouldn’t have emerged:

I’m a social worker. I’m unemployed at the moment.

I’m a painter and decorator.

I’m retired. I was a Science teacher in secondary school.

I’m retired. I worked in a bank.

There was some interesting stuff here, not least the need for the simple past, given the age of some of the students.  Slipped in here it came very naturally, and it gave us the chance to pick up, very quickly, very superficially on the –ed ending, sowing seeds for later when we can slowly introduce more and more past verbs as they come up.  But again it was input, not output and after the lesson, as I quickly jotted down notes on the class and what might come next, I asked myself this question:  Are the students getting enough chances to express themselves, and to feel good about using the language?  Are they experiencing success and feeling like they’re moving forward?   I set myself the goal to try and make sure that there are at least three feel good, productive moments for all the students in each class.  A pretty small goal, but I’ll have to wait to see if that particular balancing act can work out over a series of lessons.

Sorry, a lot of questions, but not a lot of answers! And a whole area left hanging.  In the next post,  Do you speak Spanish?,   I’ll come back to that.  In the meantime, if you have any answers to offer, please leave a comment!

Posted in reflecting on teaching, thoughts on teaching | Tagged , | 1 Comment

every board tells a story?

This is the third post in a short series about teaching beginners. You can see the first and second posts here and here.

This was our board at the end of the second lesson. ( Click on the photo to hear a short description on voicethread of how we’d got to this point – and apologies for the quality of the photo!) This was what I used to help jog my memory in preparing my third lesson.

beginners lesson 2There was a new student so the lesson kicked off with introductions (this is … ) and a perfect opportunity to recycle good/nice/pleased to meet you.  One of the students wanted to know if he could say “this is my wife” and we brainstormed some more relationship words:  this is my student, my teacher, my friend, my classmate, my good friend and a few more.  This list went onto the board in the right-hand column and stayed there to be reviewed at the end of the lesson, though it didn’t actually turn out to be central to anything else we did.  From there we turned to the useful language on the left-hand side of the board above.  I had prepared a very simple word ordering task on slips of paper. It was actually challenging enough for one of the students to give a sigh of contentment on completing it!

say    you    How    do    “too”    Spanish    in?

mean     What     “in the mountains”   does ?

repeat,    you    please?   Can

understand.      don’t    I    sorry,     I’m

We wrote the sentences out in full on A4 paper and left them on the table for use during the lesson.

The next stage was to look back at the alphabet.  I wanted to review the phonetic symbols we’d used the class before (also on the board above) but vary the presentation a little, so I used the old favourite of categorizing the letters according to their vowels sounds.    I wrote the phonetic script on the board and we remembered and practiced the sounds, then the students worked in pairs to sort them into columns and took it in turn to board the answers.  This was the final product as recorded in the class summary:

alphabet (3)

So far so good though it had taken a little bit of pushing and re-explaining (from me and some of the students) to get everyone on board!  In the last lesson we’d role played a scenario at a hotel reception to contextualize questions asking for names, surnames, phone numbers, addresses etc  and to practise spelling.  It had all been oral, there was no written record, except the one the students were to write for themselves at home.  So, along with the summary from the previous lesson I gave them a script of their role play.  It’s such a simple thing to do, but students really seem to appreciate it. It shows them you’ve been listening to them, paying attention, and that you’ve taken the time to write up their work.  It also worked really well for supporting the new student.   The students read the script in pairs, including their own details, or inventing them, as they preferred.

hotel role pay

Of course, the script wasn’t word perfect and I had slipped in a couple of new expressions.  All the changes (e.g. can you spell that? rather than how do you spell that?) were picked up on and there was discussion of the different pronunciation of K and key.  That made the effort worth it for me.  It was good to see the students noticing the language at work in the dialogue and picking up on it.

The next thing I’d planned had been to watch a youtube vox pops type clip where people on the street are being asked to give their names and spell them. A totally inauthentic task, but they do seem to be real people. I choose it because of the repetition, the variety of voices and accents  and the fact that the students could access it at home if they wanted to.    At the beginning of this lesson we’d talked about the clip I’d shown them the lesson before (greetings). They’d all watched it and liked the exposure and repetition.  There may be many faults to pick in the clip (the intonation and use of full forms instead of contractions for example) but it seemed to fulfil its purpose in giving the students a chance to revisit and extend the language from the previous lesson. My plan was to watch the first interview on the clip with the subtitles, and then using the zoom on the projector, blank out the subtitles for the next couple of interviews and get the students to listen and write the names. It didn’t quite work out like that!  

First a quick note on subtitles.  My natural preference would be to use clips without subtitles, but in my brief searches on youtube all the clips I had found with the language I wanted to practise/revisit had subtitles*. My two main aims with these initial clips are to 1) provide the students with material they can access at home 2) build confidence in listening to the language. I figured that subtitles wouldn’t hurt, and I found out quite quickly that for the least confident students they really helped, especially with my second aim.

(* in going back to find the URL for this clip as I wrote this post I actually found a version without the subtitles!  I’m going to be sharing this link with my class next lesson.)

So, back to the lesson. We watched the first interview. No problems, the students repeated back the names and the spelling. I zoomed in on the next one and played it. I realized straight away that it was way, way too fast. There were blank faces and frowns.  I stopped, zoomed back out and revised my task.  We watch a handful of interviews with the subtitles, smiles spread back onto faces, when I was getting bored, about ten names later, I paused the clip and asked the students in pairs to recall as many of the names as possible and write them down.  They could remember a lot but not all by any means. They were checking the spelling for some of them – in English!  We watched the clip again, the students were mouthing along as the names were spelled out.  We had a tangential conversation about the use of accents on names.  One of the people on the clip was called Jésus, but he had spelled out his name without the accent.  We talked about accents not existing in English and practised the chunk “with an accent on the ‘e’”.    

I quickly scribbled out some of the names on pieces of paper and dropped them in a bag. The bag was in the middle of the table and the students reached into it for names as they repeated the interviews on the clip.  My fear of dumbing down too far by supplying the subtitles, of under-challenging my students, had been unfounded. I learnt that they don’t need pressure, they need support.  And it’s in the practice and the production that the challenge comes through. That was the body of the lesson. We went on to look at numbers from 11-20 (some of these were totally new to some of the students, which surprised me). Then following a question from one of the students we looked at the possessive adjectives his and her in the questions What’s his name?  What’s her name?  That’s definitely something we’ll need to look at in much more detail, and with a lot more practice next lesson.

I’ve just realised that the end of the second post I’d said I’d be looking at the balance between input and output and the use of L1 in this post, but it just hasn’t happened!  I guess that’ll have to wait till the next lesson too!

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first steps

Union Steps

In my last post I talked about a new class I’m teaching and some of the thoughts coming out of the first lesson.  In this post I’m moving on to lesson two …

Of course, no lesson is an island, and the seeds for the second lesson were sown in the first.  But I think I’m moving on too fast. Before I could move on to the second lesson I needed to look back at the first.  One of the drawbacks of not following a set coursebook or course materials is that the students have no formal record of their work. This has to be built up lesson by lesson.  Of course, in the long run (and even in the relatively short term) this can be an advantage as the students take on the responsibility of recording and in some way “writing” their own course but initially (and throughout the course in one way or another) the onus is on the teacher to initiate and shape the recording process. Or at least that’s how it feels to me at the moment.

So, lesson one was all about testing the waters, getting to know each other, finding out about the students’ past experience, passive knowledge, confidence, learning personalities.  Obviously that’s a lot of getting to know and we could do no more than scrape the surface, but after an hour and a half I knew a whole lot more than I did before the classes started.  And it was enough of a basis to make some tentative decisions about shapes and directions.   So the first thing I did was go back and make notes on the actual language that had come out of the lesson.  I wrote this up as a very simple summary:

lesson 1 summary

I looked at the language and thought about how much had come from the students and how much had come from me.  Obviously one of the first things with beginners is to grasp just how “beginner” they are.  In point 1 all the language had come from them, in the second the first three exchanges, the rest had been modelled and was new to all of them – at least in part.  In part 3 almost all the language had come from me, but passive knowledge and use of cognates meant that it was all pretty easy.   Part 4 was the hardest.  And the language here was all passive, coming out of my short description of a photo on my phone.   Based on this I made two decisions about the next lesson: one, that I would shelve the family vocabulary for the time being and focus on more basics – numbers, the alphabet, more personal information questions; two, that I would give the students the notes as I’d written them above as a summary and starting point.  Then I looked again at the language and tried to second guess what might be causing them the most problems.  I decided to focus on the introductions template in section 2 and wrote a short dialogue which I cut into strips to be re-ordered if necessary.  I embedded new variations to expand on the “pleased to meet you” chunk and slipped in an “excuse me” for good measure.

lesson 2 jumbled convo

So that was that, I went into the second lesson with the summary, the strips of paper and a personal agenda to sound them out on numbers and the alphabet.

In the classroom it worked a bit like this.  I handed out the summaries as the students came in, a few minutes before the class started.  I explained what it was in English first and then in Spanish.  One of the students brought out her own “script” and said she’d written one too.  That was a  nice moment!  She compared hers and mine, I asked them all to read through the notes and see if there were any questions they wanted to ask me. (Here I reverted back to English only).   They asked about “you too” and “and you” and we looked at how they could be interchangeable in the contexts we’d created and how the use changed when we add a ?.  Then one of the students said she was confused about how and when to use them and how they fitted into an introduction scenario.  I was so pleased that I’d second guessed that question and after a quick check of the rest of the summary we looked at the jumbled up exchange.  They re-ordered it, they picked up on good/nice to meet you, they didn’t even question “excuse me”, and then we played out the situation in pairs, first with, then without the slips of paper.  The student who had been confused smiled and said she’d got it straight.  There was a mutual feeling of satisfaction!

Then we moved on.  They knew the numbers 1 to 10 more or less, though some stumbled over eight and nine. I decided to stop at ten.  We took the base question “what’s your name?” and worked on asking for phone numbers.  We played a simplified version of Bingo (nine squares in a grid drawn by the students, numbers from 0-10 added in at random by the students, a row of three wins). Bingo plays a special part in the local culture.  Apologies to those of you who may have heard this before!  In summer groups of (mainly) older women set up a circle of deck-chairs and sunshades on the local beaches and play open air bingo for hours on end. The voices shouting out the numbers is part of the soundtrack of summer.  They’re like swallows. We know summer has come when they first appear, and that it’s finished when they leave.  So the idea of playing bingo, and the fact that I’d brought in a dedicated bingo bag, was met with a lot of enthusiasm!

Next up was the alphabet.  Again I was feeling my way.  Of course they already knew a lot, but tripped up on the expected:  E, I, J.  H, Y, Z were new to them.  W they found interesting (it’s a double V in Spanish). We isolated the difficult ones and worked on the sounds using phonetic symbols.  I added these  in red  (I like to keep red exclusively for annotating pronunciation features) but didn’t explain them. There was no questioning or resistance.  I generall like using this gradual approach to using the symbols as and when necessary, introducing a few at a time, not really drawing attention to them but just letting them blend in to the general “furniture” of the class.  We moved on to spelling names and surnames and then embedded that in a hotel reception scenario where the receptionist is filling in an online form.  We worked with the students own names only at this point, working on the premise that this is what they’re most likely to have to know how to spell in any real life situation.  I know I still avoid spelling things like my middle name (Rhiannon) and my place of birth (Aberystwyth) in Spanish where possible, preferring to offer to write it myself, though I guess I’m probably far more fluent in spelling those out aloud than anything else.  But maybe in a future lesson we should look at expressions like “Can I write it for you?” “It’s easier if I write it for you.  It’s a difficult name.”

To round off we looked back at our board, looked at the things we’d done in the class and I explained that I’d write a summary for them for the next lesson, but that it’d be great if they too wrote a summary to compare with mine. We switched to Spanish and discussed time frames. I suggested that it was best if they could look back over the lesson within 24 hours if possible, especially as in this case they’d have to wait five days to get my summary.  I wanted to avoid their reliance on my summaries meaning that they didn’t write their own notes (though I didn’t say as much). I set some simple homework – to write out the hotel reception conversation they’d rehearsed in the classroom and I pointed them to the esolcourses online resources (thanks Sue!)  for practising numbers and the alphabet.  I showed them the site on my tablet and the students said they’d look it up on their ipads.  That was another important first step.  I want to start introducing some online resources and offering opportunities to learn beyond the classroom, but as with everything else at the moment, I’m taking it slowly and gently, one step at a time.

In lesson 3 I’ll be revisiting our board and exploring the balance between student input and my teaching agenda as well as looking a little bit closer at the use of L1 in the classes.

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barefoot with beginners


A few weeks ago I started a new class. An A1.1 class.  It’s been a long time since I’ve taught beginners. Or I should say it’s been a long time since I taught English to beginners. It’s a small class. It’s held in the morning so it’s a very adult class. To date the youngest member is 40 and the ages span more than 20 years. At the school where I’m teaching this class there’s a no-coursebook policy. There’s a suggested syllabus but the onus is very much on negotiating the contents with the students and working with emergent needs.  When I was offered the class, I jumped at the chance – barefoot with beginners – I couldn’t think of a nicer challenge.  And a great reason to start blogging again.

I’m going to use the next few posts to process my thoughts and reflections about our first lessons and help me make the most of the experience.  They’ll take the form of a kind of retrospective lesson plan I guess, with the inevitable tangents and asides. They’ll be largely personal and anecdotal and comments from anyone in a similar situation would be really interesting.

For the last couple of years I’ve been teaching the Unknown Language component of the Trinity TESOL certificate course. This basically entails teaching four hours of a new language to the trainees in the initial stage of their course to give them a taste of what it feels like to be in a language classroom.  I teach Welsh ( I’ve written about it here and here).  I don’t use any published materials for the class. I have a few flashcards and simple worksheets and I have a fairly clear mini syllabus.  The contents are not negotiated.  It isn’t a real course after all, it’s more a chance to display a range of activity types and interaction patterns.  What the trainees actually learn from a language point of view is pretty much irrelevant. In order to give the lessons a shape I work towards a final speaking task – a chat-up scene in a pub –   as an accumulation of the four hours.

This experience has really helped in the first few lessons with my new class and I’ve noticed I’ve transferred quite a few basic skills. One of the things I really emphasise in the Welsh classes is the sound and the sounds of the language. To a lot of trainees it’s completely alien. They may never have heard it before.  (You can check it out here if you want).  It has a reputation of being unpronounceable.  Once we’ve got over the initial niceties (Hello, how are you? What’s your name? Pleased to meet you) I use Welsh names as a way to introduce some of the more difficult consonant sounds and the basic sound/spelling rules.  The great thing about names is that you can concentrate on the sound without worrying about meaning.  The only task I set was for them to listen to the names and guess whether they  are male or female. And they feed nicely into further practice of the basics of introductions.

In my English A1.1 class we did something very similar and it was only later that I realized that I’d brought it over from my Welsh classes.  English, of course, is not an alien language to people in the south of Spain. They may not speak or understand it, but they know what it sounds like (see the short film Skwerl  on what English sounds like to non-English speakers).  But pronunciation is still an issue – in fact more of an issue, because instead of introducing something that’s completely new and fresh with no (or hardly any) preconceptions, there are a lot of ingrained (fossilized possibly?) attitudes to how English words are sounded. So in this case rather than supplying the names myself, I asked the class to supply the names.  They were clichéd and classic (John, Mary, Arthur, Elizabeth – I think the average age was showing here!)  but gave a lot of scope for looking close-up at some problematic sounds for Spanish speakers: the  /d3/ sound in John –  being able to point out this sound-spelling relationship and contrast it with the sound-spelling relationship in Spanish (where a J is aspirated rather like an h) set up a great short cut for corrections later on; the  /z/ sound in Elizabeth and Liz and Lizzy -in fact Elizabeth was a real gift –there’s the /b/ sound, the schwa, the final th – all problem sounds for Spanish speakers, and being able to isolate them in the names was great. The names were familiar and we hammed up making them sound as English as possible.  We threw the names in a bag and they fed back into the practice of the basic language of greetings and introductions that had kicked off our first lesson.

I don’t think I’ve ever given so much attention and importance to sounds in a first lesson before – this is definitely something I’ve developed since teaching Welsh.  Some of the names from that lesson have carried over from lesson to lesson and become virtual members of our class. My focus on pronunciation has focused the class’s attention too and there’s a lot of “how do you say that?” being used in the classes.

I think another thing I learnt from the Welsh classes was how important it is to break down communication into tiny building blocks, but at the same time to make sure those building blocks are generative and come back together to form different meanings.  We’ve now had six lessons together, and in traditional grammar syllabus terms (ie the verb system) we haven’t strayed much further than the present simple of the verb to be.  But we’ve built up a lot of lexis and confronted a couple of meaty questions.

Here’s a short extract and example from the lesson summary for lesson 1:

Where are you from? 

I’m from … (a small town, a village, a city)

Where’s that?

It’s near…/in the mountains /on the coast / in Spain / in the province of Madrid

It’s famous for its history/cheese / lamb

The question of the difference between a village, town and city came from the students when one of the students named a small village in Extremadura (central Spain) in answer to “Where are you from?”.  (We established that direct translation of the terms didn’t necessarily help by matching names of places to the three categories in English.)  This led to the need for the question “Where’s that?”  which in turn led to the expression “in the mountains” and the thorny question of the difference between in and on. This is a classic problem for Spanish speakers. The two prepositions roughly translate (in many of their uses and meanings) with the single preposition en in Spanish.  So in the mountains (surrounded by mountains) wasn’t a problem, nor was on the mountain (on top of one single mountain). They pushed to explore further wanting to add on the coast, in Spain, in the province of Madrid .  We all wrote names of towns, cities and villages in Spain on pieces of paper and took it in turn to take them out of a hat and explain where they were. At this point they wanted to say more and the phrase “it’s famous for …” came up.   You can see above some of the things the towns and villages were famous for.

This led to me talking about my hometown and as I answered the questions we built up a short text on the board describing my hometown.  (At this point I’m going to add a gratuitous photo to liven things up!)  This served as a model for the students’ own texts about one of the villages and towns we’d talked about during the lesson.  It was a nice “outcome” for our first class and one I think we were all happy with.

View from Constitution Hill, Aberystwyth, West Wales

And I think maybe that’s a natural time for me to pause. There’s so much more I want to think about and write about.  In the next post I’ll be looking at lesson two, working on basics, setting up systems and taking the learning beyond the classroom.

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