On Speaking: Enhancing student interaction in the classroom
Last week my students crash-landed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and swam for their lives from sharks until they reached a desert island. As luck would have it, a (watertight) container washed up on the shore beside them. It contained fifteen useful items from the plane (see picture below):
Each group had to select six items and explain why they had chosen them over the other items. They also had to say what happened to them at the end of their story, i.e. escape, get rescued, make a new life on the island, or…
Well, that was the setup for the lesson! (They didn’t really crash-land in the Pacific Ocean. If they had, I’m sure our lessons would have been cancelled.) This was my take on the classic team-building problem-solving game.
Procedure for a 45 min. class: (14-15 year olds):
- I set the scene in as dramatic a way as possible (involving plane noises, explosions, and swooping hand gestures), then outlined the task, as above.
- I gave each group a laminated page with the items on (see above). We checked they knew what they all were and the name of each item.
- I explained that there were no right or wrong answers, but they had to justify their choices. I stressed: ‘It’s YOUR story. The island and what happens is up to you. Use your imaginations.’
- I explained that their basic aims were: FIRST – escape from the island; SECOND – survive.
- SS (students) were allowed to use dictionaries and phone translators, as usual.
- After the register and setup (10 mins), and preparation time (15 mins), it was time for the presentations (20 mins). Each group went to the front and presented their choices and their story. I asked questions, e.g. ‘Why this?’ / ‘Why not that?’ and so on. I asked SS about unusual items they had chosen, e.g. the mobile phone or the chocolate, which were both not popular choices. I also asked about life on the island: ‘Have you met any other people on the Island? Can you describe what you can see? How do you feel? What happens…?’ and so on.
Various attempts at putting a brief version of the instructions on the board:
- SS could add drawings and sound effects, if there is time.
- Role play key moments in the story.
- Make and edit a film with phone video recorders.
- Create a competitive version where you assign a value to each item – from low to high – and SS get points for their choices. The ones with the most points win. This would need a rejig of items to make it more difficult – more useful items and fewer low-value items.
There is lots of scope for using creative skills. The lesson could easily have lasted 90 minutes.
- SS write up a diary with x entries, e.g. Day 1, Day 2, Day 8, and Day X (the day their story comes to a head).
- It was another topic that engaged the SS from the outset, and a fairly simple activity compared with previous presentation tasks. The lesson plan worked like a charm and the planning and preparation time that I put in at the weekend paid off big-time. The lesson time flew by but it was really important to keep strict timing so that we could hear everybody’s presentation. On a couple of occasions we ran out of time and I had to hear the last presentation during the break-time.
- It was a manageable task with an interesting theme that allowed for SS’s use of imagination, for example, one group imagined ‘cannibals’, another an island full of women, while one student wanted to cut the twelve plastic bottles in half and hang them upside down to (somehow) collect the moisture from the air.
- It was a nice easy class for me to manage. I did the introduction, then SS worked in pairs or threes and I could monitor casually; then we had the presentations; then the lesson was over.
- I could use the Q&A element as a filler by asking more questions, or ask fewer questions, depending on how the time was going. So, if there were still ten minutes of lesson to go but only two more presentations, I would ask both groups more questions to fill the time.
- We had fun with the Polish word for axe, which is siekiera, and pronounced almost the same as the name of the popular singer Shakira.
- It was interesting to see what each group had chosen, and what they valued. I was surprised that the water was so popular, because it could only be used once. There were only six litres, so a three-strong team would only get two litres each. Still, many groups valued it above items such as the tent, and thought they would get some use out of the plastic bottles too (as above), e.g. as containers; for catching fish/insects; for making a raft with floats, and so on.
- We had a few discussions about boiling seawater. I didn’t think it was possible and it forced me to look it up online and discover that it would be possible to distil it by boiling it and collecting the condensation. However, I don’t think the SS had the right tools to be able to do this – pans, glasses, cups, and so on. Still, it was a moot point!
- For those who tried to escape by raft or boat I challenged them – do you think you would get far by raft or boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? It would depend on the location. As I had said, it was their story, so some SS managed it because they imagined their island to be fairly close to Hawaii. I thought their best chance of escape would have been to use the mirror and signal for help; there were bound to be helicopters and planes out searching for survivors. Some SS groups preferred to stay on the island and many thought death would be their outcome: ‘We all died’ came the fairly defeatist statement from some groups. Of all the possible outcomes… However, a few SS realised that if they died on the island, or were eaten by sharks, they wouldn’t have to invent much of a story. One group of three guys began their story: ‘We found a knife and killed Kacper for meat, because we were tired of hearing about Martyna [his ex-girlfriend]! Then we killed each other.’ Me: ‘How did you do that?’
- However, this lesson provided a breakthrough in terms of the problem of getting the SS to speak English during the lessons. As I got used to doing the lesson plan (13 times over the course of one week!) I realised that the longer I sat with the groups while they were preparing, the more they would have to speak English; also, the longer time I allowed for presentations, the longer I could do the Q&A sessions, where again SS had to speak to me in English. As the lessons went on I allowed less time for setup and prep and much longer for the presentations. This really felt like a significant breakthrough, and it is something I will do again in the future.
- If I did this lesson plan again, I would definitely rethink the items. There are too many ‘weak’ items, like the chocolate, the sun lotion, the toilet paper, the newspapers, and the mobile phone, so many groups ended up choosing more or less the same six most useful items, i.e. the knife, axe, net, rope, magnifying glass, and water. There need to be mainly strong items to choose from, so there is more variety and more deliberation/explaining to do. That’s something to improve the activity for next time, but it didn’t spoil the lessons.
- Early on I realised I had to explain what some of the items were. The mirror was mistaken for a frame a few times, and one group thought the newspapers were towels!
- In the initial lessons, SS read out short stories, with a list of items usually at the beginning. I decided to ask them questions to try to break up the prepared answers and get some spontaneous answers. This ended up working really well.
- There is a gap in the narrative / break in the logic, which none of the SS mentioned or seemed bothered about: why, if the washed-up container had fifteen items in it, did they have to choose only six. The task relies on selection, but why only six things from fifteen?! Nobody asked! Why were these fifteen items together in the container anyway? I remembered the mnemonic: KISS (keep it simple, stupid!). But it began to bother me. I didn’t find a suitable narrative. It would have to be that another person – from the plane or from the island – was limiting the number of items to six. Thankfully it didn’t matter! The SS accepted the activity for what it was and ran with it.
- This lesson was a hard sell at 8am on a Thursday morning! It didn’t help when three students walked in late at intervals as I was trying to go through the setup…
Overall this week’s lessons were really fun. Being able to do this lesson plan with thirteen of my eighteen groups was really rewarding. The lesson plan was solid but it definitely improved as we went along, and can be improved in the future.
As a postscript, during one of the final lessons with this plan I finally realised that the term ‘desert island’ might have given all the groups the wrong impression! In Polish ‘desert’ is pustynia – like the Sahara Desert – while deserted is ‘opustoszały’ (abandoned/desolate). One student asked me in the penultimate lesson – ‘Is the island just desert?’ ‘No,’ I explained. ‘Desert island really means deserted island. The island can be big, with trees and lakes. It’s up to you. It’s about your imagination!’ I could have kicked myself: how I had potentially made it harder and more confusing for them because of the language barrier, and by assuming they know what the cultural concept of a ‘desert island’ is. What I had in my head was apparently completely different to what they might have been imagining. More planning required!
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This week I based some of my lessons on the game called ‘What’s In The Bag…?’ (Click here.) I adapted this rather simple idea to make it into a competitive team game that could fill a 45-minute lesson.
I had been thinking about doing this activity with my students for a while, but earlier in the week I had impulsively bought a large blue plastic bucket for garden use (clippings and so on) and it occurred to me that this would be the ideal receptacle for this game.
So it became ‘What’s in my bucket?’ rather than ‘What’s in my bag?’ There had to be a way to keep the contents of the bucket secret as students dipped their hands in, so I covered it with a 120l bin bag (see picture above).
The language aims were:
- teaching vocabulary
- to be able to discuss and describe everyday items
- to practise using descriptive language
- to have fun with English
- bucket / bag
- something to cover it with, e.g. a blanket or a bin bag
- a spare bin bag in case SS (students) destroy or damage the original (they did!)
- one or more sets of x (e.g. 10) interesting everyday items for SS to guess. I had three different sets which I could use in different lessons (see picture below). You could vary the number of items to fill the time you have
Procedure for a 45 min. class:
- As SS entered the class they could see ‘What’s in my bucket?’ on the board and the large bucket in a big blue bin bag standing on a table in the middle of the room. SS became a tiny bit interested in what the lesson was going to be.
- After doing the register, I asked SS to work in groups of 3 (or 4 if necessary). The aim was to have 4 or 5 groups max. in each class. SS thought of a team name and I wrote them on the board. This was a fun way to identify the teams. Rather than ‘Team 1’, ‘Team 2’, etc. we had ‘Racing Team’ or ‘Damek’s Carrots’!
- Warmer: I asked them straight out: ‘What’s in my bucket?’ SS had to guess cold, without feeling inside the bucket. If anybody had been able to guess cold they would have scored points. Again, the aim was to arouse interest in the activity – and, if I’m being honest, pad out the lesson content a bit.
- I gave the SS the instructions: each group had one minute to feel inside the bucket and try to guess the ten items in there. I used a timer on my phone. SS could take it in turns, but it had to be one at a time. ‘You can’t look! No looking!’ (Of course, some did. In the case of some SS I had to hold the bag as a sleeve so that they couldn’t lift it up and see in.)
- SS wrote items that they had identified on the board (under their team name – see picture below) – in English. (SS were allowed to use dictionaries and the internet to check words they didn’t know.) If one team had guessed an item, another team couldn’t claim the same item. SS had to be fairly specific, so for example in the case of the toy polar bear the word ‘TOY’ or ‘ANIMAL’ was not accepted by me, while ‘PLASTIC BEAR’ was. With higher-level groups I made them be even more specific: ‘Yes, it’s a battery, but what kind?’ SS feels in the bucket again: ‘AAA?’ ‘Yes, that’s right! But what colour is it?’ Seriously, you could give bonus points for correct guesses to questions like this.
- Each group had a turn. After one round there were several items written on the board, under various team names. I said which were correct. After the second round (60 seconds each) the SS had maybe been able to correctly guess seven or eight items between them. Time-permitting we played a third and final time, but with only 30 seconds per group. If at the end they hadn’t guessed all ten items I gave clues and tried to elicit what they were until the SS guessed them. Or just told them, if we were in a hurry. With a few groups I helped them by removing the guessed items one by one (and eliciting their names from the whole class) to leave the last two or three items, making them easier to identify.
With one higher-level group I was able to use two sets of ten items in the 45-minute lesson, because they were so fast. It was necessary to have more than one set of items prepared, partly for this reason and also in the case of SS stealing or throwing the items. (One class inevitably did this!)
If you have time, you could ask SS to pick some items to put in the bucket for you to guess. Of course, don’t look when they are doing this! One of my classes did this and I had to guess the items, but I felt it was a bit boring for the SS and the focus was all on me, which I wanted to discourage.
- It was really interesting that the hardest part of the game for the SS was not guessing the items, but finding the correct name for those everyday things. I had chosen things that we see around the home all the time, but don’t necessarily know in the target language (English). One example was the word ‘coaster’. In Polish this is ‘podstawka’ which basically means ‘stand’. In Polish this single word can mean one of half a dozen or more different items, so the SS came up with various names when they felt this item: ‘tea tablet’, ‘tea pad’, ‘tea stand’, ‘tea saucer’, ‘tea tray’… all of these words are served by the same word ‘podstawka’, while in English we have many different words, including ‘coaster’.
- The SS were intrigued by the initial concept: ‘What’s in my bucket?’ I was able to use theatricality, e.g. showing a squeamish face as I gingerly delved into the bucket. Some SS remarked that there could be a snake in there. I hope it was a fun and unusual lesson that will be memorable for my SS, who are so often used to sitting still for 45 minutes reading the course book in class. (Not in my classes, I’m happy to say.)
- It was really nice to see teamwork within the groups of three. Most of them naturally – without being told by me – adopted the dynamic of one feeling and speaking, one checking the translation, and one writing on the board.
There had to be a group who didn’t take the activity in the spirit in which it was given; I knew that they wouldn’t, but I wanted to try it with them anyway and see what would happen. So we got chaos:
- stealing the items, keeping them, even after the lesson into the following break
- hiding the items
- drawing ‘rude’ pictures on the board
- tearing the bin bag to make a hole so they could see in
- throwing items around
- pulling the ring pull off the can of sweetcorn, then near the end of the lesson, when they felt hungry, trying to open the can by smashing it on the corner of a desk. They now owe me one can of sweetcorn!
And yet this class were still able to guess six out of ten of the items. In hindsight, should I have played this game with them?
In terms of the language goals it’s debatable how much English the SS learned from doing this activity. It wasn’t really a communicative activity and SS used Polish throughout, apart from to say/write the names of the items. There was no presentation element, unlike the previous few weeks’ lessons. However, it was undoubtedly fun for each group. Next week we will have to work harder on speaking in class.
On speaking: Motivating learners with immersive tasks
Have you played our new quiz on Kahoot! yet?
It’s all about social networks, like Facebook and Snapchat.
Test your knowledge with 20 questions!
Let it grow! Growth mindset in an EFL classroom
So this happened to me on Monday. It was the last lesson of the day and I’d already enjoyed success with my ‘wonderful and imaginative’ lesson plan (my review) five times – including with a couple of difficult groups – and I was looking forward to winding down with the same lesson plan with a high-level group who are usually personable and intelligent people.
I took the register – about eight students were in attendance. It was too hot in the room; the blinds were down and the windows open to allow a meagre wisp of cool air to enter when it chose. I stood in front of the class and introduced the topic: ‘We’re going to discuss social networks!’
I was astonished to hear a chorus of ‘NOOOOOOOOO!’s from the students. Again, I repeat, my lesson plan involved starting with discussion in pairs about social networks. Not a grammar exercise. Not a review of present perfect, or – heaven forbid – future perfect. Not a spelling test, or a written composition ‘na ocena’ – ‘for a mark’. No, discuss social networks in pairs. I had chosen a topic that I knew my students (aged 14-15) were not only interested in, but absolute experts in. They didn’t know but my secret weapon for the second half of the 45-minute lesson was a Kahoot quiz where they were to answer true/false questions about social networks on their (normally forbidden) mobile phones.
So what do you do when the students reject your (fun) lesson plan out of hand at the beginning of the lesson? ‘We want to go home!’
‘OK, but you can’t go home.’
‘We have to do the lesson.’
‘OK, but this will be fun. Let’s try it.’
I persuaded them to discuss the simplified version of this set of questions, that I had written on the board. Then I led group feedback. IMHO it was interesting and they were more engaged and made some intelligent comment about social networks. (Although they refused to believe that they are, in fact, only ‘free’ with air quotes, as opposed to free without air quotes.)
Then they dropped the bombshell. I announced: ‘Now we’re going to do a quiz about social networks.’
Again – a chorus of NOOOOOOOOOs. What part of my sentence provoked this reaction from the heart – from the belly – ‘NOOOOOOOOO!’ Was it the word ‘quiz’? Did they associate it with ‘test’ and ‘exam’? Did they still not believe, after months of evidence working together, that I only wanted to engage them with interesting and relevant content? I hurriedly put the quiz up on the whiteboard via the projector and asked them to get their phones out and log in with the Kahoot PIN. This kind of quiz is really fun because it’s interactive – you watch the quiz unfold on the big screen and participate by pressing the answer on your phone. I think it’s cool. My other groups had enjoyed it…
The real knockout blow for me came when the students were entering their screen name or nickname for the quiz. This appears on the big screen and everyone can see it, so there is plenty of potential for writing ‘naughty’ nicknames and getting a bit group laugh. In this case they didn’t use swear words (as other groups had done previously) but one student chose the nickname ‘chcę do domu’ – which means ‘I want to go home.’ Like a child in a pre-school or first class of primary school: ‘I want to go home.’
We did the quiz – all twenty questions – but the wind had been knocked out of my sails and I left the school after the lesson feeling a little sad.
How do you engage students who have rejected your lesson plan out of hand before they know what it is, because they want a ‘fun’ lesson – when actually your lesson plan IS the ‘fun’ lesson? (This is the key question for me, but it was too long to be the title of this post!)
How do you engage students who want to go home? ‘Wolny lekcja!’ – ‘free lesson!’ they chorused. They wanted to be allowed to sit and do nothing but chat in Polish for the last lesson of the day. I couldn’t allow that, but then I realised that maybe other teachers do. Can it be true? Perhaps they baulked at having to use thinking and speaking skills when they would have found it easier to answer a reading comprehension in the course book – which I’m briefed not to use in lessons. Did they think I would be a soft touch because my lessons ARE usually more fun and communicative – or because I’m a naïve foreigner? – so they thought they’d try their luck with getting a ‘free’ lesson?
In this blog post I don’t have the answers, just questions, so if you have any tips for how to deal with or avoid the NOOOOOOOOO!s I would be more than grateful!
This week most of my groups have worked with the topic of planning a holiday on another planet.
I projected the instructions above on the board (or wrote it on the whiteboard, depending on the classroom I was in) and informed students to take out their notebooks and pens and work in groups of three. I informed them that they would have to do a spoken presentation, with all students speaking, which would be assessed.
I told them: “The year is 3018!” I made a kind of swishing noise and waved my arms for a while. “You’re in the future!” I clarified. Generally the students laughed. They settled into their task.
Each 45 minute lesson split roughly into thirds, with 15 mins to do the register and set up the activity, 15 mins for SS (students) to prepare their presentations, then 15 minutes for the presentations. As they prepared I operated some sound effects on an app called myNoise (iOS / Google Play), which I played on my phone through a (hidden) Bluetooth mini speaker. The ‘Warp Speed’ sound effects were great – bleeps and whooshes and pulses that you might hear in a spaceship (or on another planet) – as far as I know, anyway!
I had fun by starting the sounds off low and then increasing the volume, to see how many SS – and who – would notice. When they looked up, I reduced the volume again or denied that there was any noise. Some SS were more aware than others. I feel it helped to set the ambience of a future-themed lesson about space travel.
About 15 minutes before the end of each lesson, the SS gave their presentations in groups and we clapped each group. I was pleased by how much imagination was shown and how much they had been able to achieve in just around 15 minutes prep time.
I did this lesson with ten of my groups and sometimes, due to the lower number of SS in a group, we had time for extension activities:
- After a presentation: I asked the group some additional questions about what they had just said, e.g. ‘What colour was the alien? Describe him. Was it a him? How could you tell?!’ etc.
- After we had heard all the presentations: if there was time, I switched on the sound effect of the spaceship/space noises again and asked the SS to close their eyes. I asked the group questions, e.g. what can you see? Where are you? What is happening? and so on. A little bit of a drama game.
- The sound effects app was quite amusing for me. I’m not sure all the SS appreciated it – or how many of them even noticed it above their (work-related) noise! When SS did notice the weird noises or ask about it, I pretended not to have heard it.
- I’m not sure why, but lower-level groups seemed to respond better to this activity – with greater enthusiasm and more imagination. Maybe they didn’t overthink it, unlike some of the higher-level groups.
- I asked them to work in groups of 3, in order to break up some established pairs and force them to work with different people. Some SS begged me to work in groups of 4, so I asked them why I didn’t allow it: ‘Because students will talk in pairs,’ said one person. Exactly, and if they work in groups of 4 there will be sure to be at least one, and probably two, students doing nothing, while the other two work.
- SS learned new vocabulary, including ‘adventure’, ‘aliens’, and ‘dangerous’.
- I noticed that some groups of 3 achieved more than others in the meagre 15 minutes that I allotted. Some presentations were fabulous, with really detailed scenarios, while others were more perfunctory, e.g. ‘On the way home there was a battle. The end.’ I guess this is to be expected in terms of differentiation, although some SS worked harder than others, in my opinion.
- It was great, as always, to watch the SS working contentedly on the task – the ‘happy hum’.
- This lesson structure is still working well: setup > preparation > presentation (see previous Teaching Blog posts). What is the lesson plan (above) in a nutshell?
- Give SS a clearly defined task with several objectives to fulfil, on a topic that is of interest to them.
- Give them a fair amount of time to work together in pairs or groups to prepare their response. Offer help and assistance as required, but let them get on with it. In English, as far as possible!
- SS show what they have done to T and the rest of the class.
- HW optional.
- The content has to be interesting to them. When I planned this week’s topic last weekend I was originally going to ask them to talk about a normal holiday. Then I was playing with the new app and I noticed the space sounds and realised that a holiday in space would be so much more fun – and good for the imagination! Serendipity at work.
- I enjoyed imagining the future along with the SS. They conjured up a time when intergalactic space flight is not only possible, but absolutely commonplace; when aliens and humans co-exist and intermarry on earth and on other planets, like Mars, Mercury, and their own made-up planets (e.g. ‘Unique Planet’ and ‘Princess Planet’, where some SS went to find out about the beauty effect of magic coconuts); when space travel can involve a ‘space tram’, ‘magic carpet’, ‘flying car’, or ‘a bike in the sky on the Milky Way’; when spaceships can break down, but be fixed; when humans can go on a rescue mission to the sun – which is being robbed of its heat by a dastardly heat-absorbing alien race… It takes just 15 minutes to get all these scenarios – and more – out of SS who are by no means at a high level in English. Bravo! I salute them. I smiled, I laughed, and I played weird sound effects.
- I think that having the instructions on the board for SS to refer to at any time while preparing was a big help. It meant I didn’t have to keep reminding them of what to do. It was clear, once we had gone through it at the beginning. This time I included an image to help to stimulate the imagination.
- Other positives: group work; variety of focus; not teacher-led lesson, but teacher-controlled; low teacher talking time; after doing this kind of lesson a few times the SS know more what is expected of them; SS take responsibility for their work and their marks; at the end of one of the lessons one student seemed genuinely surprised that it had gone so quickly (a great sign of engagement!): ‘Juz koniec?!’ (in Polish) = ‘It’s finished?!’
Challenges that are familiar from previous weeks with this lesson outline:
- Getting SS to do the preparation stage in English is difficult – even with the highest level groups.
- SS listening to each other during the presentations – this is getting a bit better.
- Limitations of time – 45 mins to start, work on, and complete the activity, with no rollover to next lesson. I have to be very strict on the clock.
- I’m concerned – as a teacher – that there is still little or no time for grammar correction, e.g. one group wrote: ‘My friend meet a very preaty girl, and now they have one kid.’ and ‘Adventures – Swimming with Delphin.’ (In Polish ‘dolphin’ is ‘delfin’.) Should I take in the work and mark it at home, then return it with written feedback? How helpful would that be? In the next lesson we don’t have time to return to the previous week’s lesson, because there is a new epic to be created. Focus on speaking becomes focus on writing and grammar? My job is to get them talking, but what about accuracy? Is this a speaking activity or a writing/grammar one? Can we have speaking and presentations without writing and grammar? Without writing, yes, but without grammar, no!