Return to Simplicity in the Language Classroom

I have recently attended two local online events, namely the conference Učíme jazyky online and an event organised by the Digitální lektoři duo. Both events were very useful, enlightening and actually served as a wake-up call for me. I had recently been through a professionally strenuous time, teaching a Business English course and a Czech-for-foreigners course, both of which required a lot of my own materials-writing and careful planning. Even though each of these courses was a simple 1-1 class, there was a lot of effort and planning that went into it and I saw myself spending an evening planning a single 45-min lesson. The simple activities proposed at these events really helped me to rethink the way I organise my time. I believe this is something all of us teachers struggle with, so here are a few points I have in mind and a few “core” processes that can be adapted to any classroom. Just to note, neither of these activities was shared at the online events and I designed them only because I was inspired by them. No plagiarism intended and hopefully not committed.

So what are some strategies to lighten up your classes and streamline your processes?

1, Use more images in the classroom and invite your students to speak about them more. I won’t go into this any further because I would just be repeating what Digitální lektoři said and you should follow them if you want to know more (and speak Czech😊 ) I simply want to add that simple though it sounds, I myself found it a bit counter-intuitive, because I had always seen myself as a text-based person. If you ask me to design a lesson from scratch, the first thing that springs to mind is to choose an appropriate text. It might also be due to me teaching, until Covid happened and we all switched to online teaching, only face-to-face, constantly striving to limit the time spent at the printer and with strict limitations on printing in colour. However, sharing images online is so much easier!

2, Use videos – everyone seems to love videos. I am very fond of the Fluentize materials and video series by Chasing Time English, which have awesome dialogues (this is not a sponsored post, just genuinely sharing what I find useful and helpful, as well as affordable to a freelance teacher).

3, Think simple. Instead of drafting complex worksheets based on your videos, pictures, or texts, like I tend to do, invite your students to speak about them or make dialogues based on them.

Some activities:

1. Hidden images

Take an image/cartoon/photo full of action and details. Cover it with numbered sticky notes. The students tell you which number they want, you remove the card, the student describes what is underneath it. Very suitable for low-level classes.

Variation for higher-level classes:

Use the same image, but instead of numbers, write some grammar words or linking devices on the cards. The students have to use them as you reveal the image. Careful, more technical-minded people find this challenging, as they may not be able to think of what to say.

2. Basic video procedure:

Before the lesson, watch the video you plan to use and take 6-8 screenshots of the interesting moments. Put these jumbled on an interactive whiteboard/Jamboard. Let the students predict the order in which they will appear in the video.

Play the video and adjust the order of the pictures. At this stage, there tends to be a fair amount of emergent language and you can seize this opportunity to provide some reactive on-the-spot feedback. Play the video again and ask the students to write up as much language as they can. Check with the whole class and try to reconstruct the language. Play the video again if needed.

Present the students with the script of a dialogue from the video. Clarify any unknown language and let the students read the dialogue aloud. Tell your students they will now be acting the dialogue, so they need to listen again to it while paying attention to the way the characters say it (pronunciation, word stress, sentence stress, fast/slow pace, body language). Play the dialogue again and give your students time to rehearse it in break-out rooms and then act it out in front of the whole classroom.

To finish off this part of the lesson, answer the comprehension questions about the dialogue, which are often present somewhere in the materials that go with the videos, or write your own. Or don’t bother with writing them at all, just ask them orally😊 Or ask your students to write some.

In your next class, ask the students to write and act-out a new dialogue based on the theme of the video.

3. Simple dialogue procedure:

If you want to use situational dialogues – at the post office, at the doctor’s, at the police station, at the pub, you can either use dialogues written by professional writers in textbooks or you can write you own – they will probably be better targeted at your students’ needs and sound more natural, although you need to make sure to grade the level accordingly.

Write the dialogue up in your shared document or on an online whiteboard. Add the translation if needed (I am now using this when teaching complete beginners Czech).

Read the dialogue several times, and follow the typical dialogue procedure: repeat in chorus, individual students repeat, do the boys and girls, open pairs, closed pairs. This is a fairly standard procedure, though, and you don’t have to stop here.

Here is how you can up your game:

After the model dialogue has been clarified and drilled, I like to do some kind of dialogue-reconstruction task. One thing you can do is to use Wordwall and enter the lines of the dialogue as term and definition in the Match up mode. You can then invite your students to reconstruct the dialogue. Another useful Wordwall feature for this is Random card – turn a card and ask your students to tell you the line before and after the one on the card. If you don’t know Wordwall, you can read Peter’s review of it here.

Then elicit some changes to the dialogue and adapt. For example, if in the dialogue Petr invites Alena to the movies, but Alena excuses herself because she needs to study, elicit other places where you can invite others, and brainstorm more excuses – this is usually a lot of fun. Roleplay more dialogues. Ask your students to attempt similar dialogues with real people over the week for homework, and ask them to report to you in class next time.

A nice listening variation to dialogues is to have some “profile pictures” ready.

The teacher reads a dialogue between the two people in the pictures and the students tell you which of the people are speaking and what the details were.

Ideally, you should provide some reactive feedback at various stages of the dialogue. Focus on pronunciation, pace of speech, grammar and vocabulary use in the freer activities. If you are recording the class, listen to the recording after the lesson and analyse your students’ language. In a perfect world, the students should be doing it, but I know mine just won’t.

That’s it for today. I hope this has been helpful and you have found some inspiration for your classes and as always, happy to see some WordPress notifications – they are my favourite!

What are your basic, low-prep activities to use in class? Let me know in the comments here or on Twitter or Facebook.

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