Thursday, 31 May 2012

Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Istvan and Karmen (aka Bill and Liz)
Toufiq and Kate

Yesterday saw the second stage of our film project, and I woke up with a start at 6am, realising how much I had left to organise in the next twelve hours.

 Our drama development worker, Izzy Swanson, had hand delivered a wedding dress to my house the night before, and my boss, Kate Niven, had managed to borrow a surplice and dog collar. My garden is bursting with bluebells at the moment, so the bridal bouquet was not a problem. I scrounged some floral wire and ribbon from Stems (our lovely local florist) and scooped up the last packets of confetti from the party shop.

Yet, several factors seemed to be beyond my control. The first of these was the Shetland weather, which decided to spend the morning and afternoon alternating between chilly showers and warm sunshine. I had told my learners that we would not be filming if it rained, and started wishing that I had given them a little more lexical input into degrees of precipitation intensity. If only I had flagged up the difference between a shower and a deluge! The other big unanswered question was exactly how many folk would turn up. Attendance starts to wane at this time of year anyway, with many working overtime and some returning home for holidays. Would we have anything like the amount of bodies required to make up an authentic looking wedding party?

I sent out reminder texts to all in sundry, begged a few friends to come along as extras and then tried to forget it all by focusing on my own wedding look.

By six o’clock the sky had finally decided to settle on a deep azure blue and by five past six a finely dressed wedding party of a respectable size had assembled in the Old Library Building. The central characters stood up and introduced themselves, and various other parts were assigned on the spot (mother of the bride, the bride’s yokel relatives etc.) We then crossed the road to the town hall. I asked the crowd to walk around introducing themselves to each other and shaking hands. This broke the group up, and the resulting chit chat and laughter made the group look like a real wedding party. In fact, several passing cars tooted their horns, clearly convinced of our authenticity! It was great fun.

We had inserted stage directions in the monologues, and it took less than an hour to work through these and get the footage we needed.  Clint will be returning to help the learners work through the editing process, and I for one, can’t wait to see the result.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Have you ever flown Club Class?

My class of pre-intermediate learners have recently been introduced to the present perfect tense. Last night, I figured the class was comfortable enough with its general concept and form to be introduced to that old ELT favourite: Find Someone Who…

I was in a rush, and had unthinkingly photocopied the Find Someone Who…cards from the Teacher’s Book. Had I been better prepared, a more thorough examination of the cards would have revealed their unsuitability for my teaching context.  My learners are, in the main, economic migrants to Shetland. Most of them work in poorly paid jobs, and many of them have escaped financial hardship in their own countries. It is therefore, inappropriate (as well as linguistically unproductive) to have a class full of such learners circulating asking questions such as “Have you ever been to Australia?”, “Have you ever flown in a balloon?”, “Have you ever had an adventure holiday?”  These questions grate with me: not only do they mistakenly assume a global standard of living which is out of reach of the vast majority of the world’s population; they also perpetuate the myth that the pursuit of costly leisure activities somehow renders a person more interesting to talk to. (In my own experience, the opposite is often true.)

Yet Find Someone Who..., when it works well, is a  really good activity. It gets the learners out of their seats and circulating, and when the questions are appropriate, it generates communication and interesting new language. This is not something we wish to deprive our learners of, so how can we make this work?

One simple solution would be to devise our own Find Someone Who…questions based on our knowledge of the class and individual learners' experience. Better still, ask the learners to devise their own questions based on any theme which may be of interest to them. This has the added bonus of recycling topic vocabulary. So, for example, we could have questions on the theme of illness: “Have you ever had chicken pox? Have you ever stayed in hospital overnight?” or love “Have you ever been on a blind date?” “Have you ever fallen in love at first sight?” or food: “Have you ever cooked a meal for more than five people?” “Have you ever cooked a meal outside?” “Have you ever had a cooking disaster?”

Not only will learners be more interested in questions they have devised themselves, it also saves you, the teacher, the chore of cutting out endless strips of paper and the guilt of not finding the time to laminate them for next time. As a teacher training Find someone who... might go: "Have you ever furtively thrown lots of crumpled little bits of cut out paper in the bin at the end of a lesson?" Yes? Shame on you!

Monday, 21 May 2012

Tales of the Unexpected

I’m sure we can all think of a recent conversational script which didn’t go according to plan. So often, the dialogues we begin with such confidence (Hi, I’ve got an appointment for 10.30 with Linda) hit conversational icebergs when our opening gambits are met with unexpected replies (Um…no, I don’t have you down for today…Hold on…I think your appointment was for this time last Thursday!) 

Yet so many ELT resources present learners with straightforward scripts culled from a parallel universe where everything runs like clockwork and goes according to plan.  We all know that life is rarely like this, so why don’t we work harder at providing our learners with the language they need at times when things go wrong?

The ESOL Nexus project has come up with a fantastic resource which does exactly this. In a lesson called “Wrong Time, Wrong Place” learners begin by putting together a dialogue between a dentist’s receptionist and a patient arriving for his/her appointment. Learners practice this dialogue together, with the teacher providing input on pronunciation and intonation. The teacher then chooses a confident learner to rehearse the dialogue, but then throws a spanner in the works of the conversation by informing the patient that s/he is a week late for their appointment. A stunned silence descends as the learners try to figure out what they need to say at such a moment.

The teacher helps the learners to formulate what they might say, dividing their response into two parts: reaction and action. For example, the learners’ reaction to the above situation might be “Oh dear, I must’ve made a mistake!” or “I feel such a fool!” Their action might be something like “Could I possibly have the next available appointment?” The ESOL Nexus resource provides further situations to practice, covering a range of transactional and interactional situations. 

You can find this lesson with accompanying teacher’s notes at: My learners thoroughly enjoyed it, and certainly did not need to be convinced of the value of learning to deal with the unexpected!

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Stevie's Job Search: An Exercise in CV Writing

For some time now I have been waiting for the right moment to use an old favourite with my current pre-intermediate class: a CV writing lesson which also aims to introduce learners to the present perfect. * Last night seemed an ideal opportunity to try this out, as my class seemed particularly alert and receptive and we had also come to the end of a course book unit.  What’s more, last week’s lesson had introduced the class to a list of character adjectives which were crying out to be recycled! Here’s what we did…

I began the lesson by announcing that Adult Learning had changed its recruitment policy: from hereon in the learners would be responsible for selecting and recruiting their own English teachers. We brainstormed the essential qualities a good English teacher must possess. Friendly, sociable, reliable, qualified and experienced were some of the learners' requirements.

I then distributed a CV from a prospective English teacher: a certain Stevie McCue.  The CV was a page in length, and although  it was correctly formatted it displayed sizeable gaps in the employment section, with large swathes of unaccounted for time.  Stevie  had a month of English teaching experience, and prior to this had worked in bars and surf schools around the world.  Stevie’s accompanying letter alluded to his reasons for wishing to move to Shetland, and hinted at some “problems” in his personal life. Learners scan read the CV, in order to see whether or not they thought Stevie would be the kind of teacher they might like. 

After an initial reading, learners revisited the personal specifications they had compiled at the beginning of the letter.  In last night’s class, responses were mixed, with some learners rejecting the application outright, and others wishing to give the candidate a trial period. One female learner asked if Stevie had enclosed a photo! 

The covering letter provided the learners with some contextualised examples of the present perfect: I have travelled the world, I have worked in a number of bars etc. I drew a time line of Stevie’s  life on the board and elicited sentences about past events in  his life. I then wrote some of the present perfect sentences on the board and we discussed differences in meaning and in form between the simple and perfect versions of the past.

Next week the learners will have the opportunity to write their own CVs. We will begin the lesson by reminding ourselves of some of the failings of Stevie’s CV. This can take several lessons, but the achievement the learners feel when they have produced a presentable CV is well worth the effort.

And Stevie? He may well make another appearance. Watch this space…

*I got this idea from Rachel, a fellow DELTA course participant who I met in London last year – thanks Rachel!  

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Single White Weirdo: Authentic Texts with Lower Levels

Would you share a flat with this person?

I often use authentic texts with my intermediate learners. In recent lessons we have read a newspaper article from The Guardian, listened to poetry on The Poetry Channel, watched news reports on Youtube and searched for jobs on the Internet. The benefits of using authentic texts are evident: the teacher can select up- to- the- minute texts relevant to the interests and needs of the learners. What’s more, authentic texts are potentially far richer in new lexis than those found in your average course book: many of which contain texts abridged and adapted to ram home particular language points. 

 Up until reading Kyra Beguiristain’s article on using authentic texts with lower level learners, I had assumed that anyone below intermediate level would find authentic texts too linguistically complex to fathom. I was also worried that unabridged texts would ultimately have a demotivating effect on those struggling to come to grips with the basics of the language.

Yet, as Beguiristain points out, authentic doesn’t necessarily mean complex. There are many simple authentic texts out there: ranging from menus to street signs. Slightly longer texts can activate important scan and skim reading skills, which will in turn help learners on their journey towards autonomy. 

 Beguiristain suggests using flat share advertisements, as they provide such a rich source of lexis: words to describe houses, furniture, domestic appliances, and character, and I decided to try this out for myself with a low pre-intermediate class, as it seemed a  task which would help learners in their everyday lives.  

My next task, then, was to source some good ads. I went straight to, a brilliant website which has thousands of ads posted by flat hunters and flatmate hunters. The snag was this: in order to view the ads I had to masquerade as a flat hunter. This presented an ethical dilemma, as I did not want to waste other people’s time. So I wrote a profile as quickly as I could, taking care to make myself sound as weird as possible. I wrote that I required a room in East London with a sea view and professed a love of cat fish. Nobody, I assured myself, was going to bother following an ad like that up.

Later that evening, I was most surprised to receive a deluge of responses, two of which commented on my zany sense of humor! I guess I had not managed to sound quite weird enough... The messages were so friendly, and my potential flat mates sounded such fun, that for a moment I was seriously tempted to relocate to the East end of London and drink wine on the sofa with them.  But that might have been taking my research a little bit too far…

I quickly removed myself from the site after that, but had managed to find some good ads, which contained really useful language, which I might not have thought of teaching. I chose one flat hunter and then I found two flats: one sounded fun but filthy: the other clean but dull, with a strict sounding cleaning rota ( and some scary BLOCK CAPITALS) 

The learners had to read the adverts and choose the flat which they felt was best for the flat hunter. They were helped in this task by a fair bit of lexical input at the beginning (we discussed what we thought was important/unimportant when flat hunting and spoke about the kind of people we would like to live with) and I had prepared tables, so the learners were able to tick boxes describing what the flat hunter was looking for, and what points the two flats possessed.

This class have been learning about comparatives and superlatives recently, and this task provided the perfect opportunity for some revision of this language point. Finally, the learners wrote their own advertisements.  All in all, a successful exercise, and one which I plan to repeat with this class, using another example of an authentic text. 

References: Beguiristain, K. Using Authentic Texts at Lower Levels (IH Journal of Education and Development, September 2001)

Monday, 7 May 2012

Diary of a film project

There are so many reasons why I love working with film in my class. For one thing, a film project provides the class with a tangible end product which they can enjoy sharing with their friends in a way that they may be less likely to do with an essay or even a story they have written.  Film project work can involve and enthuse a range of learner intelligences:  musical (choosing the soundtrack) verbal (writing the script) kinaesthetic (choreographing), visual (designing the set and the costumes, story boarding) and interpersonal (directing, casting and providing constructive feedback). Furthermore, it provides the learners and teachers with a record of language spoken, making it easier to pin point areas for improvement in language and features of pronunciation.

Much of the time I use video cameras in class to practice language points. In this short film project, learners worked in groups to film news reports and interviews.  The rest of the class watched their peers' reports, and wrote up newspaper reports based on what they had seen and heard.

We are now keen to progress to the next level, and produce a film which really reflects the range of talents and abilities in the class. For the past week or so, the class have been working on developing characters and writing monologues for the film which rose out of the “Strange Wedding Guests” text book photograph (see previous post). 

The class have arrived at central characters: the bride (nice but dim with a hidden secret), the groom (nice but dim with a hidden secret of his own), the groom’s father (evil oil baron determined to put a stop the marriage) and finally, the bride’s ex boyfriend (jealous photographer, who has accepted payment from the father to secure photographic evidence of the bride’s unsuitability.)

We are lucky enough to have Clint Watt helping us on this project. Clint is a local playwright and film maker (check out Vycky on and will be tutoring the learners in film and editing techniques. With Clint’s film expertise we hope to be able to produce a film we can be proud of. 

Tonight Clint visited the class for the first time. The learners described their characters’ motivations and personalities with conviction and I am looking forward to next Thursday’s lesson, when we will record the characters’ monologues. This will be excellent way of providing some intensive pronunciation coaching for the learners. Meanwhile the rest of the class will work with the scripts, adding stage directions and story boarding the action.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

End of an era

The Old Library Centre, Lerwick
Tonight I taught my last ever lesson in the building where I have worked for the past three years.  Since 2009 I‘ve been based at what is locally referred to as “The Old Library” a slightly dilapidated nineteen sixties style building on the windiest street in Lerwick. The whole building has a welcoming, informal ambience, from the kettles and mugs in the vestibule to the cosy classrooms.  I have felt at home here since day one, and my learners have often expressed similar feelings.

Next week we’re moving to a brand new, custom built building down at the docks, which is beside our almost completed arts centre, and along from our award winning museum. There is a lot of light reflecting glass, and everything is shiny and freshly painted. Yet it all seems a bit impersonal, more imposing and less relaxed than the classrooms where we have been so happy.

Before leaving my house, I packed a garden trowel and a steel tin in my briefcase.  I felt that this valedictory lesson could provide a way of reflecting on what the class had learned since arriving in Shetland and enrolling on this English course.  I am also aware that we may well be approaching the end of an era: this is a class who have, in three years, made outstanding progress. Who knows if they will choose to brave the longer walk to class in the driving wind and rain of a Shetland winter night to an English class on which they are no longer utterly dependent?  I guess time will tell…

I unpacked the earth begrimed trowel and tin from my brief case and asked the class what we might use them for. Someone suggested that we might plant a flower, while others looked pretty blank.  I wrote time capsule on the board: and everyone started nodding in recognition.
We began by reflecting on our experiences in the building, and discussing what people digging up our capsule in fifty years time might find interesting. The class came up with the following questions:
      When did you first come here?
·         What were your first impressions of this place?
·         How has your life changed since coming here?
·         What do you think life will be like in 2062?

The class then split into groups and discussed these questions for eight minutes, while I circulated, offering language input and facilitating the discussion. Learners then took it in turns to report back on one other learner’s answers, while someone else wrote down one of the sentences, using a reporting verb. Before long, we had a sentence for everyone:  Karmen said coming here was nerve wracking at first, while Rita thought that people would no longer read paper books in 2062. These sentences were placed in the capsule.
We emptied our pockets and filled our time capsule with coins, tickets, lists and a diary page. (It became clear that a latecomer to the class had not quite understood the time capsule concept when he placed his house keys in the tin!)

Finally we ventured out into the evening chill and buried our time capsule. The exact location of the time capsule, and its dig-up date, will be framed along with a photo of the class, and displayed in the new building: a reminder of a box of very happy memories. 

After the burial...
X marks the spot...

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Way to Go - an approach to teaching directions...

It was the last half hour of tonight’s lesson with my multi lingual pre-intermediate class. We had finished a challenging reading text, the class was tired and the room was hot. Glancing at the course book I saw that the next page “Asking Directions” would fit perfectly into this time slot.  But we needed a break from reading and we needed to get moving. This is what we did.

1. I divided the group into pairs. I asked each person to write a short note to his/her partner. My only stipulations were that it had to be friendly, platonic and short (they had two minutes).

2. I took one half of each pair out of the room. Tonight I was teaching upstairs: I gestured downstairs and told them they could hide their note anywhere in the building. Urging them to remember where they had hidden their partner’s note I ran up the stairs to the second half of the group.

3. While we were waiting for the rest of the group to return I drew a diagram of a road on the board with left and right turns branching out and a stick man walking up the road. I started to brainstorm phrases such as go straight ahead, turn right, take the second on your left etc.

4. The first group returned and I repeated step two with the second half of the group. Meanwhile I ran back and repeated step three with the first half of the group.

5. I asked one learner to close her eyes.  I hid a magic marker under a book at the other side of the room (it was a fairly large room) while the others watched. The other learners then gave her directions to get to the pen.

6. Finally, the learners worked in their pairs to direct each other to their letters.   I observed them listening really carefully to each other’s directions. If they didn’t manage to find their letter the first time, I allowed them to try again with their partner’s help on the condition that there would be no gesturing, only spoken directions.

This worked well for a number of reasons. Firstly, the learners welcomed having the opportunity to move from their seats. Secondly, they were clearly very eager to find and read their notes! The building where I teach is fairly large (and empty at nights) and there are many nooks and crannies, which make it perfect for a spot of “hunt the note”.  However, I’m pretty sure that those working in less windy teaching contexts could even take this lesson outside!