Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Day One: Breaking the Ice

The jitters I find myself experiencing on the first day of teaching a new class never fail to surprise me. I've been teaching for fourteen years now: what could possibly go wrong?  In any case, it could hardly be more of my disaster than my very first day on the job... (You can read about this teaching tragedy at:

I guess my nerves are rational enough. A lot is at stake here: this initial lesson sets the tone for the rest of the year, in terms of class dynamic and work ethic. I always aim to establish a positive group relationship in the first lesson while allowing myself the opportunity to gauge the needs and interests of individual learners within the class.

I thought I'd record the procedure I followed in last night's lesson and reflect a little on it here. Overall, I felt we had a good start back to the year, but I'm sure there's still room for improvement!

My New Class: A pre intermediate, mutli - lingual group of nine ESOL learners comprising Polish, Hungarian, Latvian, Thai, Moroccan and Spanish learners. Learners range in age from eighteen to around fifty.

Here is what we did:

Name Rattler
In my multi lingual class of pre-intermediate level learners, names were clearly going to be an issue. For me, establishing a solid group dynamic is absolutely crucial, and if it takes ten minutes of the first lesson for learners to get their tongues around each other's names then no matter: I feel it is time very well spent. Learners were clearly keen to get to grips with each other's names and I felt there was a positive atmosphere from the outset.

Name Rattler is as old as the hills. Introduce yourself, e.g.: My name is Genny.  The learner on your right then has to introduce himself and remember your name too: Her name is Genny and my name is Istvan. Rattle round the class until the last learner has to remember the entire class list of names. Then ask the last learner to give you another piece of information about herself, e.g.: I like banana sandwiches. The learner on her left then has to provide a similar bit of information along with the last learner's piece of information, e.g.: Loli likes banana sandwiches and I like beer. Rattle round the class the opposite way.

Name Rattler worked very well last night, and by the end of the activity the learners were visibly more relaxed. Most of them were making basic mistakes with the present simple tense: clearly we need to go back to the drawing board there!

Needs analysis

I sourced good needs analysis questions from Melissa Martin's first day back procedure on I gave learners time to answer the questions (some of them needed a bit of prompting)  and then we discussed the questions as a class. I did this because I wanted learners to be aware of the needs of the class as a whole. In particular we focused on the final question: "What can I do to improve my English outside the class?" as a surprisingly large amount of learners appear to labour under the misapprehension that they will learn the language by attending one English class a week and doing diddly squat else.

Rules and Regulations

I am not a fan of admin. Neither do I particularly like droning through pages of boring rules and regulations while my class gently slip into the land of Nod. We sped through the handbook, apart from one page which contained, to my mind, the most important rule of our institution: the rule which states that you must telephone or email your teacher if you cannot make it to class. Every September I remind learners of this rule, every year they nod earnestly, and every year most of them fail to notify me when they are going to be absent. I wondered if taking this rule from the handbook, typing it up, tacking it onto the wall in the corridor and turning it into a running dictation activity might help.

Well, it is too early in the year to say if this activity drove this particular rule home: I guess that time will tell. The activity did, however, give me a good insight into the writing and listening abilities of the learners in this class. It also generated movement and raised energy levels all round!

Holiday Lies

I wanted to see how my new class performed in a fluency activity, and so provided another tried and tested activity: the truth and lies game. Once I'd elicited the meaning of "truth" and "lie" I asked if there were any good liars in the class. A couple of folk said they were, and so I said I'd put them to the test.  I distributed post it notes marked with "Truth" and "Lie" and told the class that they had 3 minutes to mentally prepare a holiday anecdote which should be a truth or a lie, depending on the word they had received. I spun them a false holiday yarn of my own as an example. I then divided the class into two smaller groups, and asked them to listen to each others'  stories. This enabled me to see who worked well together, while noting significant errors (Most learners neglected to use the past tense in their anecdotes).

Listening and Writing

In the needs analyses many of the learners said that they needed to work on their listening. skills. This was the perfect opportunity for me to introduce my new favourite website:
We used an elementary text, which worked well. I referred learners back to the final question in the needs analyses questionnaire and asked them to work on these online dictations for homework.  

And Finally:.

I couldn't resist trying out this little gem of an idea in the last few minutes of the lesson. I thought that it would really get learners talking and it did. The activity is by Camilla Mayhew and is called "Caravan or Cruiseliner" and with five minutes preparation you can adapt it to suit your own context and learners. It is a game I have often played with friends: you ask "The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?" or "Peanut Butter or Marmite?" or "Trotsky or Lenin"? You nominate your preferred choice and give reasons why. I used a good few of Camilla's suggestions but also added in a couple of examples with local significance. The learners quickly cottoned on and enjoyed discussing their choices: this provided a nice, upbeat close to the lesson.

You can find "Caravan or Cruiseliner" at:


Despite my worries, this first lesson went well. The class seemed to gel nicely, and I am delighted by the rich mix of nationalities. My initial diagnostic assessment shows that we have a lot of work to do - but with this group I think it will be a pleasure. Better get planning the next class!


  1. This is a really nice overview of a session with a new group. I might just share your post with colleagues at an upcoming professional development morning that I'm planning.

    One of the things I thought we could talk about was first lessons because I agree with you that it is so important to have good activities to allow you to create the right atmosphere and group dynamic while also getting a feel for where the learners are in their language learning!

    Thanks Genny!

  2. Hi Carol,

    How lovely to hear from you!

    I had actually been looking forward to using your "What I know about...I could write on the back of the stamp..." activity ( but we ran out of time! Oh well, there's always next lesson.

    Hope your SLF preparations are going well...