One of the most challenging things about teaching for SIDAS Language School is that the nature of the Active English Weeks Program makes any classroom activity that relies on extensive worksheets, readings, or individual materials in general a bit of a problem. Of course, in my experience, any lesson plan that relies excessively on worksheets is a bit of a problem anyway, but teaching engaging and focused lessons with minimal materials is definitely one way to challenge everything you think you know about teaching English.
So, after two years in the ESL classroom, and my few months teaching on the road for SIDAS Language School, I’d just like to share some fundamental approaches for teaching English (or any language really) without relying on extensive pre-designed and individually-printed materials.
Fundamental 1: Channel Students’ Focus … by Any Means Necessary
Even when you do have a worksheet or book to keep your students attention, the board should still be your #1 best-friend, wing-man, got-your-back buddy. A good old chalkboard is the easiest way to consolidate the language covered in the lesson, and to provide a point of focus for the class as a whole.
But you don’t need fancy videos, “interactive” white boards with bells and whistles, or even a board at all if you know how to channel your students’ attention. One of my favorite activities to do with classes in the 12-15 year old range is a variation on the running dictation, where students work in groups to reconstruct a short text that has been broken up and positioned throughout the room. Not only does it get students moving in addition to paying attention to the details of written English, it also provides a fun and engaging way of providing a “reading” to the students, which can then be exploited for grammar points, comprehension, and whatever else you would use a traditionally-printed reading for–no photocopies needed.
Fundamental 2: Student-Generated Language +1
In general, your students, no matter their level, will know at least one or two things in English that you would never expect them to know. Use this to your advantage. When introducing a topic, elicit as much as possible–and then add to the knowledge your students already have. This is where mind maps, word associations, and collocations all come in useful. It’s much more useful to show students a new way of conceptualizing the vocabulary they already have before adding to that vocabulary than it is to re-teach things that they already “know.”
In general, any vocabulary that I pre-teach before the main task of a lesson, I will pre-teach by connecting to words that I’ve elicited from the class first. So, for example, in the lesson that I do around the old EFL past-tenses standby, ALIBI, I usually start by eliciting and expanding on students’ crime vocabulary–students will usually know the basics: robbery, theives, murder. But they’ll usually need me to clarify the differences between burglary and robbery, and also the fact that each crime has a different term for the criminal involved, as well as for the verb related to commiting the crime(assasination vs. assassin vs. assassinate).
So, what ends up on my board is something like this:
Fundamental 3: Mix Things up to Get Them Talking
Right up there with your board, flashcards are your best friend. But, while it’s useful to have a couple standard decks for common vocabulary groups and chunks, there’s really no need to keep and sort through hundreds of flashcards when all you want to do is play a game of pictionary with your kids. There’s a much easier and simpler solution:
Get your kids to write the cards for you.
This goes hand in hand with utilizing and reinforcing student-generated vocabulary, and used correctly (and with the right amount of nudging toward the students’ creative sides), can produce unexpected amusement in even a simple game of pictionary. One thing I’ve started doing on the first day of class is getting students to write cards for me describing “something you’ve never seen before.” The answers are always hilarious, and provide some fun additions to any rounds of pictionary, charades, or articulate that we might play throughout the week.
And finally, definitely do not forget the power of using real examples and real objects in the classroom, whether it’s getting kids to dig through their bags for examples of what you’re talking about, making them navigate an obstacle course formed by the desks, or taking their phones so that they’re forced to describe them to get them back. It might be impossible to print out a sheet with pictures and words for every piece of clothing that your 11 year old A1’s should know, but chances are, if you get Anna, Simca, and Vlad to stand up in the front of the class, they’re wearing all of it anyway.
So, travelers, teachers, adventurers, and my linguistic-leaning friends: what’s your favorite way to lighten up the materials for your lesson plans? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!