The precious moments of team spirit

Earlier today I experienced a lesson which left me with a feeling of deep professional satisfaction. Let me share some of the moments here on my blog.
I singularly taught a double lesson (90 minutes altogether), which meant plenty of time to do stuff I don’t normally do. Plus I decided to set up group work which was not part of my original plan. Not that group work is something extraordinary or unusual in my teaching, but for the sake of effectiveness, when grouping my students, I usually ask one pair to quickly join another pair (quite obviously the nearest one). This only requires little movement and almost no changes to the seating arrangement. This technique has proved quite effective over time, particularly with larger classes. However, today, with all the extra time on my hands, I approached group work a bit differently. 
There were 21 students present – 2 were missing. I quickly estimated that I needed to make 5 groups: 4 groups of 4 and one group of 5. I chose five kids who I knew are really motivated language learners, as well as good writers. Then I asked the appointed ‘leaders’ to choose kids they’d like to work with. This is not always feasible but I felt I could afford to give the kids some freedom (the time factor again). There is a little psychological drawback to this approach though; the last kids that remain to be chosen may feel sad. However, if a grouping technique like this is done sporadically, it doesn’t do any harm to the overall atmosphere. To the contrary, it reveals a lot about the class dynamics, which can be quite useful for the teacher in the long term perspective. I should point to the fact that I’m the homeroom teacher of this particular class and this type of information is very important for me. Next time I’ll be able to work with the data I collected in today’s lesson; for example, I may appoint the former ‘outsiders’ as the leaders and see how it works. 
As I said, the leaders I chose today are quite responsible language learners, and I noticed that they tried to select the team players very carefully; apparently they tended to avoid some of the notorious spoilsports. This part of group making went really well and nobody made any obstructions, which, inevitably, sometimes happens in a class of 14-year-olds. When the kids finally settled down, I set up a writing activity where the strongest student was in charge of recording the story, while the other members had to help and participate actively in the writing process. 
I was surprised how well they all worked during this stage. I walked around the class monitoring, making sure that even the weakest students were contributing in some way. I noticed that the writers sometimes changed the wording of a sentence other members of the group had come up with, which was beneficial because it helped the weaker students learn some new words and structures, and it made them become aware of some of the mistakes which were made along the way. In addition, the strongest students were motivated since they had the right to change things if they felt it was to the good. 
Again, while monitoring, I didn’t catch anybody arguing or mocking others, and it seemed nobody felt offended or even bored. Later on, during the presentation stage, everybody seemed involved too. I had asked the team to choose one member (it could be anybody but the writer) to present the story to the class. The rest of the team had an important job to do during the presentation; they made background sounds such as barking, knocking, shouting, blowing, coughing, etc. (note: the story had originally been presented as a story in sounds, and after the listening stage and subsequent language work, the students’ task was to reconstruct the story into the said verbal version). At this point I concentrated on the weakest students to check if they knew where to make a particular sound. As there were lots of new vocabulary items, being able to make the right sound at the right time meant that the listeners understood the reader and that they had collaborated actively during the writing process. 
As you can see, I didn’t do anything special in today’s lesson, and I’m sure that you teachers have done something similar many times in your life. So have I after all. Sometimes it worked; sometimes it was a complete mess. But today it just worked the way it should. Overall, it was a quick and effective activity, and I believe everybody took away something new. 



Intermediate plateau – everyday struggles

As a language teacher I often deal with problems other subject teachers can easily ignore. Some of these problems are easy to handle, others are quite persistent. One of my greatest concerns at the moment is the difficulty a group of my students is having in making a transition from the intermediate to the upper-intermediate level of proficiency. I strongly believe these students have a cognitive capacity to reach a higher level, so I wonder why they feel they’re stuck. The fact that I have attended workshops and webinars to be better able to deal with the problem hasn’t helped a lot. Having read papers and articles related to this issue has been highly beneficial for me as a teacher, but it doesn’t prevent my students from struggling. The trouble is that my knowing about the problem is not the only prerequisite for finding a solution to it. It must be the students who realize that this struggle is an inevitable part of the learning process and that they need to persist in learning, even though they feel they’re not making the same leaps in progress that they used to make in the earlier stages of learning the language.

It’s not easy for me to infect my students with this optimistic prospect though. The problem is that if you feel you’re hopeless at something, it’s difficult for you to accept the fact that it may change someday just because other people tell you it will. You need to let this purely cognitive fact enter your emotional sphere to be able to deal with the situation. So students must experience the obstacles first and then start to believe that it’s in their power to overcome them. It also helps when they see others who have already achieved the goal. 
I’ve come across this interesting article describing the difficulties related to the problem of the intermediate plateau. This is how Jack C. Richards describes the features related to the phenomenon in his Moving Beyond the Plateau.
1) There is a gap between receptive and productive competence.
  • While learners’ receptive competence continues to develop, their productive competence remains relatively static.
  • Language items that learners recognize and understand in the input they hear do not pass into their productive competence.
2) Fluency may have progressed at the expense of complexity.
  • Learners’ language may be both relatively fluent and accurate but shows little evidence of appropriate grammatical development.
  • Complexity of learners’ language does not match their proficiency level.
3) Learners have a limited vocabulary range. 
  • Learners’ vocabulary development is still at the 3,000-word level.
  • Learners lack knowledge of collocational patterns.
4) Language production may be adequate but often lacks the characteristics of natural speech. 
  • Learners’ spoken English may be accurate and fluent but not always sound natural.
  • Learners’ spoken English lacks appropriate use of chunks and formulaic utterances.
5) There are persistent, fossilized language errors.
  • Errors of both grammar and pronunciation have become permanent features of learners’ speech.
  • Errors persist despite advances in learners’ communicative skills.
These are some of the problems I observe in my intermediate class. First of all, my students understand more than they can actually produce. This is fine until they fully realize this gap and start feeling frustrated. “I have learned English for so long but I feel I’m not progressing any more”, you sometimes hear them say. They do very well in listening and reading comprehension exercises but they still struggle with speaking and writing. It may sound a little confusing but sometimes they don’t even realize that they actually struggle. Most of them are (or consider themselves) quite fluent and the minor mistakes they make keep escaping their attention until they get some kind of explicit feedback. Also, it is when they take part in an authentic conversation, while abroad and chatting with foreigners in English, when they realize that something is not quite right. They often report back that their English is not as good and natural as they thought it was. This is most evident when they meet their Swedish friends, for example. The truth is that students from northern European countries generally speak excellent English, and they don’t seem to get stuck on the intermediate plateau (maybe they do but much earlier, i.e. at a lower age). My colleagues and I like discussing the cause of this huge difference, but this is a topic for another post. This following table illustrates the situation (note: the report focuses on a different age group but it’s not totally off topic).
The EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) is a report which attempts to rank countries by the average level of English skills amongst adults. This figure shows the 2011 results, but our position hasn’t changed a lot since. As I see it, the whole country is stuck on the intermediate plateau, i.e. moderate proficiency. 
Let’s get back to my teenage students now. I’ve observed that although they can easily ignore or trivialize the flaws in their speaking performance, they are willing to admit that writing is a skill they really need to improve. This is easier for them to acknowledge, probably because they struggle with writing in their native language too. I constantly reassure them that practice makes perfect, but also that they need lots of input before they can come up with some decent output. However, whenever I ask them to underline useful phrases, collocations, or linking words in a text, for example, I can see their reluctant expressions which implicitly say: Why should I underline this? I already know the words. It takes a lot of time to convince them that they won’t be able to use a particular collocation or a formulaic chunk of language if it’s not part of their productive inventory, even though they may already be familiar with its separate constituents. I remind them of the fact that they will probably tend to find the easiest way out; they will simply rely on what they already know, and thus their writing will lack the complexity which can be observed at higher levels of proficiency. 
At this stage, my students have mastered all the basic grammatical structures, but they still find it difficult to use them naturally and correctly. In my intermediate class, it’s not unusual to hear a fairly good student utter he don’t go or if people wouldn’t produce pollution they would …Vocabulary is another huge problem. Even if the students focused on and dutifully recorded every word or collocation they encounter in the coursebooks and texts we use (which they obviously don’t), this wouldn’t be enough; their vocabulary wouldn’t increase quickly enough to make them feel they’re progressing noticeably. Obviously, there are students who immerse themselves in English outside their regular classes; some play PC games, and they communicate in English with people from all over the world on a daily basis. Others watch films in English and listen to authentic podcasts which they choose based on their interests. Not only does their vocabulary increase dramatically but I’ve noticed that they gradually gain the characteristics of natural speech. There are a few avid readers too, which is great for language acquisition, especially for vocabulary extension. These are the students who will soon leave the intermediate plateau without even noticing any struggle. 
I believe that most of the responsibility lies with the students themselves, and the teacher’s job is to 1) motivate, 2) provide guidance, and 3) give plenty of feedback in order to prevent persistent errors from fossilizing. Fossilization is particularly dangerous in monolingual L1 classes. I can see the despair in my students’ eyes whenever I draw their attention to a basic grammar error they’ve just made. “Damn it! I’m so stupid! Did I really say this?” Yes, they did say it but since we share the same L1, we all understand one another’s distorted language, which becomes a problem. 
To sum up, the key is to constantly push students towards a higher goal. It’s vital not to let them remain complacent and lazy, which is, quite understandably, the most natural and desirable state for many of them. At this stage Demand High is the best approach I can think of. The students can communicate quite well, so it’s hard to persuade them to put more effort into conscious learning. Also, I believe it’s good to praise them for their achievements but at the same time it’s necessary to remind them that they’re capable of more. But most importantly, it’s good to provide lots of input and examples of language that is slightly above their level of proficiency. They will see that this is not the terminal station; they’ll realize there’s still a lot to achieve and if it’s done in small steps, the goal is definitely manageable. 

A perfect match

I think it’s great if you are able to share your office with a colleague. Not only do you have someone to cheer you up when you’re sad or feel lonely, but this someone is also the quickest source of information. Every day something comes up which needs to be consulted; a student uses a seemingly weird collocation in her writing, and you don’t want to dismiss it until you’re perfectly sure it’s incorrect. This discussion about correctness and incorrectness may lead to new bits of knowledge, on both parts. 
I remember this situation: my colleague was hunched over a student’s essay describing the future world, wracking her brains with a sentence he had used. She understood what the student had meant to say but couldn’t help feeling something was not right with the wording of the sentence. She wanted to help the student but couldn’t find an appropriate way of paraphrasing his idea. As dictionaries or Google were useless in this case, she asked me. I remember the sentences I came up with was something along these lines: In the future, people will stop manipulating each other. This version was happily approved by my colleague, but she added kindly: “You mean: manipulate one another, but thanks, this is perfect”. I replied with a question, a little bewildered: “Why not manipulate each other?“. She answered, trying hard not to sound arrogant: “Well, you can’t say each other, you know, because we use this when we’re talking about two people”. She went on to say: “I remember, as if it was yesterday, when I was in England 20 years ago, our teacher, a native speaker of English, put this particular rule on the board. I can still visualize it clearly, after all those years – the board was divided into two columns and ……”
I realized that I had come across this rule before, and I admitted that I’d probably forgotten about it. I felt a little ashamed that I might have used incorrect language multiple times in the classroom. However, I could swear that I’d heard people use each other when talking about many people – it just sounded so natural to me. So I went and looked it up on the internet, and this came up

To cut it short, my colleague finally acknowledged the fact that it was acceptable to use each otherin the sense we’d talked about. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make. What is really important is that we both learned something valuable from this short exchange of opinions. My colleague reminded me of a rule I was once familiar with (now I’ll be able to explain to my students if they ask), and she realized that language evolves and rules come to existence to be ultimately violated by its users. 

A similar discussion we’ve had was about the possibility of using but at the beginning of a sentence. I remember my colleague was about to underline this as a mistake in a pre-intermediate student’s essay because she was convinced that it was not correct to start a sentence with But. Before she did though, she stopped and checked with me first. I could swear that I’d seen it used this way a million times in written work of native and non-native users of English producing language high above the pre-intermediate level of proficiency. So I checked here:

Once again, I was truly amazed by my friend’s long-term memory capacity. She mentioned the same language course she participated in when she was studying in England back in the 90s. However, I was glad that my intuition wasn’t wrong either, and I realized that my colleague and I are a perfect match; she remembers the rules and I have the hunch ….. 

All about my off-line professional development

P.A.R.K language school in Brno.
Gareth Davies giving a plenary speech
about the importance of technology
in ELT.

Although most of my professional development takes place in the on-line environment, I’m a big  fan of face-to-face PD events too. 

I basically attend three types of off-line PD events. I’ll start off with my number one, which is definitely reserved for ELT conferences. I’ve written about the power of conferences here and here. The ones I go to are usually organized twice a year by well-established language schools here in the Czech Republic, and they always attract a number of fantastic ELT people. As a rule, each school organizes a ‘spring’ conference and an ‘autumn’ one. If I’m lucky, I normally get to four conferences per year (note: this is done in my free time, i.e. Saturdays, and is self-funded). I go to the same conferences over and over again because I already know what to expect from the organizers and how to get there safely and conveniently. This way of minimizing stress helps me enjoy the experience to the fullest. The theme is different for every conference but some of the presenters and speakers regularly come back, with brand new presentations, which is great because I love to see something old as well as something new. The most interesting moment of a conference is probably the plenary speech (and raffle too!) but the workshops are great too; they are more personal and you get a chance to interact with the presenter and the participants. I choose the workshops according to the names of the presenters, but I obviously look at the topics too. I’m very pleased when a name that was totally unknown to me before the conference turns out to be a great success. 

ILC IH Brno. Final raffle and home-made food.


Another ‘voluntary’ type of PD event is seminars which are held by regional educational centres. These provide information which I need to be able to do my job as a teacher in the state sector of education. For example, I attend seminars aimed at improving my skills as an examiner of the oral part of the final state exam – The Maturita Exam (Maturita, for short). The seminars are not obligatory but I find it useful to brush up on my knowledge once in a while. To be honest though, I don’t find the information I obtain entirely relevant to general ELT. The thing is that from the very beginning of secondary education students’ attention is drawn to the type of exercises they will once encounter at the final exam. The washback effect is always there. Also, the way we prepare students for the Maturita Exam is slightly different from the approach to FCE preparation, for example. As I see it, Maturita tends to focus on fluency, but it also encourages a great attention to grammatical accuracy, while during an FCE exam, fluency (or being able to get the message across fluently) is a little more important that the ability to speak with absolute accuracy. This is also one of the reasons why I find these seminars useful; I consider myself a liberal teacher meaning that I don’t really freak out when a student makes a minor error here and there once I understand the core of the message. Thus I constantly need to be reminded that Czech students must be able to speak fluently but not at the expense of their accuracy. I’d conclude that the type of training I get at these seminars is constricted and looks at teaching from a very analytical point of view, while conferences provide me with a more holistic view on ELT since I’m exposed to a great variety of opinions and ideas. Both types of PD are highly beneficial but one without the other wouldn’t suffice. 


The third type of PD events I engage in is afternoon workshops and seminars chosen by the administrators. These happen sporadically and take place at our school. All teachers (or a selected number of them) must take part. I usually find these events quite handy and if I don’t, I’m not a spoilsport – I know the person was hired to do a job so I always try to find something relevant to my teaching context. The problem is that not all my colleagues are so tolerant. While conferences are full of like minded educators, on occasions like this you hear a lot of ranting and grumbling, mostly in the form of hateful whisper coming from all directions. Sooner or later, many of these carpers surrender and start correcting students’ essays without paying much attention to what the presenter has to say; others play games on their smartphones. This is totally understandable; we are there after our regular working schedule, tired and cranky. We didn’t choose the topic, neither the presenter. Throughout the lecture, the idea that we’d be better off spending the time with our families or doing our hobbies is constantly niggling at the back of our minds. This eventually spoils the atmosphere and consequently most of the potential learning opportunities. It’s simply impossible for the presenter to share knowledge with people who are reluctant to listen. By the way, I wrote about similar disastrous experience some time ago. So while at conferences you have full control over your learning experience, on occasions like this you only have to endure (sometimes for several hours at one go). The only advantage I can think of is that we don’t have to travel anywhere. Oh yeah.. and it’s free, of course. 

So, what is the correct answer?

We teachers undoubtedly have our favourite catch-phrases – word combinations we say so often that they finally become ridiculous or irritating for those who notice the recurring pattern. If we are unaware of them, we needn’t worry because our students, especially the young ones, always let us know; for example they quite ‘inadvertently’ echo what we’ve just said. I remember a student who really liked my What else? question, much so that she couldn’t help repeating it whenever she heard me utter it. I obviously told her to stop doing it because I considered it rather provocative (she was cute but I could tell from her intonation and facial expression how much she enjoyed aggravating me). Nevertheless, she, in effect, made me think about classroom discourse in more depth. 
We’ll all agree that questions are good. Questions asked by students are even better; their presence implies that learning takes place. However, there are types of questions which I’d rather not hear. I find it quite irritating, for example, when a student asks the very same question that another student asked just a couple of seconds ago. This usually happens when we are using the coursebook doing a comprehension check exercise. At first sight, repeating the same question is a clear sign of a lack of attention on the student’s part. Even if it happens incidentally (yes, I suspect that some students like to be in the centre of attention), it is ultimately more or less embarrassing for the inattentive student because it invariably incites laughter in the class. My teacher self hates this type of situation since it prolongs the activity and thus causes even more disruption. However, if this happens more than once during the same task, it is obviously an indication that the exercise is not engaging enough and thus the students have a problem staying alert. 
But even students’ own questions can be a real nuisance, for example questions which are totally off topic. Imagine the following situation: you’re patiently waiting for an answer (or a question, for that matter), when all of a sudden a hand shoots up. You are grateful, happy, over the moon, on cloud nine… because you know that it was a tough task. So you gently and thankfully point to that student only to hear: Can I go to the restroom, please? I simply don’t get it – the student knew that I was expecting something else, yet he asked this silly question which might well have waited a few seconds or minutes. Maybe he interrupted the silence on purpose – whatever his motivation was. Perhaps he only took advantage of the slot; he thought it was the most appropriate moment to ask this question and it was really urgent. Or maybe it’s fun to disconcert the teacher from time to time. I don’t know. A variation of the restroom question is Can I go and throw this in the trash bin? Aaarrrggghhh!   
There’s one question that really gets on my nerves though; I actually consider this the most annoying question of all. It is sometimes asked when we do a really challenging task and I don’t want to provide the right answer straight away; I want my students to come to a conclusion for themselves. So in an attempt to let critical thinking flood the classroom, I ask around, leave some space for alternatives, nod in agreement but indicate that I want to hear more, when all of a sudden a student (barely looking at me, with her pen right above the paper, ready to record the ultimate, final words of me THE TEACHER) asks: So, what is the correct answer? You should see me at that moment – I give that student a hostile look and although I’m not proud of it, I must confess that I usually say something pretty sarcastic about me not being there to bring answers on a silver plate.  
I already know what makes me feel and act the way I do – it’s the implicit impatience with which the question is normally asked. Also, it’s the accusing type of intonation that really bugs me. I somehow take it for granted that students take into account all the alternatives and choose the one they think is the best. But don’t I ask too much of them? Are they capable of doing it at all? Are they trained to do it? Worse still, aren’t they, in some cases, actually trained against doing it? What I think would really help is asking myself: what are the motives for asking this question? The students may be confused having heard so many alternatives. They may crave some kind of closure. They hate to be left doubtful. They just need to fill in the gap, be it in their notebooks or in their neural connections. 
I guess I’ve asked too many questions in this post. I’ll leave here because I feel I need to answer some of them in my head first before coming up with more…. 


Paragraph blogging: Demand High

This is a paragraph blogging type of post, inspired by Anna Loseva and Kate Makaryeva, who came up with this fantastic idea at the time when I thought my blogging needed a tweak. This challenge is perfect for me because 1) I’m “sick of mulling over my Seriously Great Idea in an attempt to shape it coherently and beautifully into a decent (read: perfect) 1K+ words blog post” and because 2) I suspect my “Seriously Great Idea will not significantly lose in its greatness if I manage to tell it in one paragraph”. 🙂 Well, I wonder whether my idea is great enough to be published as a blog post but anyway ….  
Demand High: The idea of engaging your students’ full learning potential, proposed by Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill, got into circulation back in 2012, and it soon became an object of profound criticism. When I heard the term for the first time, it immediately struck a chord with me. Since then I’ve never felt the need to scrutinize the theory or the motivation of its proponents; I’ve always considered it pure inspiration which perfectly fits into my existing schemata; it is consistent with the way I see (or want to see) the world of education. I often think of the endless hours kids are forced to spend at school glued to their desks, and I too wonder whether all the time is used effectively. I have my doubts because I can clearly visualize the moments of me killing the precious classroom time with meaningless games and fun activities just because back then my teacher self thought it was the right thing to do. Had I allowed my students to go out and play in the park, I wouldn’t have done them a disservice. I’m convinced that Demand High speaks to lots of teachers out there, and I strongly believe we are obliged to ask ourselves the kind of questions Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill proposed. Even if the answers are hard to find, the questions themselves are invaluable tools for every teacher’s professional development. When I think about it now, I actually see Demand High as a kind of reflective practice rather than an approach to teaching.
Oops, it seems that a paragraph can become pretty lengthy. I’d like to apologize for failing to stick to the challenge, but I swear I tried hard. 🙂


Let them know why they are really there

I should probably warn the reader in advance that this is the schizophrenic type of post I occasionally come up with here on my blog. The thing is that I feel that the effort I put into pretending that my students and I are in the classroom in order to learn about our interests, hobbies, dreams and desires puts me under unbearable pressure. Not that this never happens – we do share our experience and I truly believe that we are interested in one another’s opinions – but it’s hard to deny that it’s not why we are primarily there. 

In the past I strongly believed that in order to help our learners learn an L2 effectively, the instruction should replicate the way L1s are learned. I haven’t dismissed this belief completely; I’m still convinced that L2 learning should resemble L1 acquisition as much as possible (for example, the focus should be on collocations and chunks, not grammar). However, I can no longer ignore the fact that while small kids acquire their L1s through genuine communication, in an L2 classroom, learners only pretend to do so. 

This notion makes me feel pretty frustrated at times. I guess it must be due to the deception omnipresent in an L2 classroom. On the one hand, I try to be the facilitator who listens patiently and attentively to what the students have to say. On the other hand, although I do listen closely, I’m ready to strike treacherously by giving a student a poor grade whenever I spot a certain number of mistakes. Thus what I actually do is punishing my students for their genuine attempts to express their personal views. 

I don’t think other subject teachers share my concerns. In maths lessons the kids know that they are there to learn to solve equations. In history classes the students are supposed to learn facts about the past. Normally, the teacher is the intermediary – she possesses the knowledge and passes the facts on to her students. In a way the matter is outside the student and the teacher – it’s out there to be tampered with. I don’t know how to put it accurately but I feel that we English teachers tamper with students’ psyche rather than the matter because the things we need to teach them can only be taught vicariously – through extracting experience and feelings from our students’ minds. Yes, this is what I feel communicative teaching does. 

Now I’m not saying that it’s inherently bad. My point is that we CLT teachers sometimes treat our students as best friends. The truth is, however, that we can change into the worst enemy any minute. We behave as though we were friends because we want to encourage an open and honest communication environment. In other words, we need to make our students speak and write in English to make sure they are learning the words and grammar someone else invented and used before. Thus we imperceptibly creep into their inner worlds. Then, all of a sudden, we abuse their trust by judging and assessing their performance. For example, we subtract points for Michael’s incorrect choices of vocabulary and grammar while he is trying hard to express how he feels about gambling, which is the message we explicitly asked him to share with us when we were pretending to be his friends. 

Although we can’t change the schooling system and its ways of assessment in a day, we can change our approach to teaching English. I wonder if we ever include the following type of objective into our lesson plan: By the end of the lesson the teacher will have learned about the students’ most favourite clothes items. More often we state something along these lines: By the end of the lesson the students will have practised the second conditional and wish clauses. We form language-related objectives before the class but later on, for some inexplicable reason, we pretend that we are primarily interested in the content of the messages we hear or read. 

That said I believe that each minute of the lesson our students should be aware of the fact that they are there to learn the language and we are there to help them achieve this goal. Let’s stop deceiving the people we truly care about. We are not friends chatting at a café. In an English lesson, the content of a statement is equally important as the language a student chooses to use to communicate the message – I dare say the latter is even more important than the former. Thus it should not cause embarrassment when, for example, I occasionally stop two students in the middle of a dialogue. They should know that I do so in an attempt to draw their attention to a persistent error which makes the message impossible to decode. For me as a teacher it’s important to make sure the learners learn to express their view intelligibly and correctly. This is the ultimate goal of my teaching and this should be obvious.

I’m writing this post because I noticed the other day how amazingly liberating it felt when allowed myself to say this to my students without a shadow of guilt: “Look, I suspect this may not be the topic everybody is crazy about but you know, we’ve spend some time discussing it in order to learn some useful, high-frequency vocabulary.” I was excited to see that my students, those challenging teens, acknowledged my somewhat apologetic words with an understanding smile. Perhaps I’ve finally managed to make them interested in the language itself, so now they don’t actually care about the topics a great deal. I’m pleased to see whenever the progress my students are making is more important to them than some amazingly engaging topic of a conversation class. I’m not implying that I don’t consider suitability and relevance of an issue I choose to introduce, but it helps a lot if we all know why we are there in the first place – to learn the language. 


Repetition and recycling

It is common knowledge that any skill is best learnt through lots of repetition, and language learning is not an exception to the rule. However, based on my experience, not all coursebooks take this fact into account. No matter how much effort coursebook designers put into making their products cohesive learning materials , oftentimes the result is just a collection of random texts, where the only cohesive aspect is the sequence in which grammar is presented. Luckily, the internet is an amazing source of materials that can be used by those teachers who wish to put desirable teaching philosophies into practice.  
Not all the content of the coursebook one uses is interesting enough to be recycled with the same class. Thus the philosophy of repetition is sometimes diffucult to implement in the classroom. Online materials, on the other hand, are more engaging and appealing to the learner, and a great amount of them is also authentic, which adds extra value to the quality and meaningfulness of an English lesson. 
The fact that these authentic materials were designed for native speakers of the target language rather than for L2 learners guarantees that the language is not distorted in any way. However, even though the material is carefully chosen by a teacher to suit the level of a particular class, some bits may still be high above the learners’ level of proficiency. This may appear inappropriate at first sight, yet I believe that it is to the good.  

The other day in one of my classes (young learners) we discussed the solar system. The text which the kids were supposed to read was part of the English across the curriculum section of the book, and apart from the fact that it was included in the coursebook in order to reinforce the knowledge of comparatives and superlatives, to me it seemed totally out of place. It was 1) uninteresting 2) I didn’t know how to handle the topic, and 3) I had no idea what to do with the text afterwards; I couln’t come up with an engaging way to recycle the material. 

Nevertheless, it took me only a few seconds to find this song on YouTube, and suddenly millions of ideas came to mind. I found this material 1) engaging and more appropriate relative to the age and interests of the kids 2) amazing in relation to potential linguistic benefits 3) easy to elaborate on in a meaningful way (see another link below and the whole lyric is included right under the jump break). Apart from the fact that certain words and structures are repeated throughout the song, which is perfectly convenient for language acquisition, it’s dense with various structures and vocabulary items:


  • It includes examples of contracted as well as uncontracted forms of verbs (I am, I’m).
  • It includes useful collocations (the same size as, the other way, very big indeed).
  • It includes basic grammatical structures (I am, I have, I spin, there is …) as well as an example of the passive form (are made of).
  • It is full of useful prepositional phrases (on Earth, depends on, closest to, a ball of, in our solar system, from the Sun).
  • There are examples of the ‘only one negative in a sentence’ rule (I have no water, I have no moons) – something Czech learners struggle with.
  • There’s an example of relative clause (The place where we all live).
  • There are examples of countable and uncountable nouns and their quantifiers (lots of land, many storms).
  • The text can be useful for practising articles (a moon/the Earth/Mars) and comparatives/superlatives of adjectives and adverbs (farthest, more slowly).
  • There are various linking devices (so, but, and).
  • Although I’m not in favour of presenting vocabulary items in lexical sets, I’d say it’s useful to know certain lexical sets by heart, such as days of the week, months, seasons, planets of the solar system, etc. These are lexical sets even native speakers of the target language are expected to be familiar with. Learning these sets in songs or rhymes is an ideal way of making the experience less tedious. 

The next step I made with my learners was introducing them to, where the song is available for spelling practice. The kids chose the game mode they felt up to (beginner, intermediate, advanced, or expert) and started completing the gaps while listening to the song. 

Finally, I asked them to turn the 1st person verb forms into the 3rd person verb forms, plus I reminded them of other minor adjustments they needed to keep in mind, for example changes to pronouns. Then they recorded the new version into their notebooks. 
I am the Sun > This is the Sun.
I’m a burning ball of fire > It’s a burning ball of fire. 
Life on Earth depends on me. > Life on Earth depends on it.  
Eventually, the kids were able to recite most of the lyric without looking at the text, which, I believe, was due to the repetition and recycling of the same material. This was only possible because of the multimedia approach to the topic – something that is often hard for a teacher to apply when using coursebook material only. Throughout the lesson my students were motivated, and towards the end of the class it was clear that apart from practising all the four skills (listening, reading, writing and speaking), they had learnt and/or revised a lot of useful language.
The Solar System Song
I am the Sun.
I’m a burning ball of fire.
I’m very big indeed.
Life on Earth depends on me.
I am the Sun.
I am Mercury.
I’m the closest planet to the Sun.
I’m a ball of iron.
I have no moons.
I am Mercury.
I am Venus.
I’m the same size as the Earth,
but I spin the other way
And much more slowly
I have no water.
I am Venus.
I am the Earth.
The place where we all live
There’s land and lots of sea,
so I look blue.
I have a moon.
I am the Earth.
I am Mars.
I’m a rocky, red planet.
My mountains are the highest in our solar system.
I have two moons.
I am Mars.
I am Jupiter.
I’m a gas giant.
I’m the biggest
and I spin the fastest.
I have the biggest moon.
I am Jupiter.
I am Saturn.
I’m a gas giant.
My rings are made of ice.
Titan is my biggest moon.
I am Saturn.
I am Uranus.
I’m an icy gas giant.
I’m the coldest planet in our solar system.
And I have rings made of dust.
I am Uranus.
I am Neptune.
I’m an icy gas giant.
I’m the farthest planet from the sun.
I have many storms.
I am Neptune.
We are the solar system.
We are the solar system.