What do you do when you unexpectedly have to stand in for a colleague, and you only learn about it a few minutes prior to the class? Do you have a versatile ‘survival kit’ to use in such a situation? What is it or what does it consist of?

In my case, it’s definitely graded readers. They come in handy whenever I have to cover a lesson, particularly in a group I don’t normally teach.

There are many things you can do with graded readers. This is what I’ve tried so far:

  1. You simply tell the students to read a book of their choice (or the book you give them) and go about your business, such as paperwork walk around the room and monitor. You can ask them to write a review afterwards. The trouble is that you should read the reviews and give some feedback (don’t bother the teacher whose lesson you are covering!). This is time-consuming so think twice. 🙂
  2. You can ask them to read a part of the book and then they should predict what happens next (if they do it in pairs/groups, you’ve just created an opportunity for them to practice speaking). Later or in the next lesson, they finish the book and compare their endings with the real one (more speaking time!).
  3. If you have the recording too, you can play it in class. The students listen (with books closed or opened, depending on what you want them to practice/focus on). There don’t necessarily have to be any tasks. Sometimes we just listen to something for pleasure. Period. However, you can have a short discussion afterwards.
  4. You can play a chapter (books closed) and then the class reads the next chapter (with no audio on). Then you push the play button again (don’t forget to skip the chapter they’ve read silently).
  5. If you only have one copy of the book, you can ask a student to sit at the front with the book opened, and as the class listens, the student puts some useful/unknown language on the board. After some time/ a few pages, it’s another student’s turn. You can discuss the words on the board after each pause or at the end of the lesson.
  6. With Romeo and Juliet, for example, I only have one copy, so I scanned the pages and projected them on the screen as we were listening. It’s a play (very low level), so it was feasible.
  7. Having said that, my favourite graded reader is Survive! It’s very simple in terms of language and you can either use it with small kids, who just enjoy reading it silently or build a nice conversation lesson with an intermediate class.

You are in a small plane, going across the Rocky Mountains. Suddenly, the engine starts to make strange noises… Soon you are alone, in the snow, at the top of a mountain, and it is very, very cold. Can you find your way out of the mountain?


The great thing is that it’s an interactive type of reading. It’s quite similar to what you experience when you play a computer game, which is why it’s so popular, I guess. As you read, your decisions lead to certain consequences and in the end, you either survive or die.

Today, I had to cover a lesson for a colleague of mine and I learned about it a few minutes prior to the class. So, I gave each student a copy of the Survive! book. First, they read it silently completing the tasks. Meanwhile, I put some functional language on the board. When everybody finished, I pretended to be the captain of the plane going across the Rocky Mountains while the students were my crew. Suddenly, the engine started to make strange noises… I asked my crew what we should do. I elicited some answers. After demonstrating the activity with the whole class, I divided them into 3 groups of 4. I told them that they were in their small private planes and that they had to make some decisions again, but now they had to discuss all the pros and cons and agree as a group before taking a step. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter that they had already gone through the whole thing. It panned out really well and some students even turned it into a drama worth filming. 🙂

Meanwhile, I put some more functional language on the board (mainly modals in the past).

Finally (and this was inspired by the Mutiny on the Bounty movie), I asked them to explain/justify their bad choices, in hindsight. They could also say what had gone well and why. This time, I pretended to be a judge. I expected sentences like:

We shouldn’t have turned left. It was a really bad idea. Also, we shouldn’t have eaten the fruit. However, it was clever to go down the mountain because… 

Anyway, I think that as a teacher, I survived too!

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All the different combinations of formal observation

IMG_20180817_131315_969I’ve written about formal observation here on my blog a few times before but don’t think I’ve ever considered all the different types of observation a teacher like me can experience based on who the observee is and what the observer is focusing on.

So far I’ve encountered the following situations:

  1. I observe my colleague (as a colleague).
  2. I observe my colleague (as her immediate superior).
  3. I observe an outside worker (as her mentor/supervisor/trainer).
  4. I am observed by a colleague.
  5. I am observed by my administrators/boss.
  6. I am observed by an outside worker/teacher trainee.

The above six situations can be combined with the following:

A) The observer zooms in on the observee teaching a random group of learners. Such a group of learners can be specifically chosen/created for this purpose, for one semester only, for example. I experienced this situation during my internal teaching practice at uni.

B) The observer zooms in on the observee teaching her own class. The observer doesn’t necessarily know the class (this is usually combined with points 1 or 2 above).

C) The observer zooms in on the observee teaching the observer’s class (this is usually combined with point 3.)

D) The observer zooms in on the class rather than the observee – either out of curiosity or because there have been some issues and the observee needs help (this is usually combined with points 1, 2 or 5).

My favourite type of observation, which, by the way, I’ve recently experienced for the very first time, is observing an outside worker teaching my own class. The fact that I consider this my favourite type of observation is pretty egoistic if you think about it because the observee, as well as the class, are at a disadvantage. The thing is that it’s likely that the observee doesn’t know the test subjects learners very well and the class may feel nervous since they don’t know what to expect from the new teacher. Plus I am there to rule watch them all.

Anyway, there are some benefits too. For one, I can help the observee by giving her tips – prior to the lesson or afterwards – because I know my class like the back of my hand. I believe that if she is a regular teacher, teaching an unknown group of learners may help her see what she does with her own classes. Some things are better seen from a distance after all. For two, and this is the selfish part, I can see what my students are like from a totally different angle – virtually and metaphorically. For example, as I usually sit among the students, my physical perspective changes a great deal. Also, I can see the impact the observee’s teaching has on my class because at last, I have an opportunity to go through the whole process together with the students. It’s even more authentic if the observee doesn’t show me her lesson plan in advance. Thus I can tell how clear her instructions are and/or how motivating the lesson is overall. Actually, the observee is like a mirror I’m looking in: her mistakes and achievements may in effect reflect all the things I do in class myself.

And the most desirable outcome is when I can happily exclaim: “Heureka! My students did really well in your lesson (secretly thinking: … because I did a good job as a teacher)”. 🙂






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L1 in the L2 classroom – a waste of time?

youtube-2617510_1280.jpgAfter so many years of experience in English teaching, I’m still not utterly convinced that sharing the same L1 with my students is an advantage. My doubts have been around for long and they probably stem from my conviction that if English is the only means of communication, students will learn best. In other words, only-English-no-Czech has mostly been my default mode of teaching. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to test my hypothesis about the effectiveness of this approach to the fullest because, with a few exceptions, I’ve always had monolingual classes and I simply had to use Czech in some situations. The thing is that if you don’t share the same L1 with your students, it’s quite natural to speak English all the time, no matter what, but I’m not that type of teacher who will only reply in English when a student stops me in the corridor and asks where the toilet is, for example.

Anyway, I imagine there are situations when the teacher can take advantage of the fact that they speak the same language as their students. I mentioned one example in my previous post; you can tell an interesting story in L1 to motivate your students to share their stories (in L1 or L2) and this way you can get a richer content to build on in L2.

Also, take listening, for example. I don’t know about your classes but normally, we watch a video clip in English and we discuss it in English. This seems to be the only logical procedure; it’s an English class after all. But if you think about it, it’s probably the least authentic option; a group of Czech students watch a clip in English (so far so good) and then they discuss it in English while their Czech teacher of English is listening and responding in English (weird). Putting aside the fact that this approach has some pedagogic values, such as that the L2 input from the listening is likely to be used as an L2 output, where on earth (other than the classroom) will such a situation occur? I mean, how often do your students go to an English speaking country to discuss English stuff with their English-speaking buddies?

I believe that in my students’ context, there are much more authentic possibilities than this:

You watch a Czech clip and then discuss it in English. I remember many occasions when I wanted or needed to tell my English speaking friend about something that had happened to me in a Czech context. It’s always a bit more challenging that retelling a story which you have come across in an English newspaper, for example, because in a way, you have to translate from L1 into L2. Since there is no L2 input to rely on, you need to search for it in your ‘language inventory’ or sometimes even coin new language. Thus, due to cultural and linguistic barriers, the output is not always as accurate as you wish it to be so lots of negotiating for meaning is likely to occur in such a situation.

You watch an English clip and then discuss it in Czech. Discussing something in Czech seems to be a waste of time at first sight but sometimes it can be very useful. If the L2 content is too complex and challenging, you may need to allow your students to switch to L1. From the pedagogical point of view, it’s quite valuable because the scope of a student’s L1 output may tell you how well they understood the L2 input. Based on my experience, some students have a lot to say but since they are not too confident when using English, they prefer to remain quiet during discussions. If you ask them to use Czech to tell you what they think, you may be surprised how much English vocabulary from the listening they know in comparison with the most enthusiastic speakers who always volunteer to respond in English.

Finally, what about watching a Czech clip and discussing it in Czech first? Well, I’ve never tried this option in class but I guess there are some benefits too, especially if it’s the first step towards something more complex. Plus it’s not really inauthentic either. I mean, I watch a Czech movie at home, discuss it with my son, sort out my ideas and then I may want to share this experience with an English speaking friend or on social media. So, why not?

Well, after so many years of experience in English teaching, I’m still not utterly convinced that sharing the same L1 with my students is an advantage, but I’m slowly getting there. 🙂

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Since the last time …

Today I’d like to share some of the interesting things that have happened in the classroom since the new school year started:


>>> In one of the first lessons, instead of speaking English right from the start, which I normally do, I used Czech to tell a story about something that had happened to me. This was quite unusual because with (pre-)intermediate classes there’s no reason to avoid English. Well, I hadn’t planned it; I chose to go for Czech spontaneously since I thought it might motivate the students to share their own stories more enthusiastically. Actually, to be completely honest, I also broke the habit for rather selfish reasons; I’m not too confident when telling stories in English (let alone after a long break). Anyway, later on, I asked my students to share their stories either in Czech, like me, or in English. Needless to say, following my example, most of them chose to speak Czech. I was quite surprised (well, not really) that they were more open than usual. This was good because subsequently, I had a lot of content to build on.

>>> I was observed for several lessons non-stop and later, on the same day, the observer became the observee. It was not a colleague from the school but a young teacher who came to my lessons to get some formal work experience. The most interesting thing is that she is not a newbie teacher at all; she has been teaching for 6 years in the private sector of ELT. She teaches students who have not been accepted by any university and instead of taking a gap year, they attend this fairly expensive English course. Since I teach kids and teenagers in the state sector of education, we had a lot to talk about. Plus it was really refreshing to observe somebody ‘new’ and once again I realized that some people are born to be teachers, regardless of how many years of experience they have.

>>> I stole an activity from somebody outside the ELT field and it worked really well in my own teaching context. I had collected some of my son’s toys and little things I have at home, such as shells and buttons, and I used them in class for different types of activities. Once students were supposed to imagine that these were really expensive items and they had to invent stories about what made them so valuable. The students were really creative and the warm-up finally evolved into a nice discussion.

>>> Earlier today I took advantage of an authentic situation to help my senior students to practice speaking, namely the Interaction part of their final English exam. I told them my colleague, four students from our school and I were planning to travel to Luxembourg next month (and this is true). Unfortunately, the bus arrives at 3 am so we need to find a place to stay for a couple of hours. I showed them the website of the hostel my Luxembourgish colleague has recommended to me. I put them in pairs (one of them was supposed to be me and the other one was the receptionist) and asked them to make a reservation at that particular hostel considering all the pro and cons. I told them this would really help me to figure things up in this tricky situation.


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Thinking about the first week of classes


The long, hot vacation is slowly coming to an end. On Monday, after two months of deep relaxation, I’m going back to work again. The first week is just teachers without students so I have plenty of some time to get ready for the hustle and bustle of the ‘real’ school life.

The other day I read an interesting post by Anne Hendler about her first week at school and I really liked the questions she posed. This is what she wrote:

I spent quite a bit of time thinking about how to plan the first week of classes. What if my students had done nothing at all in English for the month? Here are some questions I asked myself:

  1. How can I help my students feel comfortable in the classroom after such a long break?
  2. How can I help my students reactivate their English?
  3. Which activities will give my students confidence?
  4. Which activities will give my students a sense of achievement?
  5. What things should I avoid?
  6. How do I plan the first class back?

I think we teachers should have a similar list of questions to ponder at the end of every longer break. For starters, I decided to steal Anne’s and answer them here on my blog.

  1. How can I help my students feel comfortable in the classroom after such a long break?

As a student, I was always eager to start school again in September. The vacation was fabulous but it got a tad boring towards the end. Plus I always looked forward to the brand new start and buying new notebooks and crayons felt extraordinarily satisfying at this point. Also, this was the time of new resolutions and goal-setting. It’s the same now that I’m a teacher but I know not all students feel the same way. And even if they did feel relatively comfortable, the start is never quite easy. It’s actually a bit of a shock if you think about it; the kids need to change their daily routines completely: they have to get up earlier and suddenly, they may not have the time or opportunity for the things they enjoyed doing during the summer. This is likely to make them feel tired and demotivated at the end of the very first day at school.

So are there any positives to being back at school? Well, it’s the friends. They love them. They never have enough of them. So, we should probably cunningly take advantage of this. I know it sounds pretty obvious but I think it pays off if you allow the kids to enjoy the first lessons surrounded by their friends. Ask them to chat about their holidays and summer experiences. Get them to share photos from the places they visited.

Also, take advantage of the resolutions some of your students have made. Look to the future but be positive. Don’t put them off by the prospect of their final exams, for example (this is a mental note to myself!).

     2. How can I help my students reactivate their English?

Well, by letting them talk, you will see what they know and what they might have forgotten. I know that a couple of my students visited English-speaking countries during the summer vacation and some even attended courses where they worked hard on their English. Others, having plenty of time on their hands, played computer games and watched English movies so their English may be better than you expect. They may have forgotten all the grammar and vocabulary you ‘taught’ them from the coursebook but that will soon be reactivated. So, no worries (another mental note to myself!)

     3. Which activities will give my students confidence?

Activities which will allow them to express themselves freely. I don’t think it’s a good idea to correct explicitly on the very first day (even week) of school since it could kill their confidence immediately. So, all sorts of discussions or sharing stuff in pairs/groups will probably do just fine. This, to a great extent, should be voluntary though because not every student is a keen conversationalist.

     4. Which activities will give my students a sense of achievement?

Anything that doesn’t kill their confidence. I believe that the feeling that they can use and share what they learned in the summer will be invigorating for everybody. Don’t expect too much and try to concentrate on the message, not the language (I know how difficult that is for a language teacher but do try). Anyway, there’s no rush – the ‘teaching’ on your agenda can be done later.

     5. What things should I avoid?

Explicit correction, formal assessment, reminding the students of their past failures (‘Oh, I remember this grammar point was a big problem.’), threatening with exams, too much input, complicated activities, and, quite ironically, too much energy and enthusiasm from the teacher. Don’t let things become overwhelming right from the start (the last mental note to myself!).

     6. How do I plan the first class back?

As simple and effective as possible. As I said, it should be about sharing experiences and adjusting to all sorts of upcoming changes. I will definitely ask students to talk about the photos they took with their smartphones during the holidays. I may also get them to write a list of place they visited, people they met, things they learned, etc. As for productive skills, I don’t think I will include a longer piece of writing in the very first lesson because it involves quite a lot of mental effort, especially after such a long break. I mean, although they may have had opportunities to practice listening and speaking on holidays, I don’t think they did a lot of writing. And we don’t want to put them off right at the beginning, right? By the way, I need to adjust as well so don’t expect too much planning from me either.  🙂


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Presentation skills and my pet peeves

white-board-593370_1280.jpgI’ve been thinking about presentation skills a lot recently – not because I’m planning to become a full-time TED talk presenter but because last academic year, I attended quite a few presentations, mainly outside the ELT world.

During that time, I came to several conclusions, some of which will probably sound a bit biased and may be slightly discouraging for anyone considering presenting. So I apologise in advance.

First of all, I strongly believe that presentation skills can be refined (with time, help and experience). However, I’m not sure whether they can be learned from scratch. If you think about it, some people are so natural while others try so painfully hard (and I can always tell they do) but oftentimes, the more they try the more they put their foot in it.

For example, one of my pet peeves is when the presenter starts with a loooong introduction. When you are attending the tenth presentation with the same 20 people in the audience and the presenter wants everybody to introduce themselves (again!), it’s a nightmare. I know, I know… this is good for the presenter in order to settle in, create a rapport with the audience and to get everyone’s attention but is it always good for the listeners?

All in all, my attention needs to be captured by the subject itself, not by information about when the next coffee break will be (well, this can actually be useful if you are a coffee addict, like me). I remember a wonderful presentation where the speaker barely introduced himself (probably because he didn’t want to waste time and because he suspected we all knew him and his work anyway) and dived right in. He didn’t seem to care that people were still entering the room (running late); he just kept on talking about his subject, greeting all the late-comers patiently with a nod and a smile. For the next five hours, oh my, this guy knew exactly what he was talking about and at 5pm, I still didn’t want to go home (in spite of the fact that it was sweltering in the room). By the way, he was wearing a T-shirt and casual shorts (I think) so as far as clothes are concerned, I don’t think they matter too much. 🙂

Another pet hate of mine is all sorts of cliches and the annoying jargon (this applies to Czech, not English) which people from certain fields (e. g. psychology) keep on auto-repeat, such as ‘Am I making sense?’, ‘Is it clear if I put it this way?’. I mean, what do they expect you to say? ‘No, I have no idea what you are talking about here.’ I’m wondering if these redundant phrases are opportunities for questions from the audience. I know that people (the listeners as well as the speaker) need time to breathe in. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t really work for me. It actually gets on my nerves. My problem, you may say. Oh, and it’s quite unfortunate when, at the end of the talk (especially if it has been a boring talk or if people really need to go home), the presenter suddenly says ‘OK, now it’s time for your questions’. Don’t you dare to ask one! That lady in the audience may well kill you. 🙂 I think it’s best when questions are asked spontaneously and answered as they arise.

As for humour and jokes, well, they are obviously important too. However, I’ve experienced a talk with the Trumpish type of humour. So, there’s a fine line between a sense of humour and offence and some people will be better off if they avoid ‘jokes’ completely …

Finally, I hate it when the presenter is dishonest with the audience. If he or she makes a mistake and then tries to cover it with words and little lies. It makes me feel embarrassed. Secondhand embarrassment is an issue indeed. Anyway, I think it requires a lot of professionalism to be able to handle failure in front of an audience. It’s nothing for big egos. Big egos can’t make mistakes. 🙂

I think there’s one thing that can be learned before your very first presentation: every presenter should learn to value the audience’s time. They should start and finish on time. Also, they should give them a break (or breaks, depending on the length of the presentation).

P.S.: Oh, and I think you should read Zhenya’s post. 🙂

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Habit is stronger than motivation

IMG_20180714_083533When I was a student, our class teacher once told us that it’s possible to exercise willpower. Go to a candy shop, she said, admire all the wonderful ice cream they sell and then leave without having some. Back then, it sounded like an interesting personal experiment but, to be honest, I’ve never had the willpower to try it.

Despite this little failure of mine, I’d describe myself as a strong-willed person. At least that’s what my mother says. However, I’m well aware of the fact that there are limits to my willpower since it is linked to control and exercising control requires a lot of energy. Eventually, it can be very exhausting and one simply gets tired of it, especially when they lose motivation.

Well, it’s not exactly fortunate that willpower is so closely connected to motivation in my case. Neither is it encouraging for me to know that once my motivation is gone, my willpower will inevitably fail me too. But I think there is hope. I want to believe. :–)

This summer I’ve been thinking about motivation and willpower intensely. It all began when I started to work out and adjusted my diet a great deal. I dare say that these are two areas which require a lot of motivation and mental energy at the start and a lot of self-discipline later on. Anyway, over the past few weeks, I’ve slowly come to realize that I’m creating various habits: of having a certain type of breakfast in the morning (whereas during the school year, I don’t have breakfast until I get to work and sometimes I don’t have breakfast at all), or of jumping in the pool and swimming for at least 30 minutes (whereas I drive to work on school days and walking is the only physical activity I do).

I cherish these little habits and do my best to strengthen them – by not breaking them. Although for many people habits don’t only have positive connotations (there are bad habits, annoying habits, unfortunate habits, nasty habits, dangerous habits), and they can be boring and repetitive, I believe habits can be very useful because once we manage to condition our bodies and/or minds to expect something at a certain time of day/week/month, or under certain circumstances, we are likely to stick to these habits no matter how strong-willed or motivated we are. This doesn’t mean our lives will become boring; ‘in between’ our usual habits, we can be creative and innovative. In fact, our hands will be less tied once we surrender to the positive habits we have created.

Where am I headed with all this? Well, simply put, next school year, I might want to experiment with some useful, sustainable habits in the classroom. If motivation and willpower are not 100% reliable, habits may well replace them, especially when we are tired and demotivated and feel like giving up. In short, I’d like to focus on the following areas, listed in no particular order:

  1. seating arrangement
  2. warm-ups and wind-ups
  3. board work
  4. use of L1 vs. L2
  5. use of coursebook vs. tailormade, ‘homemade’ activities
  6. types of assessment
  7. testing (time, length,…)
  8. language drills

The list lacks detail at this stage, but I have something in mind already and I hope more stuff will emerge soon. The simple logic behind it is this: try something new with a specific class and if you think it could be useful, consciously turn it into a routine. Stick to it and don’t let anything or anybody break the habit for long enough to prove it’s something truly valuable. Later, provided it is feasible, you can transfer it into a different classroom environment.

Any other thoughts on what areas of ‘classroom life’ can be built around useful, sustainable habits?


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