The 5 out of 10 speaking activity

Here’s a quick post in which I’d like to share a simple speaking/vocabulary practice activity. No preparation is needed.

Get each student to write down 10 words on a separate piece of paper. These can either be from a specific section of the unit you need to revise, or they can create their own sets based on their hobbies and interests. So, if a student is interested in music, he or she writes down words such as conductor, orchestra, stage, etc. While the first option is probably more practical syllabus-wise, the second alternative is far more personalized and student-focused, and your students will probably like it more because they are in the role of experts and can showcase what they like and/or are good at. Tell our students you will collect their lists.

Before you collect them, though, make sure they sign them. Shuffle the lists and draw one randomly. Call out the author of the list and ask them to come to the front of the class (I asked them to sit on my chair while I sat at the back of the classroom). The rest of the class should grab a blank piece of paper. The student in the front chooses 5 of the 10 words from their list and defines them one by one. His classmates try to guess and write down the words, but they must not say them out loud. After the student describes all five words, they reveal the answers. For each correct word, each student gets a point. The speaker then draws another list from the pile. This goes on until everybody has spoken.

I was surprised by how enjoyable the activity was. Also, it was simple yet very effective. Apparently, my students liked both describing as well as guessing the words.


Zoom lagging and hot correction issues

I’ve written about the challenges of remote teaching several times here on my blog. Lately, I’ve also shared my thoughts on remote formal observation and I’ve expressed my reservations about some types of feedback. Today, I’d like to touch on all the above topics once again when discussing the problems connected to ‚remote feedback ‘.

I’m not even sure whether it’s an ELT term but by remote feedback, I simply mean correction of errors during online synchronous classes. In offline lessons, we normally distinguish between hot correction and cold correction. To put it simply, in the first scenario, oral correction comes shortly after the mistake was made. In the latter case, however, there is a period of time between skill execution and feedback.

In an offline lesson, we can obviously switch between these two modes as we please. This doesn’t mean, though, that we do so in a totally random manner; the choice is usually made on efficiency grounds. So, if we want to avoid interrupting the student, for example, we wait and delay the feedback until a later stage of the lesson. We have several options here: we can either postpone the feedback till after a student has finished speaking or we can anonymize the feedback by waiting till everybody is done, which would then become generic feedback. During pair and group work, students can provide their partners with peer feedback and the best type of feedback (IMHO) is self-correction, i.e. when a student realizes the error and corrects themselves instantly.

Well, that’s all very nice. The good old classics, one could say. The problem is that during remote teaching, things get a little complicated – everything is sort of delayed. It’s not overly surprising because that’s the very nature of the digital world. So, no matter how fast our own internet connection is, there’s no guarantee that all students have the same state of the art equipment. And even if they do, there’s always this tiny little lag that makes online communication so notorious. This can obviously be pretty annoying, especially when students are performing speaking tasks. Not only does Zoom lagging slow the exchanges between the students and hinder the overall spontaneity of an activity, but it also makes hot correction almost impossible.

Now, I guess that at some point, we were all innocent enough to think that we can correct a student’s mistake straight away in a Zoom lesson. But, alas, at that very moment, our lesson turned into a chaotic bar chatter with the speakers talking over one another barely getting what their conversational partner actually meant. When we sensed this happening, we quickly paused to deal with the chaos. But the student our comment was meant for immediately paused too because, well, due to the digital and cognitive lag, they heard our remark too late and were too bewildered to make sense out of it. This resulted in a somewhat strange dialogue, interlarded with periods of awkward silence. And if we by any chance decided to take advantage of those moments of temporary quiet in an attempt to reiterate our words, surprise, surprise … the student had the very same idea. More chatter. More chaos.

You know, if we were having an ordinary phone call, all the above chaos would be quite natural. After all, we’re used to the fact that phone calls get choppy. However, the fact that we were staring at each other through the computer monitors desperately trying to get back on track every time we had got off it made the exchange even more ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, these moments can be funny and cute, under certain circumstances, plus it wasn’t that confusing all the time. Still, I think it’s better to avoid these situations completely.

And that’s what I decided to go for … Even if the mistake was blatantly unacceptable, I never corrected the student, especially when the lesson was observed by my superiors. Having said that, I was fully aware of the potential consequences of my actions, so it was often hard to resist the temptation to show the observer that I had actually noticed the mistake. In other words, part of me felt the urge to correct in order to demonstrate my professional competence. But I didn’t in the end, mainly for the sake of the integrity of the inherently fragile lesson. However, later on, during the feedback session, I did bring up the issue to justify my decision behind not correcting. So I explained the lagging problem and all that jazz. But in the end, I felt it was not necessary because the observer fully understood the mindset behind my choices.

All in all, this is another illustration of the wide gap between online and offline teaching. Although I admit they can be both equally efficient in some regard, in a remote lesson, there are too many restrictions – the hot correction case being just one of the problems. On the other hand, this little analysis of mine has shown me that delayed feedback may always be the better option, even in the offline teaching environment. In other words, the online environment has shed light on some of the issues related to immediate oral correction. What I’m implying here is that if we hope for our students to become highly competent English speakers and, most importantly, if we want to create a natural learning environment in the L2 classroom, we may want to stop clinging to accuracy because, firstly, this approach impedes genuine communication and secondly, it is plain rude to interrupt and correct people when they are trying to get a message across. 🙂

Jigsaw activities

June has been challenging but exciting at the same time. I’ve finally been able to work with my students face-to-face and full time, which is the exciting part. The challenging part though is that we’ve been in the middle of a heatwave and since summer holidays are slowly approaching, it’s harder and harder to keep up the ‘serious‘ classroom work. In other words, lately, it’s been a challenge to find suitable materials for the final revision which would be a) meaningful and b) fun. Now, without trying to toot my own horn, I must say that over the past couple of weeks, this very blog has proved to be one of the handiest places to turn to whenever I needed inspiration. After a long period of time passivity, I caught myself frantically searching the site for some speaking activities I remembered from the good old times. I mainly needed to dust off the rules and instructions I had already forgotten. And I was pleasantly surprised how valuable this teaching journal actually is in this respect.

In the meantime, full of energy and enthusiasm, I kept inventing new activities as well. I’ve discovered that jigsaw and information-gap activities work really well in my teaching context these days. I don’t know if it’s because the students, after a long time of self-isolation, crave cooperation and collaboration, or because it is me who likes to see my students fully immersed in an activity, communicating and negotiating in the target language.

Today, I’d like to share a couple of activities that worked really well. I’m doing so for half selfish reasons – because some people out there might find this entry useful but also, I realize my future self might find it handy too.

General Knowledge Quiz (45 minutes):

I googled about 60 interesting general knowledge questions with answers. They were challenging enough to pique my students’ interest but adjusted to their current level. The students worked in pairs. Each student got the same handout. However, Student A got questions 1-30 with answers and questions 31-60 without answers. Student B, on the other hand, got questions 1-30 without answers and questions 31-60 with answers. Students took turns. Student A asked question number 1. If Student B knew the answer right away (this was possible but quite unlikely) – he or she got two points. If Student B didn’t know the answer, they could ask their partner for help.

At this point, Student A had to offer 3 options (one of which was the correct answer). If Student B guessed correctly, they got one point. Then it was Student B’s turn to ask a question 31.

Example: What’s the highest mountain in the world? Correct answer: Mount Everest (Student A had to come up with two more mountains, e.g. Mount Elbrus and Mont Blanc). 

In case you are wondering, yes, I could have provided the students with the three options right away but it turned out that the fact that the students had to come up with 3 plausible options was the most interesting and fun part. This way, in my opinion, the students were more engaged. In other words, the felt like they own the activity since they were partially responsible for the content.

Crossword – across vs down (45 minutes)

I went to an online crossword generator and created a large crossword in which I used words and their definitions we had covered over the past few months. Each student got a handout with an identical blank crossword. Student A got the clues for the across words (on a separate handout) while Student B only got the down clues. First, they worked individually on their part of the crossword. When they both finished, Student A provided the clues for the across words they had come up with (without looking at the original clues) and Student B provided the clues for the down words. So, in stage 2, the students had to create the definitions off the top of their heads – in their own words. Sometimes, the students came across a problem, e.g. a word did not fit in, so they had to figure it out together. For example, this happened in situations when two or more synonymous words could be used for a particular clue. Eventually, the whole crossword was complete and the teacher was happy. 🙂

In conclusion, the first activity is well-suited for heterogenous groups, i.e groups which don’t necessarily have the same learning backgroud. There is no particular grammar or vocabulary area you are focusing on. Its main aim is to generate discussion, creativity and collaboration. It’s fun and competitive too. The second activity is great for revision of specific vocabulary areas.

Here’s another set of activities I wrote about some time ago here on my blog.

This person flies an aeroplane.
This person helps people to look after their teeth.
This is a TV programme that makes you laugh.
This happens when the ground shakes and buildings collapse.
This is an event with lots of dancing and singing in the street.
This is a big house. The queen lives here.
This is a place where you can watch boats coming and going.
If you stand on your feet all day, it’s very …
You can see shows and plays here.
This person greets people when they first come into an office.
This person looks after cows and other animals.
You wear these to cover your lower body. They are dark blue and very strong.
You wear them in winter to keep your feet warm and dry.
It’s a large open space in a town, with buildings around.
You wear them on your feet, inside your shoes.
It’s like a jacket. It’s very soft and warm, and it has a part to cover your head.
You wear it over your clothes when it’s very cold outside.
You can see famous paintings here.
You can see animals there, such as tigers and monkeys.
If your jobs involves a lot of repetition, it is ….
Men wear one around their necks when they go to work.
This happens when there is no rain for a long period of time.
You wear these to cover your hands when the weather is cold.
This is a place where you can buy local goods. It’s outside.
This person cuts people’s hair.
You go there if you want to hear your favourite band playing.
This person writes computer software.
You wear these on your feet when you run or exercise.
This happens when water covers the ground in places when it’s usually dry.
This is a TV programme that includes singing and dancing.

Go light!

feather (4)Everybody would probably agree that material light or material free lessons often turn out to be the best ones. I don’t know why it is so but I suspect that the feeling of not being pressed by the material one has (decided) to cover in the lesson is what makes this type of teaching so fresh and satisfying for both the teacher and the student. Maybe it feels so fresh to me because I don’t teach unplugged on a daily basis, so it’s a nice tweak to my regular teaching techniques. And my students can obviously sense the freshness too.

I’d say that any material – provided it’s in the centre of the teacher’s attention – can be a hindrance rather than an aid. The material lying there on your desk ready to be used diverts your attention from your students – it makes you constantly think of the timing and it often forces you to interrupt your students in the middle of an exciting, fruitful activity – just because you have another fabulous plan (read: material) up your sleeve.

The truth is that you can design a successful lesson in less than a couple of minutes and all you and your students need is paper and pen. This is something I did earlier this week and I’d like to share my little success here on my blog.

Czech students of all ages and levels generally struggle with determiners. Articles are undoubtedly the most notorious linguistic troublemakers belonging to this group. However, I don’t really panic if my students use them incorrectly because I consider this type of error just a cosmetic imperfection, so to speak (with some exceptions, of course).

However, quantifiers, for example, can be more important for the intelligibility of the message and/or they can completely change the meaning of it if used incorrectly. For instance, the difference between a few and few is not trivial. Yet, my students keep messing these two up. For some reason, they also struggle with each (of us/person)every (one of us, person) and all (of us/people/of the people). No matter how many exercises and gap fills we have done and how much extra homework I have assigned, they keep making the same errors.

Earlier this week, I suddenly felt desperate about my Ss’ inability to grasp determiners, so before the lesson, I quickly scribbled the following 10 sentences.

  1. Every Czech person should be able to speak some English.
  2. Few people like poetry.
  3. Most Czechs are fat.
  4. Every student should read a few books a year.
  5. Some people in the class are very talented.
  6. It’s better to have no siblings.
  7. All teenagers should get a little pocket money.
  8. Pupils should get little homework at school.
  9. Each of us can achieve anything in life.
  10. There isn’t much to do here in Šternberk.

I decided to go really light and although I felt the temptation to give students printed copies, I finally did not type the statements. Instead, I divided the class into A students and B students and I dictated the sentences one by one – the A students recorded all the odd number statements and the B students took down the even number statements. This shortened the writing stage, but at the same time, it made the students concentrate much more than if they just had to look at a handout. An A student then got into a pair with a B student and they shared their statements. Their task was to say if they agree or not and why.

I was surprised how lively the discussion got in a matter of seconds and what great ideas Ss kept coming up with. They were discussing commonplace statements, after all, which I had created in only five minutes. I don’t really know why some conversation activities go well and why some topics are totally uninteresting for my students. After so many years of experience, I can never quite estimate in advance whether Ss will like the topic or not.

Nevertheless, I stopped the chatter after about 15 minutes and we went through all the statements together. Each time, I asked one student to express his/her opinion and the others could react briefly. This was also interesting and more useful language as well as new ideas were generated throughout this stage.

Finally, we focused on the determiners a bit. I got Ss to change the determiners to make sentences that would express their real opinion, e.g. It’s better to have a few/many/some siblings. Some/many Czechs are fat.

I should stress that although the activity was originally designed and tailor made for a group of 18-year-old B1/B2 students, and it was supposed to last up to 10 minutes at the most, I also did it with two lower level classes later on, despite the fact that according to the syllabus, we were not supposed to ‘be doing’ determiners. Obviously, the groups came up with different language outputs, made different errors and expressed different ideas, but the activity worked equally well in all groups.

This brings me to a thought that it’s perfectly possible and pretty easy to design meaningful material light activities/lessons which are adaptable, versatile, recyclable and save the teacher a lot of time and energy. And I believe it’s worth putting some effort into such activities.