Archive for Tag: group work

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Speechless Lessons for Beginners

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

There was a full moon over us, a forested park before us, and an elfin presence all around us.  It was an ideal setting and a perfect atmosphere for watching a performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The scene was in the medieval Bohemian town of Cesky Krumlov, and we, the audience, were waiting breathlessly in the castle park for the actors to appear beneath us and our revolving, open-air amphitheatre… and then they did appear, and they did play, but they did not speak.

We wondered, watched, and continued to listen, but not a word was spoken.

And then, soon enough, we realized who we were.  We were an audience of individuals, foreign tourists, who spoke some European language, Asian language, and other language as a first language, and many of us did not speak Czech, the language of Cesky Krumlov, and the players and the producers knew all that.

So, believe it or not, they performed a wordless version of Shakespeare’s play.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What’s the Brain Got to Do With It?

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

The Magic of Flying

I am not a nervous flyer, but I really have no idea how a plane actually manages to stay in the air. I mean, if you drop a rock, if falls. So, how on earth does an airplane, which weighs so much more than a stone, even manage to take off from the ground? Of course, there is a scientific explanation for this, but as I strap myself into my tiny little seat on the plane, I am just glad that I can get from my home in Belgium to my mother in Western Canada in hours rather than days.

Similarly, for a long time, I was content with being ignorant as to how learning physically happens in the brain. Just like I can fly all over the planet without understanding exactly why I am able to do so, I had been comfortable teaching without understanding exactly what was happening in students’ brains as they were learning (or not). However, in recent years, I have come to learn that this learning isn’t something opaque or magical. It is physical, and it can now be seen with a microscope because, “[t]hanks to neuroimaging, scientists can now see inside a living, thinking brain.” (Zadina, 2008) How exciting is that!

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Not HER Again!

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

A couple of semesters ago, I had a problem in my French class. It all started on the first day of the class. I wandered in and took a seat. The seat next to me was empty, but before the class began, a student (I’ll call her Ms. Steam Roller) came in and sat beside me. She seemed nice and her French was good, so I felt like I could learn from her. However, by the mid-semester point, I had found that I did not enjoy working with her at all. Because her French was better than mine, she ignored my suggestions when we had to write dialogues. Doing pair work with her was like standing in the path of a steam roller. Sure, she was a nice person, but if I had to keep working with her, I was going to scream.

So, after the class, I approached my teacher and said that I would like the chance to work with other students. She asked me why I didn’t just change seats the next class.  But I felt that, since I had been sitting in the same place for months, it would be a bit rude to change that late in the game. I needed another solution. My French teacher was great. She worked out a system that allowed us all to change partners every class, so I got away from Ms. Steam Roller without hurting anyone’s feelings.

Changing it Up – Why Bother?

This experience has impacted my own classroom management style because I now go out of my way to make sure students don’t always work with the same partners. I know from experience that students, for many reasons, may not want to work with the same person class after class. There are other reasons, too, to change it up a little.

First, students need exposure to different kinds of English and different levels of ability. If a Korean student always works with a Brazilian student, both students will eventually become accustomed to each other’s pronunciation and errors. That can feel more comfortable, certainly, but we all know there are a wide variety of different accents and a huge continuum of abilities, even in one class. It is better, in my opinion, for students to be exposed to different kinds of English so that they have to work at negotiating meaning, which, according to Folse (2006), is an important part of language learning.

Also, working with students of different levels allows for a wider variety of learning opportunities. When I had to work with Ms. Steam Roller, I constantly felt like the slow student. However, when I worked with other students, I sometimes got the chance to teach them, which helped me learn the skill better myself. I don’t always want to be the “helper” and I don’t always want to be the “helped”. It’s nice to have a little variety.

Changing it Up – The How To

I try to shuffle my students at the beginning of class. Sometime, I just count off. If I have 12 students, I count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The 1s get together, the 2s get together, the 3s get together you get the idea. They actually pick up their books and move everything to sit with their new partner. At first, this takes a while, but after a few lessons, students expect to have to move and it only takes a minute.

If I am feeling more creative, I work the shuffle into my warm up. I might have a set of index cards, one for each student. Half the cards have pictures or definitions or gap fills (depending on the level of the class) and the other half have vocabulary words. The students stand up, walk around the room and say their word until they find their partner. Then, they move their stuff and sit together for the rest of the lesson.

A couple of years ago, I went to a session at TESOL called “Get into Groups Made More Efficient and Effective” by Kitty Purgason. She suggested doing the above activity with questions and answers or using common idioms or phrasal verbs cut in half. In Maryanne Wolfe’s presentation at TESOL 2010, she suggested an interesting activity if space permitted. She gives each student a card with some information (in the demonstration, the information on the cards was the life expectancy in a number of different countries) and told students to put themselves into a line from the longest life expectancy to the shortest . Then, once the students are all lined up, she folds the line in half, like you would fold a string, so the students at the end meet up and become partners, all the way down the line. What fun!

Students deserve to have a little variety in their partners. They may seem to be happy working with the same person day after day, but I bet that many of them will welcome a change. The class gets to know each other better, the affective filter is lowered, and students develop new friendships. It’s a win, win, win!

Folse, K. (2006) The Art of Teaching Speaking, University of Michigan Press.
Olson, K. (2010) Movement and Learning, Paper Presented at TESOL 2010: Boston.
Purgason, K. (2007) Get into Groups Made More Efficient and Effective, Paper Presented at TESOL 2007: Washington.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Playing Games, Part 4

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net


Many students will already know this classic matching game, but even if they don’t, it’s not hard to explain. I use this game as a vocabulary review. Allow a good 45 minutes! And with the extension activities listed at the end, it can fill an hour. However, if the preparation is done the class before or as homework, it can be played in 20 minutes.

Students are divided into groups of 4-6. If time permits (here is the step that can be done as homework), each group is given 20-25 words or allowed to choose words from their textbook or other source they have used. Words should be ones previously studied, however; this is a review game, not a teaching game. Students write a definition of the word or an original sentence that exemplifies the word, with a blank line where the word would go.

Example: the target word is “luxury”

For me, a cell phone is not a _____ . It’s an essential tool for my personal and professional life.

It’s important that you check each sentence or definition to make sure it is correct and sufficient, since the group will be drilling with these sentences.

When the definitions and sentences have been approved, students write the word on a small blank flashcard (I cut standard 3″ x 5″ file cards in half) and the matching definition or sentence on another. The words are shuffled together, and the sentences and definitions are shuffled together.

The cards are then laid face down in rows. If you are playing with 25 vocabulary words, then you will have 5 rows of 5 cards on one side of the table for the words, and 5 rows of 5 cards on the other side for the definitions and sentences.

A player starts by choosing, at random, one card first from the word side and then one card from the definition/sentence side, and — here is the important part! — reading each out loud. If they match, the player keeps them and earns one point. If they don’t match, each card is returned to the original position, and the next player draws two cards.

In some forms of this game, a player who correctly matches two items wins another turn; however, I believe this method favors the stronger students and gives them more practice, whereas it is really the weaker students who need more practice, so I don’t allow it.

Inevitably, cards will be drawn again and again, even after their matches have been seen before. This is the nature of the drill — students are repeating and remembering, repeating and remembering. It may take some supervision on your part to remind them to say the words and definitions/sentences aloud each time, yet this is the crucial step.

The game finishes when all cards have been matched.

If time remains in class, have students make two stacks of cards, again keeping the words together and the definitions/sentences together. First, have them take turns drawing a definition/sentence and recalling the words (they should be pleasantly surprised by how easy this is!). Then, have them take turns drawing a word and either recalling the example definition/sentence or creating a new one.  This, too, is usually pretty easy by this point.

Students of all ages and levels enjoy this game, and the advantage for you is that they will drill and drill until they really know the words, with minimal supervision on your part. You can even keep the games the groups have created to use with other classes (as long as those other classes are studying the same vocabulary, of course). Cutting out the preparation step means less practice for new groups, but does save the preparation time.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Playing Games, Part 3

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

A Vocabulary Recognition Game: Flyswatters

Following on my previous posts, here is another game that is easy to put together, useful, and that students enjoy.

This vocabulary review game is a good one for large classes, and because it is active, it’s a good one for waking up sleepy classes or injecting a bit of energy into a lesson.

I first saw this game demonstrated at a monthly JALT meeting in Chiba in… 1988? and I’m afraid I can no longer remember the name of the presenter.  But thank you so much, whoever you were!

To play requires flashcards with words or pictures, and two flyswatters. If you check the dollar store at the beginning of summer, you can probably find cheap flyswatters in bright colors and interesting designs.

The class is divided into two teams. A large class might require two or more separate games, but each team can easily have 6-10 members (and the number needn’t be the same on each team), because play moves very quickly. The teams gather on opposite sides of a large table, and the flashcards are scattered all over the table.

One representative from each team steps up to the table, flyswatter in hand. The teacher (or, later, a student leader) can, at the lowest level, simply call out the name of the object on the card. The first student to smack the correct card with the flyswatter “wins” the card and one point for the team. (And now you see why we use flyswatters—they can reach any point on the table, and it doesn’t hurt when the person from the other team smacks down on top!).

The person who wins the card hands her flyswatter to the next person on her team and moves to the end of the line or group (I don’t think I’ve ever had a class manage to stay in a single-file line–they get too excited and want to crowd around the table watching). The person from the other team who “lost” remains in place for a maximum of two more plays. In this way, an unsuccessful student gets more chances than a successful student—presumably, they need the practice more. But even an unsuccessful student is not put on the spot for very long. Whether a team wins or loses doesn’t depend on one person, which also reduces the pressure for each student.

Here is a game that is easy for the teacher to “fix”—if one team is winning by too great a margin, I might do something like call out the card and then simply hold the arm of the player of the winning team, or cover his eyes. In this way, the player from the other team has all the time necessary to locate the card. If you are very obvious about it, the class will accept it. After all, you have made it clear from the beginning what the purpose of the activity is—practicing vocabulary recognition. That is always the goal, and not “winning.”

You’ll notice that even though only one person plays for a team at each time, the entire team will crowd around the table to watch; even though they are observers, they are just as focused on the vocabulary as the players. You might need to remind them a few times not to point or “help” the person playing! But they will certainly be rehearsing the vocabulary in their heads. After  7-10 minutes of play, in fact, I like to stop the game and point this out to students, and ask them to notice how engaged they are and how focused on the vocabulary they are even when it is not their turn.  In this way, the students know that their time is not being wasted.

If you find that students are, in their enthusiasm, randomly slapping cards hoping to get lucky, rather than actually locating the correct card, impose a “return one card to the table for every incorrect slap” penalty.

To increase the difficulty level, you can say whole sentences with the words in them, or even short paragraphs or longer stories; you can describe the word without giving it directly; and so on.  The flashcards needn’t be picture cards—they can be single letters for young learners, or even complex linguistic terms for graduate students (for which you give a definition or example).

If you wish to have picture cards but don’t have the time to create your own, why not assign the task to students? Give each student or group a certain amount of vocabulary and some blank cards, and let them draw pictures or find them from magazines or the Internet and glue the images onto the cards. If you can, then laminate the cards so they will last longer, and keep them for use in future classes as well.

The game may look as though it is designed for children, with cards and flyswatters and constant motion, and certainly children love this game (it’s an excellent way to review colors, letters of the alphabet, and numbers). However, I’ve used it with teacher trainers and company employees and university students and other groups, who enjoyed it immensely. Adults love games too!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Student-Teacher’s Concerns about Group Work: Three Quick Solutions

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

The “bubbly” Beata, one of my former student-teachers, regularly avoided incorporating group work activities into her lesson plans. She thought of group work as a fail-proof recipe for a classroom fiasco. She considered facilitating pair work now and then, but never quite incorporated it, nor did she include any group work activities in her plans. However, after a brief pep talk one day, one in which I laid out some of the advantages of student collaboration, Beata agreed that her hardened aversion to group work was more reflexive than rational.

Concerns about Facilitating Group Work

When asked why she resisted group work activities, Beata shared the following concerns:

1. that students would not want to talk
2. that students would never finish their task on time
3. that most students would not listen to their peers’ presentations

Overcoming the Problem: A Little Nudging

Since people often learn well by experimentation, I resisted equipping Beata with a set of ready-made solutions, thinking that I would deprive her of instructive experience. Instead, I suggested that she simple change the “would” in the expression of her concerns to a less pessimistic “may.” I also encouraged her simply to experiment some with group work techniques as the teaching practicum continued.

Basic Quick “Fixes”

In the end, to encourage Beata to start testing out her ideas for group work, I did provide her with a few basic quick “fixes” to the classroom problems that she feared were likely to occur.

Concern #1: Students would not want to talk.
Quick Fix #1: Bring a CD Player.

“Controlled noise” seems to get group discussions going. Background music (played at a relatively low volume) tends to come in handy when students feel self-conscious about being heard by the whole class. One of my college professors would often turn on the radio as soon as he asked us to do a group work activity; it worked like magic.

Concern#2: Students would never finish their task on time.
Quick Fix #2: Bring an Alarm Clock.

Deadlines for group work completion seem to be respected more regularly if students are aware of how much time is remaining. Often, actively involved in discussions, students lose track of time. Putting on the board updates on how much time is remaining, or setting an alarm clock to go off five minutes before the task needs to be completed, often does the trick.

Concern#3: Most students would not listen to their peers’ presentations.
Quick Fix #3: Keep a Physical Distance from the Presenter.

Often, student-presenters speak to the teacher, not to the whole group. The closer the teacher stands to the presenters, the quieter their performance becomes. All that may result in students’ losing interest in what is being shared. I’ve noticed that either by sitting together with the non-presenting group or simply by standing as far from presenters as possible, I, as the teacher, have “blended in” and thus encouraged the speakers to address the whole audience.

I’m wondering if any of you have worked with student-teachers who expressed concerns about facilitating group work. If so, what were their worries about? Did you have similar concerns as you were beginning your teaching careers?