Breaking the mould – some ways of changing classroom routines.

I can’t work out if I am lazy or superstitious. Probably a bit of both. Lazy because I rather like my life to be under my control and rule-driven and so can’t be bothered to change anything.  Superstitious because I always do things in the same way – if I change my approach things might all go horribly wrong, you see. For example I always put out my clothes for the following day neatly the night before. I can’t go to bed without doing this – never have and never will. Equally when I head off on one of my teacher development trips abroad, I have a series of rituals around technology that I perform to ensure that the slides I need are backed up and the backups backed up and that all the cables are where they should be. It’s best to keep away from me mid-ritual!

But we are all like that. Aren’t we?

Well I think teachers are, at least in the classroom, and this blog suggests some ways of breaking classroom routines and rituals, some ways of going against the conventions. So, ten ideas to think about. In a blog like this there isn’t much space for detail but you obviously have access to the internet so please google any of the ideas that grab your attention. I’ve put a few links in to set you on your way.

1 Forget the course book

No, really. It can be a very liberating moment to go ‘unplugged’ into class. Pick up a theme that you know is causing a buzz amongst the students, choose a global event or choose something that is close to your heart. Decide how to exploit it – is it a story you can tell, a short poster project for the class or a role play, and go with it. Risky, yes, but satisfying for all parties too. Before someone mentions it, the occasional non-book lesson won’t mess up your ministry schedules that much!

2 Forget the teacher’s book

Now and again, drop the teacher’s book and work with just the student’s book. Take a close look at the unit – look at the language (am I really sure of the meaning, the form, the rules, the exceptions?) How can I increase motivation by connecting this unit to the lives of my students? Can I give my students an emotional connection to this topic? You are the bridge between the book and your students – the teacher’s book is just a neutral guide. The students need your local and informed input.

3 Re-think the lesson plan and try something new

Most teachers find themselves using the presentation-practice-production lesson structure – the PPP – on a regular basis. After all it’s the structure that we find in so many course books and students tend to find that structure easy to become familiar with and to understand. But it can be poor at establishing and responding to student needs or prior learning.

Why not try another acronym – TTT.  With Test-Teach-Test, learners do an activity at the beginning of the lesson. – you don’t get involved in this first task. Your role is to analyse the problems faced by students in this activity, so you can then present and teach the target language based upon student needs and knowledge. The students then repeat the first activity or a similar one. The students enjoy the high levels of participation and – teens and above – the analytical elements of the approach.

4 Or what about TBL –Task Based Learning?

This approach is typically led by a piece of reading or listening or a problem-solving activity. A real task. The three stages are, preparing for the task, the task itself (from planning to reporting) and a final stage that focusses on the form and the meaning of the various items of language generated in the task. TBL is highly engaging, communicative and outcome-driven. Take a look here for a much more in-depth discussion

5 Bring in your mobiles – LOL

Teenage students can make short silent videos or a series of selfies and add and practise suitable dialogues. These simple tasks are highly communicative, integrate the skills and can offer something for all ability levels. If you have internet connectivity in class try out some of the great dictionary or pronunciation apps or get the class tweeting! If you do work with teenagers, stepping into ‘their’ online world in class can pay you great dividends in terms of motivation and the development of learner autonomy.

6 Teach students to reflect

Teachers are always busy. A syllabus to follow. Parental expectations. Exams. All these things tend to make us rush. The lessons ends and the students leave. My suggestion is that every class should finish with about three minutes of individual refection time. Students can be taught to reflect. What did we cover in the class? What did I learn? What do I feel confident about? What am I confused about? Can I use this? How do I feel about my English? Teaching students of all ages to reflect alone and reminding them that reflection is for them, that it’s not a test, will help develop self-awareness and learner autonomy as well as increasing assimilation.

7 Speaking from the heart

Years ago I taught in a school where we used to share classes with one other teacher. In one of my shared classes we had a student who we termed as ‘lazy’ – he never made any great effort to speak. I now realise he had motivational issues caused I think in part by being in the wrong level class – he just found it all too hard. My co-teacher’s father died very suddenly one day and this one student was very upset and asked me what exactly he should say to my colleague when he came back to work. He had a real desire to communicate his condolences, but more than that he had an emotional desire to communicate. Lessons that focus on issues that learners have an emotional attachment to can be highly communicative and generate lots of participation.  You may well have to move away from the course book but topics like job changes, money, anxieties, hopes and dreams or for young learners, pets or families can create a real emotional need to communicate and that is when, suddenly, language is generated.  It’s surprising how much students have hidden inside them that they want to express in English.  Again there are obvious risks here but the benefits can be huge.

8 Mini teachers

There is a lot of discussion about the accuracy of the famous learning pyramid from the NTL Institute in Maryland (here’s a copy and I will let you research it, but one thing for me makes great sense. Asking students to teach a piece of language to a group or on occasion to the whole class is a great way to focus them, develop autonomy and, near to exam time, encourage revision and consolidation.  Saying “ok one person in each group is going to teach x next week, but I’m not going to say which person …” is a nice way to make ears prick up.  It also breaks the routine.

9 Go visual

Making use of photographs and videos above and beyond the course books is a way to engage the students and encourage production.  I recently saw a talk by Jamie Keddie called ‘Withholding the image’ in which he demonstrated how NOT showing a picture – at least at first – can create a huge hunger to communicate about what might be in the picture. Take a look at Jamie’s Lessonstream project here

10 Posters everywhere! 

I love the idea of students keeping a poster record of every stage of a lesson. Working in groups, students make poster notes about the language points, the activities and their reflections on the lesson. This approach encourages skills integration, collaborative learning, reflection and of course adds in the motivational factor of a public display. Students can also compare and discuss their posters group by group. I also use posters in professional development. Here are two pictures of some poster sessions I was recently involved with in Algeria.

2015-04-02 10.32.292015-04-02 10.33.23

I’d love hear if you use or have used any of the above.  Please put your ideas in the comment box.


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