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Back to school

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You may be about to start a new academic year of teaching. Maybe you've started already. When I was teaching, by the end of the summer holiday I was ready to get back into the classroom and excited about the prospect. As a Head of Department, I had digested and analysed the GCSE and A-level exam results, and was raring to meet new classes and meet up again with classes I already knew. 

On social media, new teachers sometimes ask how to start the new year. Should you spend time going though classroom expectations? Should you do ice-breaking activities? Should you just get on and teach? 

I preferred to do the latter, both when I was starting out and as an 'old hand'. Why? Well, partly I was always impatient to get on with work and felt that my classes wanted to as well. With the newly arrived Y7 classes, a bit of training was needed - how to line up, enter in an orderly way, get materials out and do start-of-lesson greetings. These things need practice so they quickly become second nature, avoiding later difficulties. In general, my view is that good behaviour patterns are picked up through use, rather than explanation. Sound familiar? Learning by doing.

With classes I already knew and where expectations were clear, it was about easing into the new year with productive, target language activities, often harking back to what the pupils had done on holiday. There are all sorts of ways to get into this, all involving lots of lovely structured, comprehensible input. With the fastest classes it could be as easy as asking some questions and seeing where the conversation went. That's where the teacher skill of asking the right questions and moving from one students to another comes in, building in some choral repetition, writing up phrases on the board and even picking up bits of grammar - not too much, of course.

The considerable benefit of teacher-led oral work is that it's actually more about listening than speaking. In a classroom of 30 students, only one is speaking at a time, but the others are listening. If your classroom management is sound and relationships good, then you know they are listening, but you can always use your teacher tricks to make sure they are. Cold-calling (no hands up), mini-whiteboards, "What did I just say?" and "Write down what X just said" - all these can reassure you that everyone is paying attention.

Teacher-led, whole class oral work can be very satisfying. It has an organic sort of feel about it. You don't know what pupils will say and you respond to whatever they utter, giving the exchanges a sense of real communication going on. It helps if you are actually interested in what they have to say, of course! You don't really need to correct, maybe reformulate what they have said from time to time ('recasting'). 

With less proficient classes it's more of a challenge though, so that's when you'd want to structure the input and output more tightly. For example, you could display a dozen sentences describing typical things people may have done in the holiday. (Keep in mind that this can be a sensitive topic, if some have been on exotic trips while others don't have the means to go away at all. I don't think this should make the topic taboo, however.)

With the sentences displayed you can run through some routines such as reading and repeating aloud, using 'disappearing text' (removing some words from the list on a second slide, then more on a third slide). With the language of the sentences well rehearsed, you could go further by telling students to secretly write down three sentences which correspond with their holiday experience. In pairs, each student can then try to guess which sentences they wrote down.

There are many options for talking about holidays using comprehensible input and interaction. I'm going to cheat a bit here, by adapting some I used in a previous blog post about talking about last weekend. No harm in reusing old material to new effect - a invaluable language teacher trick. Call it a sort of 'task repetition', if you like. I could go into the benefits of task repetition at this point, but shall resist!

As always, some activities work better with some classes than others. The ones below would suit Y9 and above.

I'll start with the one I mentioned above:

1. Just to ask the whole class the question and invite hands up. The pupil answers with a sentence or two and you can ask follow-up questions, looking for any opportunity for interesting content or humour.

Pupil: "I went to the Cornwall with my parents."

Teacher: "Ah! Where exactly? Was it good? Did you go by train? Did you stay in a hotel or a camp site? Did you go the beach? What did you do there?

As I said, don't worry too much that only one person is speaking. For the others it's a chance to get more input. If you think the rest of the class won't pay attention, then try the next option.

2. A variation on the above. Choose a student to answer and tell the others in the class they have to make notes about what the first student did. Then elicit responses in the third person from the class. You can always write examples on the board. You would choose a more proficient student, which is fine, as it gives them a chance to be stretched and to shine.

3. Put students in pairs and give them 5 minutes to silently write down five sentences (in L1 or L2) about what they did during the holiday. Put ideas on the board. Then each partner has to guess what their partner did by asking yes/no questions. You'll need to model some second person singular verbs on the board first, in all likelihood.

With all these tasks you can model language on the board in some form, e.g. with a sentence builder or pairs of sentences translated.

4. Give one student a list of imaginary things they may have done during the holiday Make sure to include ones which are very likely, e.g. I saw my friends, I played a computer game, I went to the seaside, I stayed at home. Include some absurd ones, like I met Marcus Rashford in the park.

For each statement the student reads, the rest of the class writes down true or false, or maybe possible or impossible. Then find out from the original students how many of the things they actually did. The rest of the class can score their answers.

5. Before asking the class what they did during the holiday, read them a series of sentences describing what YOU did. Some will be true, some false. Make these as subtle or as obvious as you like, depending on the class and your relationship with them. Students have to guess correctly.

Then students can write a few notes about what they did, before sharing them with you or a partner. The advantage of you speaking first is that the class hears lots of past tense verbs modelled first.

By the way, as a listening task you can just talk about your holiday as the class takes notes in English, then feeds back what you had said.

6. "The first who can't speak is the loser". In this case, students work in pairs. Each partner must say a sentence about what they did in turn. The first who cannot utter a sentence is the loser. You can scaffold this for mixed ability classes by writing some verb chunks on the board, e.g. I ate, I went, I watched, I visited, I played.

7. As a fluency building task, write up some verb chunks on the board, as with the previous example, but this time each partner has to keep talking as longs as they can while they are timed by a partner. As a variation, you get students to give as many sentences as they can in, say, one minute or two minutes, while the partner both times and counts the number of sentences produced. This task encourages students to work at speed, retrieving language from memory as quickly as they can.

8. In pairs, students interview each other about they did and take down notes in the process. After each student has been interviewed the teacher can elicit third person answers from individual students.

9. Carry out a "find someone who" task. Give each student a list of holiday activities. Students stand up, mill around and interview people to see who did what. So they would ask: "Did you stay in England/Scotland/Australia?" "Did you watch a movie?" "Did you go out with your parents?", "Did you travel by train?" and so on.

After about ten minutes the pupils sit down and you elicit how many people they found who did each activity. This could lead into some general conversation. "Oh! Everyone watched a film?" "What film did you watch?"

10. If you want to practise negatives, just do an audiolingual-style drill. Tell the class you are going to ask them if they did certain things over the holiday. They always have to reply in the negative;

"Did you play tennis?" "No, I didn't play tennis." and so on.

With beginners I would be getting straight into greetings, making sure the class was aware I knew some may have done some of the language before. I would also give out a sheet asking beginners to tell me what they had done before in French. We had a departmental sheet for this purpose.

With second year pupils, I'd be reviewing a range of conversational language we had covered in their first year. Brushing off cobwebs.

Finally, I wish you well for your return to school and I hope you are looking forward to getting back together with staff and pupils, masked or otherwise. I'd be masking up.


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