I’ve noticed that I am finally getting the hang of how to plan an effective language lesson that lasts for about an hour, not an easy feat. Our lessons are supposed to be focused entirely on speaking and cultural activities, when appropriate. At first leading a class in front of fifteen to twenty blank faced teenagers was incredibly intimidating. I spent hours wading through the quagmire of information available for ESL teachers online, looking for ideas on how to lead a conversation oriented class. Later I tossed and turned in bed, wondering if I had figured out the secret formula. This unfortunate routine was mostly fruitless and always frustrating, since even the best game for one classroom is a total fail for the next, unless adapted to your current situation and students. Trial and error have since taught me the insights I have gleaned so far from this experience and I by no means think I am a master ESL teacher. On the contrary, I now realize how much there is to learn and what a challenging career being a teacher is, if done well and responsibly.
A truly basic revelation, but the most essential one to planning any type of class, is that any activity you have laboriously prepared will ultimately flop if your students have no background knowledge or vocabulary on the topic you have chosen. This might seem obvious and maybe it is, but I strutted as arrogantly as a useless peacock right into a number of lessons without having made sure that the students had appropriate background information on the activity (i.e., vocabulary, instructions, cultural differences and nuances of a situation clearly explained. Not to mention that if they don’t know the grammar involved, you’ll be stuck looking pretty idiotic to the teacher, who probably knows some rules about English that you only know inherently). For example, in a low-level administrative vocational class, I handed out a slip of paper stating that a group of students needed to write a role play that would imitate an office situation. A person walks into a place of business, speaks with the secretary, the secretary is then supposed to call the boss and finally introduce the “big cheese” to the third person who has come for a meeting. Sounds easy, right? I originally thought so, but there are a number of glaring problems with this situation. The set-up is way too vague for starters. The students need to know: why exactly is the first person coming to the business, what type of business is it, and how would a secretary actually even greet someone properly. Then, the specialized vocabulary in this activity needs to be taught, reviewed and then seen in context by the students before they’ll ever be comfortable using it in a modified dialogue. Finally, language students must listen to an example of this role play before they’ll be able to create their own effectively. No one ever mentioned any of the above to me, so I spent a couple of months frustrated and clueless, until I found a brilliant example of how a dialogue should be taught.
In the successful example, key vocabulary was first reviewed (in this case, chores and curfew were key vocabulary, plus we talked as a class about whether students had to help out around the house and what specifically they were required to do) and then the target grammatical structure was discussed, used in various examples and later written on the board. Finally, the teacher and I read a scripted role-play so the students knew exactly what they needed to do to complete their assignment. Not only was I rewarded with cooperative students, better yet, they were creative and engaged in the activity, in which we used modal verbs (should, could, would, must, mustn’t, have to, can, might) to convince their mother that they should be able to stay out late tonight, even though they hadn’t finished their chores. I was elated and overwhelmed when the class finished, satisfied with a lesson well planned and even more so with the efforts of the class.
Some other particularly effective lessons lately have looked like the following: a teacher indicates to me that her class is studying rooms of the house and furniture vocabulary. To start, we play a quick review game. The point of the game is to get a student who is sitting in front of the class with his back facing the board to say the vocabulary word I’ve written on the board. The class must give the student clues IN ENGLISH about the word without saying it. So far this game has been a big hit, with students mostly eager to participate and some really effective vocabulary practice. Following this game, pictures of rooms in a home (courtesy Southern Living!) are handed out to the students and they have to talk with a partner about the furniture they see. The teacher and I monitor language usage and the students have a chance to work semi-independently. To finish the lesson, students have to draw a floor plan of their own home, labeling the rooms and drawing their own room, along with its furniture. Of course, there are always a few audible groans for any activity from obstinate students, but when they’ve seen the target vocabulary consistently for 50 minutes; I’m guessing they are learning.
Role plays have been a blast in class, writing a recipe is entertaining, singing along with Celine Dion Because you loved me to learn the past simple tense has been stellar, and taking turns describing a photo on the projector screen while the other faces away and draws what his partner describes is good for a laugh. It’s an awesome feeling to know that a lesson was successful, but many times the lessons depend on the individual responsibility the students take to participate in class. My favorite times so far have been when students take the initiative to not only do what they are asked to do, but when they do it well and with a stroke of their own teenage creativity. For me, an effective learning period is when the bell rings, you weren’t consciously waiting for it and everyone leaves the class having learned something valuable.