Teaching: What to do when they say “Just Teach Anything”!

A lot of humans like to sing the praises of democracy and free choice, and yet give us free reign to do whatever we want to and we draw a blank. An open road that goes in a million directions, a blank slate on which we can write anything, can be massively daunting. Have you ever been overwhelmed because a menu contains just too many options? Torn apart by career decisions because there are just too many interesting things to do? I know I have, and so I know that many of us as stumped when we are given a class to teach for a year and zero to little instruction on what to teach.

“Oh, they’re level B2,” they might say, or “well, it’s kids, just do colours and stuff.”

When you have a year’s worth of lessons to think about, an entire language and a sea of topics to choose from, it’s hard to think of a lesson plan without plucking random strands of thought from mid-air. So, if you’re one of those who hasn’t been given a syllabus/curriculum to work from, I’d suggest that you get hold of a book anyway. At the moment I’m using New Cutting Edge, with a bit of Market Leader thrown in for when they want business English, some New Headway or New English File when the activities in the first don’t quite cut it, and a sea of internet resources as my back-ups.

Modern English textbooks are full of pretty pictures and ideas for topics, as well as conveniently created examples of grammar and vocabulary that are easy to draw upon. What’s better is that the chapters usually follow a logical progression of difficulty as well as containing a mixture of reading, writing, speaking and listening. They are definitely great for those days where you can’t think of anything, although be careful about relying too heavily on your textbook. Even if you are supposed to be teaching from a book, you’ll bore yourself and your students if you do nothing but move from one activity to the next. So, here are my tips for creating your own lesson-by-lesson plan (be it for a term or a year), making the most out of your books and drawing on authentic materials.

1. What’s the target language? Identifying the purpose of the section and breaking the textbook dependence 

Every section of every chapter has a point – whether it’s teaching new grammar, vocabulary or just letting students practice perceptive or active skills using things that they already know. Once you’ve highlighted the target grammar and vocab taught in that section, think about other ways in which you could present it. Do you have to use what’s in the book? Could you find something more interesting, at the same level, from another textbook? If you take a look at the contents page, you’ll find that textbooks of a similar level often follow the same pattern.

Is there a more exciting way to present the language to begin with? Perhaps there’s a song or video that you know which uses a lot of the target language – students could listen to it and fill in the blanks. If you can think of something off the top of your head that’s full of target vocabulary or grammar, then use it – you can spend some time building up students’ interest in the video by asking questions about the topic or showing them screenshots and getting them to guess the story, as jumping straight into a video without any scene-setting can rob you of an exciting discussion if you let it.

For grammar, I highly recommend Teaching English Grammar by Jim Scrivener. For each piece of grammar, he outlines (in wonderful step-by-step detail) how to present it, what concept checking questions to ask, and some great practice and production activities. Just because your New Headway wants you to teach the present continuous using its own piece of listening doesn’t mean you have to (and some schools won’t even have given you the CD) – the important thing is that they’re learning the underlying structure.

2. The sacred formula!

Of course, remember the presentation, practice, production formula. First, show the students something that features the target language in context, so that they might understand it based solely on the situation. Just giving isolated sentences can be more confusing (and less interesting) than an article, video, interview or story that sneaks in the grammar/vocab. Then, highlight the key sentences or words (ideally by eliciting them from the students) and draw them on the board. This is when you concept check, draw timelines and other similar visual aids to help them understand. After that, I’d give them some practice – the simplest form would be in a worksheet. There are tons of great, free worksheets at http://busyteacher.org, which I highly recommend registering with.

Another formula that you can use with more advanced students is test-teach-test. In does what it says on the tin; first, you use a worksheet to discover how much your students already know, before going over it thoroughly. During the “teaching” part, students should be able to see the grammar/vocab in a natural setting, answer concept checking questions about it and try to give their own sentences using it. How well they do on the initial test should determine how deeply you teach it – if they already know it, there’s no reason to bore them with too much detail again; although a refresher is often welcome and helpful, constantly reviewing the same things can make students doubt whether they’re learning anything new. At the end, you can give students another worksheet and see how much better they do on it after your explanation.

3. Generating ideas for discussion

A lot of students just want conversation, and while a lot of us have been trained to believe that the customer is always right, our TEFL course brought up the very valid point that a lot of students don’t know how to learn. Many believe that by simply speaking all the time, they will pick up the intricacies of the English language and become fluent speakers. While speaking is definitely a key skill, it is important to make sure that their other skills (listening, writing, reading and perhaps use of English) are not neglected. This can be as sneaky as using an article or sound/video clip at the beginning, getting students to answer questions about it to check understanding, and then leading into a discussion. Students could write down what they are going to say in a discussion, debate or role play.

The problem, of course, is that going into a room to “teach conversation” is a lot harder than it sounds. You might go in and think “I’ll just ask them about their weekend – that will fill in some time!”, and while I could easily spend 90 minutes asking my Japanese students what was “new”, I find that Czech students respond with something like “oh, I didn’t do anything special” and seem to get bored very quickly. If you sit there trying to get them to elaborate and ask each other questions, you might find – as I do – a few yawns and rolling eyes. It’s quite demotivating as a teacher, but don’t worry. Come armed with topics for discussion, and a variety of ways for them to talk.

What do I mean by ways for them to talk? Well, if you have a few students, mix it up. Have some speaking activities be in pairs, while others are in groups. Let them discuss whether they agree or disagree with a statement. Get them to work together to answer questions about an article/video. Get them to discuss a topic in an interview style. Perhaps  – if you have a large class – they can walk around interviewing various members in order to discover things. They could have debates, work together to try agreeing on a solution. Role-plays are another good idea, especially if you are teaching business English. You can use games in which one person describes something an another has to guess. Just because they say that they want to talk doesn’t mean that it has to be exclusively conventional conversation. Most schools have plenty of books with titles like Communication Games, which are full of great activities to help you.

As for topics, there are plenty of places that you can look. Textbooks are full of ideas for stimulating discussion, and the website www.instant-ideas.com releases reading and listening materials and worksheets every week featuring up-to-date news topics – they are designed to easily fill a 60-minute lesson. For more advanced learners, how about looking at news sites? I find that The Guardian features some very interesting articles, and BBC News has a lot of short videos for listening practice. You could even adapt the news stories for lower level students, making sure to check for idioms and phrasal verbs that we take for granted and to simplify the more complicated vocabulary. I find the Cambridge Leaner’s Dictionary a great resource for coming up with simple explanations for more advanced words.

Finally, why not sneak in a clip from your favourite TV show or film? You could use a fill-in-the-blanks listening activity, ask questions about what happens and lead into a discussion about related topics. I recently used a clip from The Amazing Race (on mute) and had half the students describe what was happening to the other half (switching halfway through) – letting them practice present continuous. Then, I gave them slips using the past simple and continuous to describe what had happened, and asked them to work together to put them in order, before playing the clip again (with sound) to help them confirm their answers. This activity let them practice spontaneous speech, grammar, meaning, a little reading and listening, and discussion, letting us lead in to a conversation about competitions, gameshows and travel.

By the way, I’ve heard a lot of people say that they can’t rely on Youtube clips because of volatile internet connection… well… www.keepvid.com is your new best friend.



Cambridge Leaner’s Dictionary – to find simple explanations for words and phrases

BBC News and The Guardian, for up-to-date news stories

www.instant-ideas.com for up-to-date, ready-made reading/listening lessons

www.keepvid.com – to download youtube videos

http://busyteacher.org – an amazing (free) resource for worksheets (includes children’s lessons)

http://www.eslflow.com/ – even more resources, worksheets and ideas

http://www.sparklebox.co.uk/ – for printable children’s flashcards

Teaching English Grammar by Jim Scrivener – for explanations and fun activities using grammar

Communication Games – Beginner, Elementary, Intermediate– for speaking-based activities

English Grammar In Use  by Raymond Murphy – perhaps the best-selling grammar book, full of overviews and exercises

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