What to do and what not to do in the EFL classroom
I establish firm, consistent and fair rules, but I always endeavour to make every class an enjoyable experience. To ensure consistency, I constantly review my behaviour in class against norms that I believe reflect a caring educator.
To sit or not to sit
If I want to create student-teacher affinity to a degree where the students like me, I know I should not sit behind or on a desk, or stand behind a podium or lectern while teaching - except when teaching or working with a small group. If I want to present myself as equal, which is a very positive trait, then eye-to-eye contact is more easily maintained if both parties are seated.
If I am teaching a small class, I like to have a seat where I can roll around from one group to the next, or have an empty seat waiting for me. However, if I am lecturing a large group, it is best to stand and move around a lot as it offers an opportunity to monitor all the students and, as such, pace my lecture to the majority and not only the few who tend to congregate in the front.
To act or not to act
Students find it difficult to like teachers who use a monotone/dull voice, look at the board or at notes while talking, or have a very tense body position while talking to the class.
I need to be somewhat animated, use a variety of vocal expressions and gestures, look at, and move around, the class, smile, and if possible, look relaxed while talking to the class - in short, do everything I can to present myself as a dynamic, active and enthusiastic teacher.
However, I refuse to be the only person in class to provide the energy needed to make a class dynamic. I expect to get a good portion back from what I put in.
Why should 99 percent of the energy in a class come from, invariably, the oldest person in the room? At the same time, I try to be consistent based on the time of day and the size of class I teach. For example, few students are active first thing Monday morning, and if I come bouncing full of vigour into a class, I will not impress anyone.
Likewise, if I use the energy needed to teach 200 students when only 20 are present, I will also come across as being somewhat insincere.
To teach or not to teach
When I reflect on how I want to treat the students, there are traits I want to avoid, such as offering poor excuses for being absent, keeping the class overtime, lecturing in a confusing manner, or not reviewing lessons for examinations.
I need to be helpful, warm, empathetic, relaxed, casual and content. In addition, with this comes the need to be trustworthy, to be consistent in beliefs to fulfil the commitments made to the students, and to remain sincere.
While these ideas may seem basic, it is my list of things "to do and not to do" that I keep in mind all the time.
While there may be days I feel like breaking some of these rules, and perhaps there may be one or two days a year I actually do so, I feel guilty because I always teach with one central idea in mind: "Is this the way I would want to be taught?"
If the answer is no, I change whatever I would not like to be done to me. If the answer is yes, then I continue with whatever or however I have decided I want to present myself in class.
Bonding with students
Students prefer teachers who walk around, smile, give students attention and make eye contact
Over the past 30 years, a great deal of research has been conducted in the US concerning what teachers can do to create closer relationships with students, especially by using various affinity-seeking measures, which include walking around the room, smiling and making regular and friendly eye contact with students.
I always walk around while teaching, both in large and small classes, and find it strange when I see or hear of teachers who do not. Not only does it help to develop closer bonds between teachers and students, it is very important if we want to know what students are doing and whether they need support.
When teaching, it is our responsibility to know what everyone is doing. Sometimes, I regret knowing what some students are doing, in particular, when they are not working on the assigned lesson material. However, if students know you might turn up at their desk any moment, hopefully, they will find it too strenuous to hide non-class-related activities every time you walk up to them and begin to pay more attention to the assigned work.
It is interesting to note that among the non-verbal affinity-seeking behaviours noticed by US students, smiling and observing the class ranks as two of the 14 different aspects considered important.
If students in the US consider these two as essential, one might assume that Thai students would be even more comfortable with a smiling - versus a non-smiling - teacher and this might play a major part in whether students liked the teacher or not.
Up and around
In meetings and dinners with speakers, audiences tend to pay more attention when the speaker is standing. Students should realize that it is important to listen carefully when a teacher is standing, which is when a teacher is more likely to be explaining an important concept or conducting classroom management.
In contrast, when the teacher is sitting, the teacher may be explaining how to do something, listening to students interact or watching them complete an exercise. These activities require less concentration on what the teacher is saying. Therefore, teachers who choose the appropriate times to stand or sit will help students learn when they can relax and when they need to concentrate.
When teaching, I sit and try to have students gather around my desk. If it is a conversation class, I stand from time to time. However, when monitoring groups, I like to sit with, in or near each group. If possible, I use a chair with wheels, so I can push my way around the room from one group to another. This way, I am always at eye level, and if I go by one group on my way to another group, coming by at eye level makes it easier for them to catch my attention.
If a movable chair is not available, I arrange an empty chair in each group, so that when I come by, I have two options. Remain standing and interact as a teacher, or sit and provide support as a mentor.
While class size and varying needs to maintain control may make it difficult to sit and interact with students at eye level, smiling and looking at students and moving around the room can help to create a closer bond.
Getting students to like us can be difficult, especially when teaching a subject many may fear and loath. While these affinity-seeking measures might seem artificial, studies in the US and other countries have demonstrated that they increase positive feelings towards the teacher and, in turn, the course content. In short, affinity-seeking measures are one more tool to increase affective learning - the enjoyment experienced in learning.
#2 Giving students instructions
Looking at activities from three directions
What activities I intend to use in class, and therefore the instructions I plan to use with students, are an important step in planning my classes. I believe this is important as I often find that instructions given in a textbook are usually beyond the linguistic capabilities of the students whom I would be teaching.
On the other hand, if the instructions are too easy, will the resulting exercise be as equally easy, or will it require a more demanding use of the students' command of English?
When I review the material that I am going to teach, I begin with three questions. First, does the exercise have merit in terms of the learning goals set for a particular class or course? If the answer is no, I drop it from my lesson plan.
Second, would I want to do this task if I were in this class? If the answer is no, I drop it from my lesson plan. Having sat on both sides of the desk, I know what I like to do; and what I do not like to do in a language class and, as such, I find it very difficult to be genuine in asking students to do something I might loath.
Finally, can I understand and complete the exercise without having to look at the answers in the teacher's book? If the answer is no, I drop it from my lesson plan. If I cannot understand or answer an exercise, how can I expect my students to be able to do so?
Planning the instructions
Now that I have selected the material I want to use, I need to prepare three sets of instructions. To do this, I review whether the given instructions, or similar instructions, have been dealt with earlier in the course. If so, I review the problems that the students might have had previously and, if possible, make a note of any students who had difficulty in the past.
I then review my students' English abilities and determine if the instructions provided in the text need to be edited, simplified, or presented as given. With this in mind, I clearly delineate the steps I want to use in my instructions to make certain that the students can follow as I explain what I want them to do. This could involve adding to, or adapting, what is given in the text.
Now that I know how to explain the instructions in a chronological order from start to finish, I look at the exercise from the opposite direction. I ask myself, "If the students complete the exercise planned, what will their answers look like when they have finished?"
With this idea established, I prepare a second, often shorter, set of instructions that work backwards. This set of instructions, more a description of the completed exercise, lets the students know what their work will look like when they have completed it correctly.
Working backwards, I repeat my instructions in reverse order and, if possible, I use different vocabulary and ideas. If the students did not understand my first set of instructions as I went through in chronological order, I do not see how repeating the same words and expressions will help their comprehension as I work backwards.
Finally, as I work predominantly with adults, I explain why I am asking them to complete a particular exercise this way and how it fits into the learning objectives for that class and the course in general. At this point, I often explain that while they could probably complete an exercise faster using a different method, it is the process - completing the work as asked - and not the product - the final completed exercise - that will help to improve their English.
Information-gap exercises and many reading exercises based on skills that are more useful in longer texts, but which in the material provided are based on a much shorter selection, are examples of exercises that students often see little point in following. Moreover, they usually require a more cumbersome and time-consuming method to complete, and so should be avoided.
Once students have a clear idea of what to do, based on understanding what they are going to do, what it will look like when finished, and why I want them to do it, I find that most of them are willing to go along with my instructions.
Nevertheless, as I know that despite my best efforts, some students will have difficulties completing a task or will simply refuse to do it as asked; I monitor the initial efforts to ensure that all individuals, pairs or groups are on the right track before I settle in to monitor their progress.
Employing student resources
Research concerning the role played by motivation in effective learning typically examines only the motivation to attend a learning session, to remain during the learning session and to make the most of what is being taught.
While a great deal has been written about what motivates adult students to begin, or return to university, college or language class, the most important thing is to understand why they have decided to come to a class and how they can be motivated to become and remain motivated once they start a class.
While many adults will claim they came for extrinsic reasons - a certificate, a better job - these reasons often seem to decrease in value once a course begins and they begin to realize how much work will be involved.
With this in mind, intrinsic techniques or conditions within the learner become important in creating motivation to learn. These motivators include to what extent students are able to see and then accept the benefit of what they are learning and how they acquire and maintain confidence in their ability to learn.
With mixed abilities, ages and interests, it is often difficult to know how to encourage intrinsic motivation with a group of students. However, in examining each question, as teachers, it is our role to motivate students to reach their particular learning goals.
While students can be led into activities outside the class that may reinforce intrinsic motivation through practical work and study, our teaching must also include adequate reinforcement to ensure that students continue with their learning.
This reinforcement can be provided through continually demonstrating how much has been accomplished, the skills they have acquired both prior to the class with other teachers and in this class, and the increased ease or skills they have now compared with the situation before they started.
Confidence-building strategies include ideas and techniques used to prevent or to help students work through attitudes or beliefs that can limit or stop their participation in learning tasks.
One answer is to use "success flagging", in which students are reminded about the successes previous students have had; or ways in which their work or social life will be easier or more profitable when they have learned or acquired the benefits of the course.
In companies where a variety of students come through the same course, gaining permission from previous students to mention their names and successes can often be very motivating and can provide students with a possible mentor for the skill areas being presented.
An additional and important motivational concern is the need to ensure that content and the way it is presented continually draws student attention to what is being learned.
Motivational strategies related to content include the need to ensure that what is presented, the way in which it is presented and all related activities match their expectations and experience. With this in mind, stories, visual presentation and humor are often very helpful.
A personal story that explains an idea or clarifies a concept is a very powerful and often very enjoyable way of gaining the kind of interest needed for learning. For example, a story about how something to do with the content has value for the teacher can be a useful means to show how a topic, skill or knowledge does have personal worth.
While most research on motivation in adult education recommends involving participants in the planning stage, this is seldom an option.
In this case, motivational techniques are limited to those we can use in class and face to face with students, such as the sequencing of material or the inclusion of personal stories and examples.
Getting students to write the exam
If a class requires a content-based exam, it can be quite useful to have students write different question types for an upcoming exam and provide the answers to the questions they create.
When students write exam questions, the side effects are extremely beneficial. First, they need to read the material, think about the content, then create the questions required and provide complete answers. As they will need to read carefully, students will practise and will soon improve their intensive reading skills.
In addition, if the assignment to create questions specifies a limit to the number of questions to each page, section or chapter, students are subsequently encouraged to read more of the required material ahead of the exam. This is beneficial as it allows them the opportunity to return to class knowing which areas they do not understand or need further explanation.
Second, as they need to write questions and provide answers, both writing and question-asking skills will be practised, leading to an improvement in both skills.
Finally, as students must provide answers and a marking scheme, they come to understand how exams are written, how they can best prepare for exams and finally, how they can best answer exam questions.
There are five basic question types used in most exams: 1) true/false 2) multiple choices 3) matching 4) short essay and 5) fill in the blank.
Each question format requires a different type of preparation. True/false questions involve reading material and determining which areas are potentially most confusing. In addition, students also need to change the content or ideas to produce a number of false answers.
Multiple-choice questions not only require students to understand the question and know the correct answer, they need to be able to understand associated concepts well enough to create alternatives that will appear to be reasonable choices to other students. In addition, as all four choices must be equal or nearly equal in length and structure, ample practice in working with parallel style is needed.
For matching questions, finding the vocabulary and matching definitions will encourage students to review material by looking for clues of words and definitions that the author has included in the material. These include the use of bold print, parentheses, brackets, the verb to be, relative clauses, and hyphens.
In short essays, students need to provide answers and a scoring guide, leading to a need to examine quite closely the sufficient areas of the material to create the number of required questions and answers.
Finally, fill in the blank, based on either content or grammar points studied, provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate, through their selection of blanks, what they find or believe their fellow students will find most difficult, and perhaps lead to areas to review further in class.
Teachers who have not tried this idea might suggest students will trade questions among themselves. They might, but if a class is large enough and students do not duplicate assignments, question variety can be quite extensive.
If 20 students write five questions from each of the five areas and even if only 50 percent are original, that produces 250 questions for the students to evaluate. Ironically, the questions produced by students are often much more difficult than the questions that most teachers would create.
Asking them to write questions based on the content studied not only creates a useful pool of questions, but also offers a valuable insight into areas where they are experiencing difficulty, evidenced by their reluctance to produce questions from a particular theme or by the mistakes in the questions they produce.
Be sure to teach what is on the examination
Increasingly, academic research and teacher discussions have returned to the question of standard tests and what is omitted or stressed on when teaching for an end-of-term test or a national examination.
In particular, this could be true with students who wish to achieve certain IELTS (International English Language Testing System) or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) scores. Such students often object to being taught anything they do not see as directly related to a particular test.
The need to test
Testing students for a grade or promotion from one level to another is usually a necessary aspect of teaching, and while it can cause difficulties, if the test is carefully crafted, it can encourage students to undertake and complete useful in-class and out-of-class assignments.
Make sure that what is tested has been taught. A global concern is whether what is being taught and tested helps students expand their knowledge.
Reading and listening
Testing reading and listening is difficult, especially if pre-reading or pre-listening exercises are used to prepare students for the material practiced in class. With this in mind, from time to time, both listening and reading should be presented, as they will be in a test situation - without warm-up exercises or vocabulary preview.
Another concern is whether the topics in a practice or actual test are new to the students. If they are new, this could prove unfair to those who do not have a background in the topic areas. The need to create an equal opportunity for all students requires selecting a variety of materials so that, overall, some students are not favored over others.
A final concern is to maintain the difficulty level of the material being used in a test. If it comes from the same text, fine. However, what is to prevent students taking the initiative to review or preview material in their textbooks? This has become an emerging concern, as more and more published material, teacher books, scripts and listening materials can be downloaded from bootleg sites. Thus, teachers need to be aware that students often find it easier to find teacher materials than we teachers do.
Material from another source is perhaps best, and at the same time, provides a set of material students may not know. In using this material in class, students are exposed to both reading and listening material they have not seen before.
In bringing unfamiliar material into class for practice, and then testing, all students are provided an equal opportunity to work with material for the first time in class. Whether or not the topic areas are something they know already, however, is a factor we cannot control. However, while it cannot be controlled, a wide variety of topics and themes will help towards that end.
Most students taking the major speaking tests are familiar with the questions and routines. This is fine. If we look at the real world, most people prepare themselves to talk about or answer different questions depending on where they are going, for example, a dinner party or a networking event.
Students deserve the same opportunity, but with speaking, it is important they cannot benefit from memorizing long passages that pass for conversation. Again, as with other skills, if conversation is to be tested, students should be given practice with the style of speaking they will be expected to do and then, in a test situation, given something new to deal with that tests their conversational skills.
It can be difficult to persuade students to practice skills over learning content. However, if the exams they take are skill-based and not content-based, it should be easier to encourage them to practice skills instead of memorizing content.
Teaching students how to take exams
In my experience, few students have been given insight to how they should approach writing an exam, or on the importance of understanding the exam's scoring scheme, in terms of the time allowed.
Taking an exam, or pacing yourself correctly when completing something that is bound by time constraints, is a very important and useful skill, not only in academia, but also in the real world.
With this in mind, I take time to instruct students how to be a more competent exam-taker, and with the exams I give, I help them to put this theory into practice.
It is surprising how many students do not read an exam before they start and simply begin with the first question and work their way through. This is not a good idea, especially if the first question is difficult and hurts their confidence. My first question is always very difficult and invariably worth one or two points.
Read through the questions, I recommend; then make a list with three columns.
In the first column, list the questions in order of difficulty, starting with the easiest. In the second column, record the maximum points awarded for each question. Third, estimate the score you believe you can achieve. Finally, add up the figures in the third column, and the total will be sufficient for a passing grade. On many exams, I provided them with this chart and note, and the students knew why the aid was there and used it.
When students know they can pass an exam, particularly a difficult one, they should be able to relax. Moreover, while they still need to write it, this reduction in tension should help them work on the exam more efficiently. In addition, as they work on easier questions, they may find that the initially difficult questions have become easier.
It is not a perfect solution and is not always applicable, for example with listening tests. With reading and writing tests, however, I encourage students to answer the questions in any order they choose based on the above guide.
When taking an exam, divide the time allowed by the number of questions and points being awarded. I find it heartbreaking when strong students spend an inordinate amount of time answering a question worth four points, and then lack enough time to complete the last question worth 20.
In a two-hour exam, I recommend taking 10 minutes at the start to read the exam and to complete the calculations mentioned above, and trying to spare 10 more minutes at the end to review the answers, or to have enough time in case a question takes longer to answer than planned. With a 120-minute exam, this will leave 100 minutes to work on the exam itself.
Then return to the table and add two more columns. In the fourth column, record how many minutes it should take to complete each answer. In the last column, record the time the first question starts and create a schedule as to when you should start answering the rest of the questions.
I like to proctor my own exams so that I can write the start, finish and remaining times on the board. While I do not want to disturb the students, I will write how much time is left every 10 minutes, and I find many students realising that they are behind schedule and picking up the pace.
Taking exams is not easy for many students, but it remains an integral part of their education. I would hope that by providing tips and demonstrating the benefit that comes from organising, students will be able to handle future exams with increased confidence and levels of success.