National storytelling week

So this week in the UK is National Storytelling week and in ode to this, I completely scrapped my lesson plan and taught a storytelling class with my CAE Advanced students.

Exam classes are stressful; for the teacher and student alike so they were VERY happy to take a break and just use the English they had.

One of the main problems with storytelling and creative writing is the lack of ideas. Having to think up an entire plot, character arc and language can take the magic out of storytelling. To bypass this problem, I introduced the idea of storytelling step by step. Not until the very last minute did my students realise what they were doing. Removing this pressure to “create” something made them much more receptible.

Step 1 – lead in

I gave the student 15 seconds of silent thinking time to think about these three questions:

1) Do you read stories? What kind/why not?

2) Did you parents read to you or tell you stories when you were young?Why, how did it make you feel?

3) Do you or will you read or tell stories to your child?

Storytelling doesn’t care what language you speak so I encouraged them to think about English and their native languages. Once their time was up, I split them into pairs and they discussed their answers. Encouraging the students to ask their partner further follow up questions helps to encourage spontaneity in their speaking.

Step 2 – ideas generation

I gave the students 4 interesting images (I can send these to you if you would like) and asked them, in their pairs, to discuss each one picture by picture. I asked them to be curious and to question everything they saw.

Was the statue really a statue?

What’s making the grass rise up; is it just a hill or is something underneath?

There were no wrong answers here and every idea was a good idea. They had the freedom to come up with as many far out or sane ideas as they liked.

Step 3 – ideas generation take 2

After each pair had discussed the pictures, I swapped their partner. Now, they had to go through the images again and tell their new partner about their ideas. This helps not only as a further step to help come up with ideas but also to deepen and extend the ideas they had. By asking their partner questions about their ideas, the students were able think about aspects of the picture that they perhaps hadn’t thought of before.

Once finished, they go back to their original partner and discuss anything interesting they learnt from their partner.

Step 4 – vocabulary

First, I asked the students to choose the one image which piqued their interest and inspired them the most. All other images were then put to one side.

Under each picture was an empty table, the students were tasked with filling the table with vocabulary related to the image. They had to think of all word forms: verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs and write them in the table. I, as teacher, withheld the right to veto a word if I thought it was too boring and too simple. This encouraged them to think properly about the image rather then rhyming off what they could see (the dictionary and thesaurus helped).

In true Art Attack style, when the students had exhausted their ideas or had filled their table, I gave them a version I’d filled in earlier. They could take any of my words and add them to their own table or put them around the picture.

Step 5 – introduce the arc

All stories regardless of imagination and creativity need to follow an arc As these students hadn’t seen it before, I introduced them to it in the same way I did last with my other class (come back and read my blog next week to see exactly how I did this). I followed this up by giving them a short story and, in pairs, asking them to highlight the different sections of the story arc in the short story. And as with everything, they also had to justify their reasoning to each other.

Step 6 – building the arc

The students by this point have had lots of input and preparation, it’s time to plan their own story. Going back to the image that inspired them the most, the students had to brainstorm, with their partner, what their story would be. It’s important here to encourage students to think as creatively as possible and remind them to use the vocab they came up with earlier. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel, the hard work’s done! They just have to piece it together.

Step 7 – it’s storytelling time

Everything’s done. They’ve prepped, planned, brainstormed, worked in pairs, helped each other and their story is finished. It’s now time to tell their story. Writing can detract from the creatively of storytelling so I decided that my student would tell their stories not write them. I moved the students around so they were with a different partner and asked them to tell their story. They were allowed to keep their notes with them, this wasn’t a test; it was an opportunity to be, dare I say it again, creative with the language. We spent a few minutes going over what makes a good storyteller (hand gestures, emphasis, excitement, tone of voice etc) and off they went!

I taught this class with a C1 group of adult students but there’s no reason why, with a bit of grading, that this can’t work with all students of any levels! Sometimes it’s nice (and beneficial) to throw out the coursebook and just play with the language. I now have a group of budding storytellers!

Let me know how you get on with yours:)

Book Club Bonanza

We all know how hard it can be to motivate students to read outside of the class; especially those who don’t read in their own language. They have homework, some have part time jobs, familial responsibilities and kids so convincing them to find the find to read in this busy schedule isn’t easy. I know this because I am exactly the same, especially now it’s dark and cold.

Well after experimenting with book clubs and reading groups over the past few years I’ve found a formula which seems to work!

Firstly – Creating space for discussions

Having an inclusive book club in a school makes it VERY difficult for the teacher to choose a book which suits all students levels and interests. That is why rather than having a club which revolves around a particular book or story, my book club revolves around topics. Each week we have a discussion theme; characters, relationships, the story, etc, which can be adapted to suit any book at any level. I provide the students with a selection of questions to help them think of what to say and organise their thoughts and they then discuss the questions with their partner in the context of their own book. Whether the students read one page, one chapter or the whole book doesn’t matter as they are reading at the level and at their own pace.

Secondly – Choosing the right book

Choosing their own book doesn’t only make life easier for the teacher, it also makes it more meaningful for the student. By allowing them to choose a book that they are genuinely interested in and excited about, it will increase the chance of them taking part in discussions. It’s important to remind students that they don’t have to finish the book. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to slog their way to the end. If I stop reading a book because I don’t like it, I can’t expect my students to see it to the end.

The one tip I always give my students when choosing to read for fun is pick a book which is around a level lower than their current level. There’s nothing fun about struggling through a story with vocabulary you don’t understand and a timeline which jumps between tenses. If could be useful to invest in a few graded reading books or even children’s books for the students to choose from if they don’t own any.

Thirdly – Adding variety

Although there are many benefits to having a freer styled book club, it is still important for students to share their different opinions about the same story; this is where short stories and flash fiction is particularly useful. Once a fortnight or once every three weeks, if you have a fairly regular group of attendees, you give the students a short story to read over the week in preparation for the next gathering. Unfortunately for me, I have a rather inconsistent cohort of students attending so I often dedicate around 15 minutes at the start of the session for them to read the story. Similarly to with their own book, they can then discuss their initial thoughts of the story and (hopefully) engage in some good discussions. Again, it’s important to remind the students they don’t have to have liked or enjoyed the short story. Having a variety of opinions will make for a more worthwhile interaction.

Here’s a list of places I have taken short stories/ flash fiction from:

Good luck setting up your own book club; get in touch with any success you have!

The Trials and Tribulations of a First Time Summer School DOS

Fielding complaints and gripes to delivering disciplinary actions, this summer was a bit more than I bargained for. And more fun that I could ever have imagined!

I worked for the same summer school last year as a teacher, so when I contacted the Programme Director and she offered me the position of DOS, I was a bubbling mixture of enthusiasm, excitement and apprehension. I genuinely thought I was completely prepared. Although I didn’t necessarily find the role difficult; my eyes were most definitely opened by the end of summer than at the start.

With hindsight being such a wonderful thing, I’ve complied a list of things which would’ve had me better prepared.

Managing teachers

What I didn’t realise when I so eagerly accepted the job was that the teachers would require just as much (perhaps even more) managing than the students. The teachers all had different experiences and came from different backgrounds, so managing and delivering CPD sessions which were relevant to everyone took a bit of thinking. I eventually decided to spend our first CPD meeting discussing as a group and the teachers decided on their own what input they wanted and/or needed.

Everybody has a different approach to time, and different cultures and countries place more or less importance on the idea of time and time management. Me, I’m stickler for time (in a professional setting anyway, not so much a personal one). If I ask you to be in the classroom for 8:45 then I expect you to be in the classroom for 8:45. This was not, however, the same as my teachers’ expectations. I was CONSTANTLY trying to stress how important it is to be punctual. Dress code was another point of contention for the teachers.

Basically what I learnt was that consistency is just as important for managing teachers’ behaviour as it was for managing students’ behaviour. Setting your expectations out from the start and not changing them, lets everybody know what the situation is and how to behave. And if they still don’t listen, persevere.

Welcome to Parenthood

Being off campus last year, I didn’t realise just how needy the students can be. It seems obvious now; they’re young, some away from home for the first time, some with low levels of English but it just didn’t occur to me beforehand. What I know now is that if you’re on campus, you’re fair game. The students don’t know that Wednesday is your day off or that you don’t work evenings. If they have a problem and they see you, it will very quickly become your problem. On multiple occasions I had students knocking on the management flat’s door with some huge disaster or another. One particularly memorable emergency was a 12 year old boy who called the emergency phone in near tears. There was a “black creature with wings” in this bed and he couldn’t go to sleep. On inspection it turned out to be a ball of fluff.

Being a residential manager means you are the spider killer, toilet roll keeper, alarm, mum, dad, dietitian and hygiene monitor. Embrace it, it’s unavoidable.

Being the Boss

This was the first time I was in an official position of power in a school and along with the positive aspects of this; helping teachers develop, working with different people. There are also negatives; mainly being the disciplinarian. In one particularly uncomfortable situation, I had to have more than one disciplinary meeting with a teacher which eventually led to me asking him to move out of the accommodation (which the school as offered to him when his accommodation situation changed) and not return the following week. We had become friendly as we had lots of things in common which made the situation worse. We didn’t have an office, so I had to do it in a spare room in the management flat. I was quite nervous but I had all of the evidence in my head. The conversation went as well as expected and he took the news relatively calmly.

The best advice I can offer from my experience is; make sure you’re prepared, you need to have times, dates and individual examples of the behaviour. Make sure you stay in control of the situation; it’s important that you don’t get railroaded and then have the conversation go off topic and lastly, DO NOT lose your temper. It’s an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved and the person on the other end of the conversation is obviously not going to be happy with the news. Just remain professional and calm at all times.

Hopefully you’ll never have to experience this but you never know.

Dealing with ‘Clients’

Before this summer, I only ever had to think of students and their parents as just that, students. Whereas at summer school we have ‘clients’. The children are the students but their Group Leaders and agents are clients, and you need to approach them differently. Bending to their wants and meeting, sometimes, unrealistic requests whilst also maintaining integrity was a new challenge for me. This is particularly important when a student’s behaviour escalates and you need to formally address it. Just like in the above paragraph, you need to be completely prepared when taking a complaint or grievance to a Group Leader or agent because [their] ‘student would never do that’ and ‘[they] deserve one more chance, please.’

Got backup?

And finally… being a teacher, you have different levels of ‘backup’; your peer teachers, senior teacher, Ados and then finally DOS. This is the situation I was used to before this summer. I had a whole host of people who I could go to if I needed something clarifying or if I needed a second opinion about a student’s behaviour or methodology or framework BUT this time, I was the backup. I didn’t have the questions, I answered them and when a student was playing up in or out of the classroom, it was my name being used as a threat. I was the big, bad, final step on the punishment tier and you will be too. This means you need to make sure you have a solid rapport with all the students and adults. This will make them more likely to accept your judgement and decisions.

It can be hard to build rapport with a big group of students who you aren’t teaching, so this makes mealtimes, activities and early mornings crucial. Making the time to say hello to every student, ask how they are, sit with them at break time and (if you can) participate in some of the evening activities will make your role as the disciplinarian much, much easier. No teenagers are going to listen to a ghost and with teens, respect is a two way street. If you take the time to get to know them then they will respect you when you have to rein them in. This and of course the age old C word ‘consistency.’

I loved my time at summer school this year and I’ll be returning next year with a better idea of what will be awaiting me. Hopefully, after reading this, you will to 🙂

YL generated materials!

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a teacher in possession of a YL classroom, must always prepare beforehand. Or is it? Ask any YL teacher where most of their time goes and I’d bet that their answer has something to do with materials prep; cutting, sticking, photocopying, creating or drawing.

Giving kids that much control actually means more work in the classroom; more monitoring, more error correcting and (usually) more behavioural management. BUT after a particularly busy week (what with reports, exams and marking) I decided to risk it and leave the preparing up to my students; my A1 level, 7 – 9 year old students.

Incorporating collaboration, communication and LOTS OF SPEAKING, in pairs, my students made their own speaking and question form revision board games. With such a positive outcome, I thought I’d share it with you guys!

Below is a picture of my board during this lesson. As you read through the steps, use this picture to help make sense of the guide.

Step one

Thinking of question forms can be daunting for students as they encounter so many of them throughout the year. Providing question chunks can help them focus on the most important ones and not rely on simply the age old ‘do you like…’ question. Start by eliciting the most recently learnt question form but leave gaps where the students have the freedom to change and add words. Elicit all the other forms and put them on the board.

Step two

Drilling the questions through the preparation stage is really important. It makes sure that the students are comfortable and confident with the questions. It also helps to go through the gap fill possibilities and remind the students of their options.

Step three

Go through some board game shape options to give the students some creative freedom. Letting the students decide what board game shape they want to use lets them feel in control of their game, in addition to giving them something to discuss with their partner. Give them a piece of paper and give them a few minutes to discuss their options and draw their game.

*NB: It’s important to give the students a few minutes to talk or discuss options after each step.

Step four

It’s time to set the expectations. Tell the students how many questions you expect and in what order you expect them to write the questions. In my classroom, I told the students to go through the list of questions from 1 to 6 and then back through them again until they had 30 questions.

Step five

Now it’s writing time! The students have their board game template, they have their question chunks and they have their ideas. It’s now up to them to write their questions in their pairs on their board game. During this step, it’s the teachers job to keep the students on track, help them with their writing/spelling if necessary and prompt them with gap fill options if they start to run out of ideas by monitoring, monitoring, monitoring.

Step six

And finally! It’s time to play. Get the students to swap their board game and play each others games. All you’ll need is a die per pair and one of the board games. Good luck! 🙂

At first glance, it may look like the students aren’t really learning much in this lesson. However, it’s a great chance for them to practise their turn-taking skills, it gives them a lot of linguistic freedom and space to use their English in their own way and gives them lots of opportunities for speaking and communication.

I hope you find this as useful and as positive as I did. Although I used this lesson as an end of year revision class, it can easily be adapted and used at the start of the year as a way to get the students back into the English swing of things. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of the finished products but I’d love to see some of yours! If you do try this out in your classroom, send me a message and let me know how it goes!

Collaborative story writing with YLs

Storytelling has always been important when introducing reading and new language to children. It helps foster an positive relationship with the language, and between the teacher and students. Story writing can be equally as important but much harder to do in a YL classroom. Encouraging students to access their creativity and create a story which is logical, has the typical beginning, middle and end, and makes sense grammatically can be difficult in a low-level classroom. I had a spare lesson coming up the end of the year with an A1 level age 7 – 9 class and decided to experiment with a collaborative story-writing lesson. Super communicative and super fun, my students loved having so much creative freedom and eventually came up with some really funny stories, so I thought I’d share it 🙂

Step one

Introduce the topic of story writing by having the student read a story. I took a story from the textbook about a horse named Suzy and her friends. The story had pictures next to each paragraph (usually 2 or 3 sentences), I cut them up and in pairs, the students had to read the sentences and match them to the correct picture using vocabulary clues.

Step two

Once the students were finished they had to walk around the classroom, read the story in their books and check to see if all the pairings were correct. If they weren’t correct they were able to to change them.

Step three

I asked the students a selection of questions to elicit the structure of the story. Every time I asked a question, I wrote it on the board for later.

Step four

With the above questions answered about the textbook story, I put the students into 2 groups (4 students in each group). To get them engaged with the idea of writing a story, I told them that the textbook story was boring and rubbish. I said there were no magic, no zombies, no ninjas, no unicorns basically anything that I knew they were interested in. I then instructed them to think of a name and a ‘thing’ (I try to stay away from metalanguage so didn’t use noun). This gave us Janusz the Magic Yoghurt and Amy the Unicorn.

Step five

In their groups and with the names now chosen, the students were tasked with thinking about their own stories in their groups. I told them not to write anything down but to just to answer the questions one by one in their groups. After about 5 – 10 minutes of discussions (where I monitored and asked extra follow up questions if the students were struggling to think of ideas) it was time to write the sentences on the board.

Step six

Writing time! One by one I asked each group the questions working down the list. The students told me what their answer were and one student wrote the sentence on the board. Although only one student wrote the sentence the other students helped their partner by telling them what to write and how to write it, especially spelling. This meant that all the students were repeating the sentences over again, attempting to peer correct and improving each other’s language. Each sentence was written by a different student sin the group.

Step seven

The final product!

Once both stories were on the board, we did some whole class error correction (the above pictures were taken before the corrections) where the students read through the stories once more and corrected any mistakes. The students then copied it down into their notebook.

This was by no means a perfect lesson and I’m sure the next time I do a collaborative writing session with my YLs I’ll do something slightly different, but I’m really happy with what my students produced and how well they worked with each other.

Hopefully you too will find this useful 🙂

NB: Although this lesson was done with YLs, it can be very easily adapted to an adult or teen class as long as their level is equally as low and the topic of the story is relevant and appropriate.

Writing for Young Learners

This post is an attachment to issue 46 of the IH Journal: Below is the lesson plan I discussed at the 2019 IH Torun Teacher Training day along with two examples of students writing and an explanation of how I marked it.

Student 1
Student 2

Some background about the students. Student 1 is nine years old, she enjoys using English and likes to experiment with vocabulary . Student 2 is 7 years old and isn’t a confident writer. She is very communicative and loves to talk but due simply to her age, her writing isn’t as strong as some of the students in her class.

As far as marking is concerned, student 1, received a 5 for content and a 5 for accuracy. Although her writing was not perfect, she had used the intended grammar (almost 100%) correctly, her spelling was correct, and she had attempted to use more difficult grammar structures that we hadn’t taught in class. Student 2 received a 5 for content because she had included all of the language I wanted her to and she received a 3 for accuracy. She made expected mistakes with the grammar but used it to a consistent level that I was happy with and her prepositions were correct. She also made quite a few expected spelling mistakes.