By Ste Sharpe

05 February 2019 - 11:28

Two women talking at a table
'Allow learners time to compare their answers with their partners' before doing any class feedback.' Photo ©

Mimi Thian used under licence and adapted from the original

Ste Sharpe has been observing teachers of English for seven years. These are the top five issues that he sees in the classroom, with practical tips for teachers who want to fix them.

Teachers might become tense and worried when an observation is coming up. As a teacher trainer, I always tell teachers that they do not need to panic. Being observed is part of developing as a teacher, and you can learn from your observer.

These five tips may help you to prepare for your observation, and to be a better teacher in every lesson. 

1- Classroom Management

What is classroom management?

This is 'the way a teacher manages learning by organising and controlling what happens in the classroom,’ according to Jim Scrivener  in Learning Teaching (1994) Macmillan Heinemann. Examples of classroom management are interaction patterns (e.g individual/group/pair work); giving instructions for an activity; timing and pace; using the board and other resources.

What is the most common classroom management problem?

Teachers sometimes judge the group's understanding of an activity based on answers from learners who are more able to speak the language. They might also interact with and receive answers mainly from them.

When the teacher wants an answer to a question, they ask the whole class and everyone shouts out the answer. The more able or confident learners answer, leaving the rest of the class quiet and not able to participate in the lesson. In large classes, some learners sit at the back or in the corner, hiding from the action.

How do I solve this classroom management problem when I'm teaching?

First, learn your learners' names. I know it sounds simple, but this is vital not only for building rapport, but also for the next tip.

Second, nominate learners to answer your questions. This will ensure that everyone has a chance to participate in the lesson. In some cultures, learners naturally give the answers in group settings. But you need to be firm and kind by saying, ‘I’m sorry, Juan, I asked Reem to answer the question’. With practice, learners will become used to this.

Third, allow learners time to compare their answers with their partners' before doing any class feedback. This allows learners to pool their ideas and fill in any gaps they might have. It can also boost confidence and increase learner-learner interaction.

2- Lesson Aims

What are lesson aims?

These are what we hope our learners will be able to do by the end of the lesson.

What is the most common problem with lesson aims in the English language classroom?

Teachers tend not to make learners aware of the lesson aims at the beginning of the lesson. That can cause learners to feel confused or overwhelmed by what’s going to happen in the next 60, 90 or 120 minutes.

How do I solve this problem with lesson aims in my classroom?

At the beginning of the class, write the lesson aims on the board for everyone to see. I like to break the lesson into stages by making them aware of how they’re going to achieve the aim.

For example, if the main aim is ‘talk about our last holiday using past simple verbs’, I would write:

Vocabulary – holiday activities

Grammar – forming past simple verbs

Speaking – talking about your last holiday.

Refer back to these during the lesson to show that learners have finished one stage and are now going on to the next.

3- Pronunciation

What is pronunciation?

Gerald Kelly divided features of pronunciation into two main areas, in How to Teach Pronunciation (2000) Longman: 

  1. phonemes (sounds), which include consonants (voiced or unvoiced), vowels (single- short or long) and diphthongs (the combination of two vowel sounds)
  2. suprasegmental, which include intonation and stress (word and sentence).

What is the most common problem with teaching pronunciation in the English language classroom?

Teachers I've observed have given me different reasons for not practising pronunciation in the classroom. Some think it’s too difficult for learners to understand, or don’t feel confident enough to deal with it in class. Some teachers think their own accent isn’t appropriate to use as a model, or they lack knowledge of this area of teaching.

Regardless of the reason, if teachers avoid it, learners’ pronunciation errors become fossilised. I often use this resource from BBC Learning English.

How do I solve this problem when teaching pronunciation?

Drilling is an effective way help learners with their pronunciation, but never drill words from the board. Learners need to hear how the word is said first, before they see how it’s written. Below are some drilling techniques:

‘choral (x2) – individual (x2) – choral’ pattern

‘Choral’ means ‘as a whole class’ and ‘individual’ means ‘a single learner’.

First, learners listen to you say the word / sentence / question two times. Then, you say it and the whole class repeats twice (choral x2), then you nominate two learners (individual x2), and finally you say it and the whole class repeats for a final time (choral x2).

‘sound – word – sentence’ pattern

Using the same principles as above, first drill the individual sound, then a word containing that sound, then a sentence with that word. For example:

/ɔɪ/ (x2) – lawyer (x2) – My mum’s a lawyer.

Learners will practise the specific sound in each part of the drill, as well as a context for them to remember the sound in a word, and in a sentence.

Drill with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, even if it means going over the top. Learners will probably laugh at your over-excitement, but they’ll remember.

Show learners 'how' to say each sound. The movement of the lips, tongue and jaw, as well as whether the sound is voiced or unvoiced, is very important. For example, when saying /aʊ/ (as in 'now'), we drop our jaw and open our mouths, then push our lips together towards the end. In some languages, there isn't much movement of the jaw, so it will often be helpful to demonstrate and practise. 

To teach word stress, elicit from the learners how many syllables a word has. If they struggle, repeat the word a few times to help them. Then, ask them which syllable is stressed (or sounds louder than the others).

Once they have understood, drill the words using one of the patterns above, then write it on the board highlighting the stressed syllable. You can do this by drawing a bubble above the stressed part, underlining it or putting a square around it.

I always use a red board pen to record any features of pronunciation; that way, learners can instantly recognise that the mark refers to pronunciation.

For stress in sentences or questions, have learners listen to you say it a few times and ask them to identify which words are stressed. Once they’ve understood, you can drill the sentence / question using one of the patterns above, or you can use ‘backchaining’. This is where you start at the end of the sentence and build it up by going ‘back’ to the beginning. For example:

this morning?

have for breakfast this morning?

did you have for breakfast this morning?

What did you have for breakfast this morning?

4- Timing

What is timing?

This refers to the time you allocate for each stage of the lesson and what the learners and yourself do in each one. That could be giving instructions for an activity, learners completing a handout, going through the answers or giving feedback, or any other part of a lesson.

What is the most common problem with timing in the English language classroom?

When correcting answers from an activity, some teachers go through them one-by-one. That can be boring for learners, and can slow down the pace of the class. It can also eat into precious lesson time allocated for speaking practice, for example.

How do I solve this problem with timing in my classroom?

When correcting answers to a reading or listening comprehension, controlled grammar practice or gap fill, allow learners to time to compare their answers with each other before showing the answers on the board.

If you don’t have a projector or interactive whiteboard, you can put the answers onto a piece of paper and place it either on the table or on the walls around the room. This technique allows students to be more responsible for their learning. If learners have questions or have got a common answer wrong, you can focus solely on those, making better use of the class time.

Some learners want their teacher to go through the answers one-by-one, but this is not effective use of lesson time, nor does it have any pedagogical value. Some teachers also think that this provides learners with extra speaking practice as they read out the answers, but again this doesn’t have any pedagogical value. The real speaking practice will happen when learners have to engage with others to complete a specific task.

5- Demonstrating and setting up activities

What is demonstrating and setting up an activity?

When giving instructions, demonstrate how the learners need to do the activity. For example, how to complete the gaps, how to complete the table for a listening activity, or how to form the questions for a speaking task.

What is the most common problem with demonstrating and setting up an activity in the English language classroom?

Teachers sometimes expect learners to understand an activity through verbal instructions alone. This not only confuses learners, but also takes up precious lesson time, as the teacher then has to repeat the instructions to the whole class or to individual tables.

How do I solve this problem with demonstrating and setting up an activity in my classroom?

Jim Scrivener's rules for giving instructions,  in Classroom Management Techniques (2012) Cambridge University Press, are:

  • use language that is at or just below the learners’ level, and speak at a steady speed
  • use short sentences and be concise
  • pause after each instruction to allow processing time
  • give instructions for the task that you want learners to do at that time, not all at once
  • give a time limit
  • ask ICQs (instruction check questions). For example, ‘What do you do first? How long do you have?’

When you demonstrate the task, make sure that everyone can see what you’re doing and how. For example, demonstrate how to write the questions by using the prompt words, or how to use some of the useful phrases for a speaking task by saying an example sentence. Doing a couple of worked examples of an exercise not only reinforces your instructions, but provides a clear visual of how to do an activity.

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