The parting of the sensory

A tale of two lessons:

It was the best of lessons, it was the worst of lessons. (but not in that order)

I bought myself a dicta-phone a couple of weeks ago, in part to prevent me having to lug my laptop and speakers around when ever I wanted to record some speaking, but also so I could go all ‘Alan Partridge’ and record thoughts and even sounds to help put together lessons. Monkey tennis?

Over the weekend I decided to record five sounds that would be of interest to my students, including my favourite sound of all time, to become the opening listening activity for this weeks lesson.

  1. The sound of a busy bar/restaurant
  2. Me buying some new clothes in Zara (clothes shop)
  3. Me and my girlfriend walking down the three flights of stairs in my apartment building
  4. Me catching the bus
  5. A cup of tea being poured (the best sound in the world)

From the very beginning of the class, things were different. I only had five students. No big deal, but normally I never have any less than seven or eight. We started of by doing ‘Up and Down’ pg 40 from teaching unplugged (Thornbury&Meddings, 2009). It’s a different way to get them talking about their weekend, than the usual talk to your partner and report back. It stuttered along, and never really got going, but we found out that one of the students had a car accident, so this became the focal point of the activity, producing accident and car related vocabulary. I put the slow start down to the new and untested activity, as well as the lack of some of the students who would normally help to, perhaps, drive the activity on.

We moved on. I told the class that they were going to listen to five sounds from my weekend. They had to simply listen to the sounds and write down where they think I was and what I was doing at the time. I played the sounds through once and then in pairs they discussed what they had put down. We then listened to each sound and I asked for their answers, helping to structure their responses as we went and confirming if they were correct or not. They did pretty well, and at the end I asked them to guess which sound they thought was my favourite. Eventually they guessed that tea being poured was indeed my favourite and I explained to them in a little anecdote, why.

When I was younger, I used to live at home with my parents. Our house was quite small, and you could hear what was going on in any room of the house if it was quiet enough. When I woke up on a Sunday morning, with a small hangover, I loved to hear the sound of my mum pouring tea into a cup. This was because I knew a minute later she would come upstairs and give it to me.

This story seemed to go down well. I asked the students if they could do the same. Think of their favourite sound and then tell their partner why. The room went quiet and I could see that they were deep in thought. The silence continued, so I moved around the room hoping to encourage some thoughts. Slowly they started to scribble something down, and after checking everyone had a sound, I asked them to tell their partner and explain why. Normally they would begin straight away, and the room would fill with the satisfying sounds of students engaging in conversation.Sadly this wasn’t the case. There was some blank stares and shrugging of shoulders, I was sure my instructions were simple and clear enough, so I asked one of the students to tell me his favourite sound and once he began to tell me, hinted for the others to ask him more questions about it. I turned and did the same with the other group. I turned back to the first group only to be met with silence. I engaged them again, cajoling, encouraging and trying to elicit some sort of response. Eventually some interesting things came out, but it was hard work. The sound of a Harley Davidson engine, waves crashing on the beach and so on. We moved onto the sound they liked to hear the least. More of the same, me asking and doing most of the talking. Still some interesting answers came out and we talked about the resulting vocabulary.

The next stage involved the other senses of the body and an activity from ‘Teaching unplugged’ (Thornbury&Meddings, 2009) called ‘Memory stars’ pg44. I elicited the senses from the students and then revealed a large five point star on the IWB with the five senses written on each point. I asked them to do the previous activity with the other senses. They needed to write a word or sentence that related to their favourite smell, sight, touch, and taste. I gave examples of my favourite things and then let the students write down their own thoughts. While they were writing I put some language chunks, sentence starters and expressions on the board  that I wanted them to use in the coming speaking activity. Once they were finished, I mentioned the language on the board and then I asked them to stand up and mingle, showing each other their stars and asking questions about how, when and why. They seemed hesitant from the beginning, perhaps unsure or even lacking in confidence. I panicked a little, instead of waiting and allowing them the time to start speaking, I leapt into the middle and started asking questions to try to get things moving. Suddenly I was the centre of attention. No-one was talking, they were waiting for me to ask them questions. I had hi-jacked the lesson, it was now teacher centred. In fact the whole lesson had been pretty much teacher centred. Disaster! We finished up the activity and I recapped what we had discussed in the lesson. The lesson came to an end, the students left, somewhat despondent and maybe disappointed. They mirrored my own thoughts. I went out for a few drinks and put the lesson to the back of my mind. You can’t win them all I thought, reflect on it tomorrow after a good nights sleep.

The next morning 

It was 5am. I was lying awake and I was angry. Pissed off at my inadequacies as a teacher, and replaying the lesson in my head. I managed to fall asleep again. Over breakfast I decided to do the lesson again. I walked to the Oceanographico in the morning sunshine, with a couple of motivational songs playing in my earphones. The last thing I said to myself before the lesson started was, sit back, don’t interfere and let them do the work.

The students were responsive, enthusiastic and interested from the word go. I barely said anything other than corrections and some basic instructions for each activity. There were only four people but when I asked them to talk in their pairs they actually turned to face their partner and forgot I was there. I simply listened and made notes, pronunciation, good language use, areas for improvement. The board was full, I drilled some of the troublesome words and even wrote out one in phonetic script (My DOS is going to fall of her chair when she reads this). This particular group is only one level higher than my project group but the language they produced was worlds apart.

One of the students was talking about her favourite sight and sound, the sea crashing on to the beach.

“I like to contemplate the strength of nature”

“I feel very insignificant in the world”

One of the student’s started talking about how she can hear everything her neighbours do and this lead to her talking about her least favourite sound.

“The sound of the T.V is the most annoying”

“I’m concerned that my neighbours can hear me”

I left the lesson on a high. It was a completely different feeling from the previous night, almost euphoric. What a wonderful profession this teaching business is. I spent an hour or so, later that day, getting feedback from my DOS about the lesson and then comparing it with the morning’s success.

What went wrong (first lesson)

  • Teacher centered
  • No pronunciation work
  • Lesson too structured
  • No space for flexibility
  • No real work on emergent language
  • I didn’t embrace the silence. I didn’t give the students time to talk among themselves.
  • I kept interfering, I panicked
  • The lesson idea required some quite abstract thinking. Making it difficult for the students to convey exactly what they wanted to say or talk about. It needed more scaffolding and the students more support from me.

What went right (second lesson)

  • See above and reverse.
This lesson has created a lot of discussion between me and my DOS, about various issues to do with teaching unplugged and implementing it over a long period of time. There are countless variables to take into account, too many to write about in this particular post. I will save that for later. I think I have rambled on long enough already. Watch this space.


You’re my excuse to travel

When I started this project, I asked the students to write down some topics that they wanted to talk about in the coming weeks. The most popular topic, unsurprisingly, was travel.

Lesson one

To link into the previous lesson on 2nd conditionals, I started the lesson with this question;

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?

I asked the students to think about the question and when they knew where they wanted to go, tell their partner where and why.

I sat back and let them talk, they seemed into it from the off, so I waited until the conversation naturally tailed off. In open class we discussed the places everyone wanted to go. Mexico, America, Italy where just some of the countries. One student wanted to go to Sydney, Australia because here boyfriend’s name was Sydney and he had been named after the city. Another wanted to go to Japan, Tokyo because of the technology. Luckily some people wanted to go to the same places. I paired them up and then put the other people in pairs or groups and asked them to decide on a country they all wanted to go to together. We ended up with pairs going to America, Japan, Mexico and Italy.

The next thing was to get them to list as many ways of travelling as possible. I ruled out taking a car, train and plane. We ended up with a large list of alternative ways of travelling.

The next task was to draw up a list of things to take that would help them on their travels.

The last task was to think of problems that could happen to people while travelling.

To finish the lesson, I put a large map of the world up on the wall and asked the groups to pick the route they would take. They also had to choose three different types of transport and three different problems they would face on their travels. They had the remaining ten minutes of the lesson to make decisions and take notes. In the next lesson they would write a collaborative diary about their journey.

Second lesson

I started the lesson by showing the class an extract from a diary I had found. Unfortunately, the diary had a few mistakes in it and their job was to correct it. I had intentionally planted errors related to tense in the text, to draw the student’s attention to using the narrative tense when writing their own diaries. The text produced the first major talking point of the lesson. I had used the present simple right at the end of the text to talk about what was going to happen the next day. One of the students questioned this, another said it was okay, so I elicited the different ways we could talk about the future and boarded them.

We moved onto the writing stage. The students had themselves, me and some bi-lingual dictionaries to help out. This is what we covered;

  • past perfect
  • present perfect
  • things/belongings/possessions
  • scared about / afraid of
  • get on the bus / get on the plane / get in the helicopter
  • another example of the passive
  • search for / look for something
  • the difference between finding something and finding out something
And a whole lot more!

The students seemed to enjoy this process. One person writing, the other looking in the dictionary, asking me for advice and clarification on this and that, and because of this they produced some really good work. I enjoyed this lesson. Thinking on my feet, going from one group to the next, thinking about the best way to explain the difference between certain words, giving examples, offering alternatives. Another simple idea that allowed a lot of language to emerge and was entirely student generated.

Building steam with a grain of salt

From listening to records                                                                                                         I just knew what to do I mainly taught myself                                                                     And you know I did pretty well                                                                                               Except there were a few mistakes                                                                                     But um that I made uh                                                                                                       That I’ve just recently cleared up                                                                                               And I’d like to just continue                                                                                                   To be able to express myself                                                                                                 As best as I can with this instrument                                                                                     And I feel like I have a lot of work to do                                                                                     Still I’m a student of the drums                                                                                                And I’m also a teacher of the drums too

I came across this sentence last weekend and instantly knew I wanted to base a lesson around it, or even use it as a warmer/conversation starter;

If you had 2 minutes to talk to the whole world, what would you say?

I tried out a few formats with my early morning classes. They were a bit rough around the edges but produced some interesting results. One class produced a mini speech about what they would talk about if they had those two minutes, and the other class became a simple discussion class, after I changed the structure various times to allow the students to produce different answers and therefore different discussion points.

I decided to use it for my project to introduce, revise and work with the 2nd conditional.

I told the class I had found a really interesting question, but I couldn’t remember all of it. I wrote this on the board;

What would you say if you had 2 minutes……….

I passed out some slips of paper and asked the students to complete the question with whatever ending they wanted, and then they should swap the question with their partner and answer each others question. Immediately the class was alive with discussion and questions. I walked around helping with the construction of the sentences and vocabulary. I listened in to the answers and helped with pronunciation and corrected where necessary.

‘What would you say if you had 2 minutes with Obama?’

‘What would you say if you had 2 minutes to talk about your whole life?’

‘What would you say if you had 2 minutes to talk in front of Spain’s prime time TV audience?’

Once the discussion had died down, I changed the initial question and asked the students to do the same as before;

What would you do if you had 2 minutes………

The class erupted into even more noise, they seemed to really be enjoying this activity. The questions became more inventive and random, yet produced even more talking and language.

‘What would you do if you had 2 minutes to spend 10,000 euros?’

‘What would you do if you had 2 minutes to eat 3 pizzas?’

‘What would you do if you had 2 minutes to tell the woman of your life you loved her and you saw her in the street?’

‘What would you do if you had 2 minutes before some really important to you died?’

I went to the board and discussed all the points that had come up. I asked if they knew what grammar we were using in the lesson. Instantly the 2nd conditional was shouted out. We put the construction on the board, talked about swapping the clauses around, the position of the comma and why we use the 2nd conditional.

By now 30 minutes had gone by. It was surprising and satisfying that one simple sentence had produced so much already. I told the class we were going to read a text about a BBC programme, and put the title on the board;

People watchers

I asked them to discuss in their pairs what they thought the programme would be about and what they thought people watchers did. After some feedback and the mixing together of several ideas, we eventually came up with a suggestion. I asked the class to read the article to find out if they were right. They weren’t far off. Next I asked them to complete the five comprehension questions for the text. We did feedback and boarded the answers. We talked about unknown vocabulary and I asked them to pick out the 2nd conditionals. We were running out of time.

I told the class we were going to watch two clips from the BBC programme. Their attention immediately picked up. I wrote the question below, on the board. I asked the class to discuss it in pairs.

If you could steal something from a shop without paying for it, would you? 

We did a quick show of hands to see who would and who wouldn’t. Some people were very honest. I asked them to watch a clip of the show to see what the outcome of an experiment was that investigated this question. They had to simply tell me how many people paid for a paper. (4.50mins for the first question and 7mins for the second question)

We did the same for another question;

If a stranger came up to you in the street and asked to use your mobile phone, would you let them?

They watched the related clip and had to tell me whether the man or the woman was successful in getting people to lend them a mobile.

The end of the class was upon us. I asked them to write three 2nd conditional questions for homework and I intend to use them as a review and warm up in the next lesson.

I really enjoyed this lesson. Planning it, teaching it and being able to watch the students enjoy it too. I think this was by far the best lesson we have had together. The amount of talking and language that came out was unbelievable. And it was clear from the students faces that they were having a good time and engaging with the material. I had taken the text from the coursebook that we should be using from the class and also used the same comprehension questions included in the book. The actual planning of the lesson didn’t take long at all, and seemed to come together naturally. The question is, was it Dogme at all? I had planned the lesson and had a clear language point I wanted to cover. I was more than prepared to go off in another direction if necessary. The first half an hour was great, I anticipated maybe 10mins or, at the most, 15 mins for this, but allowed it to flow and continue as the students continued to discuss the questions. The rest of the lesson was straightforward and controlled by me, the teacher, yet highly productive and enjoyable. I could agonize over this, but I’m not going to. The students enjoyed the lesson, participated fully and left the class happy. At the end of the day, Dogme or not, this is what counts.

From watching other teachers                                                                                                 I just knew what to do I mainly taught myself                                                                     And you know I did pretty well                                                                                               Except there were a few mistakes                                                                                     But um that I made uh                                                                                                       That I’ve just recently cleared up                                                                                               And I’d like to just continue                                                                                                   To be able to express myself                                                                                                 As best as I can with teaching                                                                                              And I feel like I have a lot of work to do                                                                                     Still I’m a student of English                                                                                                And I’m also a teacher of English too

With tired eyes, tired minds, tired souls, we slept.

With the relative success of the last lesson, I wanted to continue with reported speech and concentrate on some written production.

It just so happened that half of the class were in the previous lesson and the other half had missed it. I paired everyone up so they could inform their partner about exactly what happened in the last class. After a couple of minutes I asked the partner who hadn’t been here in the previous lesson to report back to me on what they had been told. Their accuracy was surprising, despite not being in the class. After telling me the general outline of the lesson, I told them I had written a report about the lesson, for my DOS, and that we should check with that to be sure. I showed them the report on the IWB;

‘In the last lesson, we talked about reported speech. The students completed some speaking activities, and afterwards Adam suggested that when the students reported back to him about what their partner had said, they should use – he/she said or he/she told me. Luis said that after ‘said’ and ‘told’ we could use the word ‘that’. Adam replied that Luis was correct and wrote it on the board. Adam advised the students to use reported speech in the next activity. During the activity, Marcos asked Adam about reporting the present simple. Adam told him that if the information he had been told was still true it should stay in the present. After hearing Marco’s example, Adam recommended that he should change the tense.’

I asked if this is what happened in the lesson, and everyone agreed. I then asked them to highlight all the uses of reported speech, in particular the verbs that were used. They highlighted everyone except the very first one in the first sentence ‘ we talked about‘. I highlighted it and I talked about how we can use this to report general topics and not specific details.

We sat back down and I split the class into three groups. I then handed out a stack of small pieces of paper to each paper. I asked the groups to look through the sentences that had been written on the paper and to make corrections where necessary. The pieces of paper were from the twitter lesson we had done a couple of weeks previously. The students recognised them and set about correcting any errors. This part of the lesson went on a bit longer than I had hoped, but I think it was useful for the students. Spelling, tenses, word order and punctuation all came out of the ensuing conversations.

Once we were happy with the corrections I asked the students to convert the sentences into reported speech, once this was done I wanted to link them together to create a similar report to the one I had created on the board. With only forty-five minutes of the lesson left, I knew that we might be pushing it to get finished. And I was right! The conversion process threw up all sorts of questions and became somewhat of a discovery process for both the students and myself. With every rule that they discovered, I wrote it on the board so that everyone was aware. I spent a lot of time going from group to group, checking, correcting, suggesting. At one point I became involved in a discussion about a  sentence that contained a passive, and the student wanted to know why it didn’t change in this particular case. I was stumped and couldn’t explain why. But I did highlight the passive structure on the board for the rest of the class, discussed what it was used for and how it was constructed. I checked my watch and realised we had nearly finished. I was tired, the students were tired and the whole experience had been pretty full on. I did a quick review of what we had covered in the lesson and then it was time to go.

I was happy with the amount of work that we had done in the class. Everyone had worked hard, including myself and we had all learnt a lot. Unfortunately, I think the class was a bit static and the last activity too long. I should have cut down the number of sentences in order to limit the time spent on the conversion process. Allowing for time to either write the report or even to make it a speaking activity between groups, so as to break up the monotony of writing. Nonetheless, lessons were learnt, both during and after the lesson. I enjoyed being able to re-use the sentences from a previous lesson. I think this made it easier for the students to engage with the whole lesson as they were working with material they had produced and not with some de-contextualized sentences from a course book.

Someplace simple

I had an idea. I didn’t have any notes. I knew what I was looking for, or listening for. I had no back up plan.

Thanks to Spain’s random holidays, I only got to see my project group once this week. So I had plenty of time to come up with an idea for this class. I had spent the weekend reading through their diaries, which you can see on another page of this blog. They enjoyed talking, wanted to talk more and seemed to enjoy the class more when they got the opportunity to do this.

We started the class by looking at the re-drafted versions of their collaborative stories, from the previous lesson. I had emailed them the story, with suggestions and corrections. The majority of the students brought a corrected version back, so I posted them around the room and we walked around reading each others work and noting the small changes each individual had made. I noted one error that everyone had made, highlighted it on the board, checked for meaning, gave a further example and praised them for their work.

I paired up the students and asked them to talk about what had happened in the last lesson, what we did and what we talked about. After they would report back to me on what they had discussed. It was slow going, but eventually they started talking, a few hints and they soon remembered. When reporting back I asked one person from each pair to report back on what the other person had said. Articles were missing, the tenses were all over the place and everyone seemed a little out of sorts. I asked them to swap partners. Get them moving, wake them up. I asked them to talk to their partner about the best and worst thing that happened to them since they last saw each other. The talking started in earnest, I let it run, listening in and supplying vocabulary when it was required. Again I asked them to report back, again the control of tenses was lacking. I walked up to the board and wrote down –

He/she said (that)

He/she told me (that)

I started to talk about reported speech, but didn’t mention it directly. In fact I didn’t need to. One of my students exclaimed loudly, “ah reported speech”. Yes, reported speech. I talked about back shifting the tenses, one of the students mentioned the ‘that clause’, I added it to the board and gave an example. I swapped the pairs again and asked them to do the same activity, and when they reported back they should try to use the language on the board and think about the tense shift. They talked and then they reported back. There was a marked difference in their accuracy, in fact a huge leap in accuracy. I could see them concentrating, working harder to get their utterances correct, self-correcting, re-formulating. Someone had watched five films in a row, that was the best thing since the last class, so we talked about films briefly. I swapped the pairs and asked them to talk about the films they like and dislike with their partner. They maintained the level of accuracy afterwards and this continued when we started talking about superheroes and super powers.

After trying so hard recently to get my students talking and worrying about having a real structure to my lesson, it turns out that this simple piece of grammar produced the best, most relaxed and productive lesson since we started. For the first time after a lesson with this class, I didn’t feel the need to agonise over my teaching and analyse the lesson from start to finish. It seems so clear now, but over the last few weeks I think I have been looking too hard, trying too hard, even thinking too hard.

Success is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying the basic fundamentals. Jim Rohn.

hit/strike pay dirt


to get or find something valuable or useful

He hit pay dirt with his new invention. (Macmillan dictionary)

Unplugging the Spanish classroom.

Now that the term is well under way, and I have settled into a nice routine, I feel as though I can concentrate on other things. I have decided to start Spanish lessons again, beginning on Monday. Nothing earth shattering I know, but after getting published in the Guardian, did I mention that by the way, the Spanish teacher at my school started asking questions about teaching unplugged and has taken it upon herself to try to read ‘teaching unplugged’. (Thornbury&meddings, 2009)

A couple of days later, I asked if she would like to practice teaching unplugged with me. Two, hour lessons a week, no more photocopies, adapting activities from the book and generally making it up as we go. She seem’s very excited about the venture, as do I. A great chance for me to be on the other side of things, more importantly, I’m helping another teacher to try something new and develop, as well as perhaps helping to spread the unplugged gospel, in the Spanish teaching world.

I was wondering if perhaps I was being a bit too hasty in asking my Spanish teacher to go unplugged, until I read this blog from Ben Naismith, He talks about learners learning what they want to and not what is prescribed by the teacher, emergent language and the dullness of set material. I know that I hate being handed a stack full of photocopies, filling in endless gap fills and listening to conversations between Pedro and Jose in a cafe. I know, that if I went back to Spanish lessons such as these, like Steve, I would probably lose interest and drop out. Therefore subjecting my girlfriend to listen to my painfully bad Spanish for another 6 months, before deciding to try again. I suppose it must sound a little selfish too. Expecting my teacher to learn and deliver a brand new way of teaching after only just learning about it. But, I think we are both aware of the possibilities and difficulties that we face and I see it as more of a partnership than a normal teacher, student relationship.

So on Monday a new chapter to my unplugged adventures starts. I would love to know if anyone else has tried a foreign language in this way. I would hate to think I was the first and only. I will post some feedback as the weeks go by and hopefully get some comments from my teacher too.