Lesson Plan: “Thriller” by Michael Jackson! (B2 to C1)

When was the last time you taught a song-based lesson in which the ‘listening’ component consisted solely of gap-filling? Let’s be honest with ourselves: gap fills are easy to create, easy to give instructions for and (tellingly) easy for students to do, even if they don’t actually have the strongest listening skills. But if a student only listens for the 10 words that complete the 10 gaps on a worksheet we gave them, did they really listen to the song at all?

For this lesson, I forced myself to come up with a variety of different tasks, gap-fill included, that would require students to put those top-down and bottom-up listening skills to work. The lesson also encourages learners to dig deeper into the song lyrics and imagine how they could appropriate the vocabulary they hear for their own personal use. Happy Halloween, everyone!

Level: B2 to C1 (Upper-Intermediate to Advanced)
Age: teenagers
Time: 60 minutes
Materials: song (YouTube or MP3), 1 class worksheet + 1 homework sheet per student ––– comment for files

Aims:

  • By the end of the lesson, students will have practised strategies for upgrading story language to make it more descriptive. They will do this by using synonyms to upgrade standard language and comparing their ideas with descriptive song lyrics.
  • Students will also have practised meaning-building strategies (using contextual and grammatical clues to make sense of audio signals) and decoding strategies (discriminating between similar sounds, transcribing squeeze zones).

Continue reading Lesson Plan: “Thriller” by Michael Jackson! (B2 to C1)

I helped organise an international conference!

In all fairness, the title of this post should really be something like “I did a couple of odd jobs here and there to help out with the absolute ocean of work involved in organising and successfully running an international conference”. In any case, for the purposes of this blog post, I hope you can find it in your heart to allow me this little bit of click-bait.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, down to business. By now you may have heard that my school hosted the IH Young Learners conference last week, which I co-wrote the application for and then eventually got the chance to speak at; all in all, a developing teacher’s dream come true, prosecco all round, clink, blah blah blah …

However, amid all the networking and sharing and developing, there was one particularly special moment during that long conference weekend, a moment that I know I will never, ever forget as long as I work in ELT: on arrival at the conference, every single visiting delegate received a handwritten welcome letter from one of our young learner students.

The idea was deceptively simple, and utterly perfect in terms of the message we wanted to send to our international visitors. Our original conference application stressed the strong ties our school has with the local community, especially the state schools where we run outreach programs. Our directors were adamant that if we were to host a conference for YL teachers, then our YL students should be involved somehow, and they were absolutely right.

Once I had come up with the idea, we just needed to give our students a little nudge in the right direction. To help them get their ideas out onto the page, I designed a couple of easy-to-adapt lesson plans for letter-writing as well as the teaching materials to go with them, including three model welcome letters at the A2, B1 and B2 levels. Our fantastic team of YL teachers then took those plans and materials into their regular English classes and ran with them, and our ridiculously talented YL students did the rest!

Some of them wrote about their favourite restaurants and dishes to try, some of them explained local traditions and cultural references that they thought might interest international visitors, and some chose to give a more warts-and-all description of the reality of living in one of Italy’s forgotten southern regions. Different though they were, however, all the letters were nonetheless spectacular reads.

A welcome letter handwritten by Lara P, a B2 student at the local high school.
A welcome letter handwritten by Lara P, a B2 student at the local high school.

To encourage participation, the letter-writing task was pitched as a city-wide competition, open to our internal YL students as well as all of our external teen students at local state schools. All in all, just over 120 young learners aged 11-18 wrote welcome letters for our incoming delegates. My colleague @lennyberlenny and I then had the unenviable task of sorting through them all to choose 54 winners, one for each of the delegates coming to visit us for the conference.

This welcome letter was handwritten by Sara C, one of my B2 students at the local state-run high school.

A welcome letter handwritten by Sara C, a B2 student at the local high school.
A welcome letter handwritten by Sara C, a B2 student at the local high school.

The reactions as the letters were discovered and read were absolutely priceless. We had gasps of delight and surprise, and even a couple of tears! As a foreigner who has had the privilege of getting to know this sleepy little part of Italy over the last 18 months, I was so incredibly proud and moved to watch others be offered the same insight into the local culture, especially in a place that has had a historically difficult relationship with outsiders.

This welcome letter was handwritten by Alessandro F, one of my B2 students at the local state-run high school.
A welcome letter handwritten by Alessandro F, a B2 student at the local high school.

The cherry on top was unexpected even for me: our delegates were so impressed by the gesture that they have started writing back to our students. The international community has helped our YL students use real English to speak to real people for real reasons. As an ELT teacher, what more could I possibly wish for?

Lesson Plan: “Tears” by Clean Bandit! (B2 to C1)

In my previous job, I used to spend a lot of time lamenting the fact that my students never bothered to listen to any English-language media outside class. Now, I have exactly the opposite ‘problem’ – my students know so much about English-language popular culture that I’m forever trying to find lesson material they haven’t heard or seen before!

That’s where I got the idea for this lesson plan, which I built around a lesser-known song by British electro-pop group Clean Bandit. It has worked particularly well for me with teenagers, but there’s no reason you can’t use it with your adult classes –  especially if your students are getting a bit complacent about their listening skills!

Level: B2 to C1 (Upper-Intermediate to Advanced)
Age: teenagers and adults
Time: 80 minutes
Materials: slide with photos, song (YouTube or MP3), 1 class worksheet + 1 homework sheet per student ––– comment for files

Aims:

  • By the end of the lesson, students will have understood the overall meaning of a song about moving on from an old relationship. They will do this by listening for keywords and making inferences.
  • Students will also have practised meaning-building strategies (using contextual and grammatical clues to make sense of audio signals) and decoding strategies (discriminating between similar sounds).

Continue reading Lesson Plan: “Tears” by Clean Bandit! (B2 to C1)

Lesson Plan: Banksy Part Two! (B2)

As promised, here’s Part Two of my Banksy lesson arc! You can find Part One here. The strength of this lesson lies in the way I personalised it for the particular city I teach in, and I encourage you to edit your materials so that your lesson can more closely reflect your own city and context.

I really can’t overstate how much production this lesson generates –  even when it comes to writing, which my students usually hate. I’ve actually just finished marking a batch of FCE formal letters based on this lesson, and the marks are the highest this class has achieved all year!

Level: B2 (Upper-Intermediate) or FCE
Age: teenagers or adults
Time: 80 minutes
Materials: exam question, list of phrases for formal letters, destroyed model text (comment for files)

Aims:

  • By the end of the lesson, students will have written a formal letter (FCE Writing Part 2) in the context of graffiti and street art.
  • Students will also be more familiar with fixed expressions used in formal letters.

Continue reading Lesson Plan: Banksy Part Two! (B2)

Lesson Plan: Banksy Part One! (B2 to C1)

This is easily one of the most engaging lessons I’ve ever taught. So far, I’ve used it with over 100 different students across a range of ages and classes, and it just works. As if that wasn’t enough, it also leads quite naturally into FCE and CAE writing projects (lesson plans coming soon). All in all, it’s a great way to get your students into modern British art, while also encouraging deeper reflection and critical thinking.

NOTE: Originally, this lesson was just a riff on a double-page spread from the Speak Out Upper Intermediate course. Eventually, I developed it to the point that I was no longer using the materials from the coursebook. However, I’m still very grateful to both Frances Eales and Steven Oakes for the fantastic idea!

Level: B2 to C1 (Upper-Intermediate to Advanced)
Age: teenagers or adults
Time: 60 minutes
Materials: vocabulary cards, slideshow of artwork by Banksy (comment for files)

Aims:

  • By the end of the lesson, students will be better able to use the following lexis to praise/criticise Banksy’s art: irresponsiblesatirical; vandalism, a valid art form; controversial; provocative; anarchy-lite; defaces buildings; derivative; hideous; pioneering; iconic; subversive, distinctive.

Continue reading Lesson Plan: Banksy Part One! (B2 to C1)

Lesson Plan: All I Want For Christmas! (B2 to C1)

If your teenage students are anything like mine, then they’re absolutely exhausted and in desperate need of a fun, festive lesson around this time of year! This low-prep lesson outline uses a task-based learning format to help students tackle a Cambridge FCE/CAE-style speaking task in the context of Christmas presents.

Level: B2 to C1 (Upper-Intermediate to Advanced)
Age: teenagers (preferably working towards FCE or CAE)
Time: 80 minutes
Materials: 1 question sheet per student (comment for files)

Aims:

  • By the end of the lesson, students will have practised FCE/CAE Speaking Part 3 in the context of Christmas presents.
  • Students will also be better able to use phrases for … [e.g. turn-taking, negotiating, etc.  – depending on what your students need to focus on]

Continue reading Lesson Plan: All I Want For Christmas! (B2 to C1)

Lesson Plan: Courtroom Drama! (B2)

This is a really memorable, creative lesson I designed for my FCE teen class as a fun way of reworking the classic B2 tense review. They loved the context and the creativity, as well as the explicit grammar and pronunciation focus through the lens of TV drama.

Level: B2 (Upper-Intermediate)
Age: 15+
Time: 90-120 minutes, depending on the size of your class
Materials: 1 worksheet per student (comment for files)

Aims:

By the end of the lesson, students will have written and performed a short dialogue in the style of TV courtroom dramas.

Students will also have reviewed the meaning, form and pronunciation of past and present tenses in the context of eyewitness testimony.

Continue reading Lesson Plan: Courtroom Drama! (B2)

I wildly underestimated the maturity of 12-year-olds!

I’ve never taught a class like this before. Seven students, fresh from passing the PET exam, aiming to achieve the full B2 level within the next two years. They always arrive on time for class, are incredibly polite, work impressively well with each other, and have fantastic memories to boot. On paper, it’s my dream class. There’s just one small detail to reckon with: they’re 12 years old.

I knew, going in, that it wasn’t going to be easy. Their teacher from the 2016/2017 academic year had briefed me on the challenges of preparing such a young class for such a high-level goal. Even one of the students’ mothers had warned me about the potential pitfalls: how the students weren’t used to explicit language focus, struggled to focus on the same task for a long period of time, and didn’t know how to take the initiative in their own learning. I knew all this going in. Well, I should have known all this going in. 

My first lesson with them was, by my own standards, mildly disastrous. Relying on an old faithful ‘first lesson’ I’ve used countless times with teenage students at the B1 level, I strode confidently into the classroom on the first day, ready to build some quality rapport and generally teach the hell out of that class. There are lots of reasons why that didn’t really happen in the end, including but not limited to the fact that the air conditioning and computer both decided to break not two minutes before class began. As I frantically tried to remember what exactly was on that PowerPoint slide – WHY hadn’t I prepared something that morning instead of using old materials from the year before?! – we all started to gently bake to death inside the 30°C classroom. 

I did eventually remember what I’d planned to do, not that it was much help at all in the end. You see, it turns out that there is a whole world of difference between the ages of 12 and 14; a vast chasm of maturity and self-awareness and even minimal levels of global consciousness that those 12-year-old students just didn’t have. One of my questions (“What’s your favourite thing about this city?”) had half the class in peals of laughter for a full seven minutes. I know it was seven minutes, because I timed it. “How can we possibly answer that question?” they screamed, hysterical tears in their eyes. “We live here! Hahaha! HAHAHAHA!”

A younger, less experienced version of myself would have balked at that, but I didn’t drag myself through hell and back (read: Delta M2) this summer just so a bunch of 12-year-olds could laugh me out of the classroom. I rallied. One or two classroom management strategies later and I’d more or less got the group back on track; they left the lesson with a good amount of speaking practice, some discourse-based sandwich correction to look over, and lots of new vocabulary to learn. (Their personal favourite: the word ‘highlight’.) Not the life-affirming, heart-warming bonding session I was expecting it to be, but not a train wreck either. Which is a sad standard to be holding myself to, if I’m honest.

I slumped back into the staff room and wallowed in self-pity for as long as I could professionally manage, before a colleague reminded me of one of my favourite things about teaching YLs: they have ridiculously short memories, especially for classroom experiences that didn’t go as intended. I plunged myself into preparing lesson two. There was nothing I could do about the lesson just gone, but that didn’t stop me whining about it to my boyfriend, flatmates, colleagues, and that nice old lady who lives downstairs. Deep down, I knew it didn’t matter; I was fully aware of the score now, and the second round was going to swing in our favour.

And I’m happy to say, it did. In fact, lesson 2 went bloody fabulously, and by the end I really felt we’d crossed a bridge in terms of group rapport as well as classroom expectations. We listened to each others’ opinions. We had a real, meaningful debate on a topic we could all contribute to. We told some absolutely cracking ghost stories that I’m sure will have parents calling me up in a few days’ time, wondering why their kids refuse to go to sleep. And most importantly, I actually started to understand who I was teaching. A very young class aiming for a very high-level goal, yes, but also a group of expert language learners with seven years’ experience at the school, coming out of the cocoon of childhood and reevaluating the world that was once so simple and familiar.

Of course that first lesson seemed so strange and unpredictable. How could I, so unwilling to see things through the eyes of a 12-year-old, possibly have understood what was going on from their point of view? How could I have prepared a perfect first lesson for a group unlike any other I’d taught before? How could I have planned for students who are rewriting the very definitions of who they are? Being 12 is certainly a wild ride, and one that I’ll have the privilege to bear witness to twice a week for the next academic year. 

But it’s not all smiles and kum-ba-yahs; at the end of the day, I’m still a teacher grappling with an adult textbook (shove off with your extreme interview questions and your signature psychoanalysis, New English File) and one of the youngest B2 classes the school has ever seen.

I’m not going to pretend I have some kind of master plan; at the moment, my strategy is getting to know them a little better every week and constructing a piecemeal syllabus for the next few lessons. Just maintaining that is going to take a huge amount of personal commitment and professional bravery, especially if every high and low ends up documented on this blog for the world to read. However, at some point I do hope to have a more cohesive, long-term plan that will allow me to really move forward with these students, as opposed to drowning in a tide of inappropriate resources and extremely high expectations. If you’ve ever been in a similar situation or you’ve got any tips, leave me a comment below. I need all the help I can get!