Buy a megaphone: Non-discriminatory language is not enough by Karin Krummenacher
Find Someone Who (FSW) is a classic activity that most teachers come across when they’re still finding their feet in the classroom. The heart of this activity is interaction, getting students out of their desks and communicating with each other. Best of all, it can be tailored to almost any theme and ability.
FSW works best if it’s broken up into several stages, each of which is its own little activity. Let’s assume this is one of your first lessons in an elementary level teen or adult class. Typically, the first units of EFL books will begin with basic ‘getting to know you’ questions and answers. You’ve finished the material in the book and you think your students have got it. Perhaps the book already included a pair speaking activity where students interview each other with these questions. Great. Now let’s really get them using it.
Write on the board:
“Find Someone Who...” Name:
- was born in Beijing.
- is 25 years old.
- has 2 brothers or sisters.
- lives in Dongcheng District.
- has a pet.
- likes pop music.
- is a doctor.
- drives a car.
The first stage of the activity will be putting students into pairs and having them come up with the questions they’ll need to ask. Students will inevitably misunderstand this part of the activity and will immediately begin trying to ask and answer with their partner. It’s important to know they’re asking the correct questions, so make sure this part of the activity is solely focused on that. How can you make it clear that’s what they should be doing? Model it of course. Model the hell out of it. Write some of the questions on the board.
Teacher: “With your partner, think of (or perhaps write down) the questions you will ask. For example, number 1. ‘Born in Beijing.’ What question should I ask?”
Students will probably sit there in silence at first because they don’t really know what you’re asking.
T: “I want to know where you were born. What question should I ask?”
More silence, most likely. Start writing the question slowly to elicit the rest of it.
A smart student at this point probably understands what you’re driving at and will be able to complete the question.
T: “Where were you born? Very good. Now number 2. ‘is 25 years old’. What question do I ask?” Start writing it again. “How…old…are you? Very good. How about number 3?”
Don’t fret about modeling two or three times. The imperative thing is that students are clear about the intention of your activity, otherwise it’s a waste of time as some will get it, some won’t, and then you’ll have to walk around reexplaining what you thought you’d already made clear.
T: “Now work with your partner. Think of the questions you will ask.”
Depending on where you’re teaching, students may have a compulsion to write down every single thing that you put on the board. It’s important to break them of this habit because not only is it time-consuming, virtually everything you put on the board will already be in the book anyway. What you really want is communication.
Give students a few minutes to come up with the questions they’ll be asking, then elicit and write them on the board. If you’re lucky and you have a computer/projector, you can just open Microsoft Wordpad and type the questions to save time.
You have the questions written on the board so drill, baby, drill. Drill it a few times. Exaggerate the intonation. Be funny. Break them into different groups.
Tell students the point of the activity. That they will need to walk around asking questions until they find someone for whom the statement is true. Many students will misunderstand this part and just walk around asking questions instead of looking for one who answers ‘yes’. So how do you make the intention clear? That’s right. Model the shit out of it.
T: “You will stand up. Walk around and find someone. For example, number 1.” You ask Student A, “where were you born?”
Student A: “Shenzen.”
T: You ask Student B, “where were you born?”
Student B: “Guangzhou.”
T: You ask Student C, “where were you born?”
Student C: “Beijing.”
Write Student C’s name next to number 1. Then perhaps model number 2 if you think they’re still unclear.
The fun part. Students actually do the activity, but only after you’re sure they’re crystal clear on the instructions. At this point you can walk around, participate, or perhaps jot down some common errors that you’re hearing. Don’t forget to set a time limit. Six to eight minutes should be enough.
Feedback. Ask the class a few of the questions. “Who can drive a car? Who likes pop music?” What were those errors you overheard? Were they grammatical? Pronunciation? Now’s the time to fix it.
Extension. Don’t let a good opportunity go to waste. The students have collected data about their classmates so exploit it and turn it into a speaking activity. With a partner, they’ll report what they learned.
S1: “Chen was born in Beijing. Zhang Wei likes pop music.”
S2: “Li Wei can drive a car. Zhang Li lives in Dongcheng.”
There are a billion Find Someone Who topics and grids out there on the web, but a common mistake (made out of laziness or ignorance, both in your case) is to just print out a random topic, hand it to your students and say ‘go’. This isn’t good enough. Take your time. Exploit it. Make it relevant and make sure your students know what they’re doing before they do it.
The best FSWs are often made on the fly. Is your lesson dragging? Probably. You do suck at TEFL, so stop what you’re doing and think of a way to do a FSW; just try to tie it to the theme of your lesson. FSWs are a great way to get students up and active and actually using English. By breaking things up into stages, you have several built-in mini-activities, all of which encourage even more Student Talking Time and keeps the lesson flowing. It’s also possible to make it competitive by letting students race against each other to finish their list first. Be creative. Tweak it. Above all, make it fun and interactive.
The Cambridge ELT blog has a very interesting article by Philip Kerr about using translation in language classes – an idea which keeps going in and out of methodological fashion, and it seems like it’s in again. There is even a link to a grammar revision activity to try with monolingual classes: it can show […]
Verbose. Loquacious. Garrulous. Long-winded. Discursive. Concisely-challenged. All those beautiful synonyms describe you, a purveyor of verbal diarrhea, perfectly. I could talk forever about how you talk too much. Having flogged this dead horse, I hope by now you get the point — words are the enemy of understanding.
The perceptive reader will note the irony of me talking at length about how talking is a bad thing. You, on the other hand, probably didn’t notice a damn thing. Fair enough. I guess I’ll have to show you how this works.
Let’s start with a real classroom example of why words — those beautiful, delicious nouns and adjectives that make English so great — have no place in the classroom.
“Teacher, what does *** mean?”
You, the word puker, say, “Oh, alright, well let’s crack open the dictionary and see what it has to say.” Your fat fingers fumble the pages until you finally get there. “A domesticated carnivorous mammal occurring as a wide variety of breeds, many of which are traditionally used for hunting, herding, drawing sleds, and other tasks, and are kept as pets.”
Native speakers of English might even take a second or two to move from the definition to the concept it’s trying to relate. So imagine the wide eyes and arched brows and what-the-fuck faces of your poor elementary students who didn’t understand a single word of the definition, let alone the concept of ‘dog’ you were trying to teach.
No, you don’t need to open your mouth to teach the word ‘dog’. You don’t need to say anything for the majority of words you teach at elementary levels. You simply have to show them. Let’s try this again.
“Teacher, what’s a dog?”
You find a picture online. “This is a dog.”
No Internet in the classroom? Use your phone you troglodyte. No phone? You do have a whiteboard, right? Get your marker.
“This is a dog.”
You don’t need to be Picasso, but perhaps you’re even more challenged than I thought. Then I guess you have no choice.
“This is a dog.”
That’s right. Get down on your hands and knees and say bow wow. Take a dump on the floor and sniff it if you have to. Anything is better than opening a dictionary and blathering on about the canine genus. And guess which one your students will remember.
Humans are visual creatures. It’s no coincidence that the first attempts at written communication were images and verbal communication was little more than grunting and gesturing. The larger irony here, probably lost on you of course, is that we’re not relying on language to teach language. Instead, we’re reverting back to our caveman instincts when concepts were shown rather than told. So embrace your inner Neanderthal and go spear a mammoth or dance naked around a fire, but whatever you do, don’t say what can’t be understood.
Remember when you were a snot-nosed third grader that brought in some bullshit toy that no one else cared about? And since showing it off wasn’t boring enough, you had to open your yapper and tell your classmates about it, as if your blathering would add any degree of interest. Not much has changed.
The whole appeal of show and tell is the showing, of course, not the telling. Would kids rather be shown a new video game or told about it? Would you rather be shown the Mona Lisa or told about it? Why would I tell you how much I hate you when I could just do this?
Words simply don’t have the same impact as images. Yes, there are exceptions. We will always remember ‘I have a dream…’ and ‘…one small step for man…’, and we probably won’t forget ‘I’m in love with someone else’ or ‘you’re not the father.’ But by and large, our brains don’t remember this way.
Pop Quiz: What do the following all have in common?
“Life is like a box of chocolate…”
“Do you feel lucky, punk?”
“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
“Mirror mirror on the wall…”
“Beam me up, Scotty.”
“Luke, I am your father.”
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Famous movie quotes, right? Can you name the movies? You can probably picture all of them. Forrest Gump sitting at the bus stop. Dirty Harry standing in front of a mirror. Dorothy holding Toto. The only thing is, no one ever said these oft-attributed quotes. They’re all (famous) misquotes.
It’s dangerous to attach percentages to how much we learn via any particular sensory input, but research consistently shows a higher degree of retention through visual stimulus rather than aural. If you spend enough time in the field of learning and retention, you’ll eventually come upon Edgar Dale’s ‘Cone of Experience’. I could tell you about it, but you probably wouldn’t get it. Better show you instead.
The first thing to notice is that this looks a lot more like a triangle than a cone. What the fuck, Dale? The important thing is that verbal symbols (a bullshit expression that just means ‘spoken words’) occupies the least amount of learning retention. The quality of learning then grows with seeing written words, pictures and motion pictures to doing demonstrations to finally experiencing.
But don’t take my word for it. Old Ben can say it far better than I ever could.
They wouldn’t put just anyone on the hundred dollar bill. And money talks, folks, but as we’ve just seen, people don’t learn from talking. So I don’t expect you to actually learn anything from what I’ve just told you. We both know how slow you are on the uptake to begin with. I’m going to have to show you, aren’t I?
As fun (and accurate) as it is, it isn’t enough to merely say that you talk too much. That only hits one third of the equation — brevity. There are still two other factors, namely pace and grade, to be conscious of whenever you’re addressing your class.
Pace: (peɪs) n. rate or style of proceeding at some activity
Have you ever listened to Eminem and had to rewind because he was rapping too fast to be understood? Me neither. He whines too much. It was probably about his mom, anyway.
The point is that what seems like a completely normal pace of speech to us can sound like an auctioneer’s sale to beginning-level students. So how slow do you need to speak? Slow. Painfully slow. Slow to the point where it feels awkward and patronizing because it’s as if you’re talking to small children.
Grade: (grād) n. an accepted level or standard.
Generally speaking, most new teachers are given beginner-level classes. Just as students in these levels are severely limited in vocabulary, so too must the teacher restrict him/herself to language that the students can understand. It’s not as easy as it sounds. How do you know how much vocabulary your students know? Often you don’t, at least not until you get into the classroom. A good rule of thumb is to assume they know nothing. Aim for the same level of vocabulary you’d use when talking to a toddler and adjust accordingly only when you’re positive most of the students can understand you.
Brevity: (brĕv′ĭ-tē) n. concise expression; terseness
Brevity isn’t just the soul of wit, it’s the essence of understanding in an EFL classroom. To put it simply, the shorter you can keep your expressions, the more likely you are to be understood. To put it even more simply, talk less.
A Case Study
The following instruction was taken verbatim from a teacher addressing an elementary class:
“Okay. Alright guys. Let’s open our books to page 98 and let’s review the different aspects of hotels which we’ve been studying for the last two weeks.”
Even if this had been delivered at an appropriate pace, which it wasn’t, there is approximately zero chance of elementary students understanding this sentence.
Check out the grade. Many elementary students won’t know ‘alright, guys, page, review, aspects’. ‘…which we’ve been studying…’ is grammar they won’t have encountered yet.
How about the brevity? More like, what brevity? That’s the opposite of brevity. That’s longwindness, garrulousness and verboseness all wrapped into one big travesty of an instruction.
What is the essential information the teacher was trying to convey? ‘Open your books to page 98.’ That’s it. That’s all you need, and you don’t even need that. Could you get your students to open their books to page 98 without saying anything? Sure. Just write page 98 on the board and mime opening a book. The rest is extraneous verbiage you needn’t waste your breath on.
Learning to speak with grade and brevity at a slower than normal pace is a crucial aspect of TTT, a skill that some experienced teachers struggle with (often without even being aware of it). But how are you supposed to teach if you can barely talk to your students? There’s the rub.
Time for some show and tell.
So your first time in class ended up being a greasy shit smear of a lesson. A real turd. Are you still wallowing in it or have you recovered enough to wash your sheets? Have you been able to piece together what exactly went wrong? Maybe you’ve suppressed the whole experience, written over the whole memory like a trauma victim because your fragile Millenial ego couldn’t handle the embarrassment.
The unhelpful answer to your problem is that you suck at TEFL, but you already know that or you wouldn’t be here. The better answer is that you crapped the bed with verbal diarrhea. Your instinct was to talk. That’s what teachers do, after all, don’t they? But that is precisely the wrong approach in an EFL classroom. What typically happens is new teachers talk their students into a mess of incomprehension, and then either try to talk their way out of it if they’re perceptive enough to recognize the meaning behind those blank stares, or just keep on yapping if they’re not. And you, you’re a yapper.
Maxim 1: New teachers overestimate how much their students can understand.
Your first misstep was talking to elementary level students as if you were gossiping to your best friend back home. You assumed your students were following you when in actuality they started tuning out after a minute of your garbled gapping. You failed to pick up the subtle signs of incomprehension, and they are subtle; students (particularly in Asian cultures) don’t typically raise their hand to profess their own ignorance. Most new teachers have an Aziz Ansari level of awareness of non-verbal cues.
Here are the signs:
Or maybe even:
Maxim 2: The more you talk, the less they understand.
Silence feels awkward. We have an almost genetic compulsion to fill it with idle platitudes and uninteresting chit chat, especially you. But it isn’t that your students don’t want to hear it (though I certainly don’t), it’s that they simply can’t understand it.
There’s something disarming about communicating with someone who speaks a different language. Whatever charms, wit , sense of humor and irony you have (and let’s be honest it ain’t much) are rendered useless with the loss of language as a medium of transmission. The sheer act of making yourself understood is as humbling as it is frustrating, not to mention exhausting.
It’s also unnatural, in a way, not to be able to use language to communicate. Most of us grow up surrounded by people who readily speak our own language. If you’ve never lived abroad, how many times have you actually had to express yourself to someone who couldn’t understand a word of English? Not many if I had to hazard a guess.
Only when you’re faced with someone who can’t understand you do you realize how essential language is to communication, how expressing yourself simply and concisely is a skill that takes a lot of practice to develop. As with everything, some are naturally better at it than others. Some people have a knack for pith just as some love hearing their own voice, and we both know which you are.
So how do you get better? The first step is awareness of the problem. If you’ve read this far, you can consider yourself aware of it. You’re welcome. The second step is being conscious of every word that comes out of your mouth and taking into consideration three things: grade, pace and brevity.
So you’ve got a new class and you, a budding new teacher, show up hours early and painstakingly prepare a kickass lesson chock full of fun activities. You’re scared you don’t have enough to do, so you plan things down to the minute just to make sure every last moment is accounted for. You’re nervous, palms are sweaty, vomit on your shirt already (mom’s spaghetti), but your well-designed lesson plan is your road-map to see you through so you don’t get lost in the weeds.
You walk into class and find two dozen faces staring at you. 48 eyes watching your every movement. You say hello. One returns the greeting while the others just sit there impassively. They’re nervous too, but you don’t know that yet and it doesn’t seem to matter because now you’re starting to panic since their silence would seem to indicate that they must be judging you. Somewhere deep in the recesses of your mind, a seed of doubt sprouts.
You make your way to the teacher’s desk to drop your bag and get things ready. You take out a book, put it back, take it back out again. You shuffle a few papers, pretending to look through them. You fumble a marker because you’re clumsy when you’re nervous. [New teachers ALWAYS drop something.] This teacher’s desk is your safe space, your island in rough, uncharted seas. And now you’re just killing time so you don’t have to leave it. But leave it you must.
You walk over and take your place at the front of class.
“Hello, my name’s Todd (of course that’s your name). How are you guys today?”
You’re answered with silence. You swallow a pit of fear and feel cold beads of sweat forming on your brow. You decide to single a student out in the front row.
“Hi. How are you today?”
Front row student stares at you wide-eyed, then turns to another student nervously with a look that seems to say ‘what the fuck is this guy on about?’ He smiles awkwardly but never replies. Screw it, you think. Let’s do an activity.
“Ok, guys. I’d like to get to know you a bit better so let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves. Can you maybe tell me your name, age and what you like doing in your free time?”
Now heads are turning, looking for someone to break this thick gauze of what-the-hell-is-happening.
“Can we start with you?” you ask, indicating a woman in a green shirt. Green shirt lady’s eyebrows perk up in perfect arches of incomprehension and no-fucking-way. “Come on, guys. Someone. Anyone. Bueller?” Of course they’ve never seen the film and your stupid joke falls flat but you laugh anyway to hide your growing exasperation. Your emotions fluctuate between humiliation and annoyance. Growing desperation looms over your thoughts.
What the hell is wrong with you guys. Say something.
But your students look like this:
And you do too, you just can’t see it. But you feel it. Your exasperation nurtures that seed of doubt in your mind, and though you’re only minutes into what was supposed to have been a brilliant lesson, that doubt begins growing and pokes through the soil as conscious thought: what in God’s name was I thinking?
Yes, this is what it feels like to crap the bed. The bad news is that you can’t uncrap it. Your students have already seen quite clearly that you have no idea what you’re doing. The good news is that you’re not alone. Nobody’s first class comes without a certain amount of incontinence, so you don’t need to go home and slit your wrists. The key thing is to roll with it. Handle yourself with a sense of humor and a modicum of poise and your class will forgive you. Lose your cool and all bets are off.
More importantly, recognize that this is a moment of truth. Lesser teachers (and there are no shortage of them) will mosey into the teacher’s room nagging about how horrible their students are, how they can’t do anything. Well of course they can’t, you naggots (not actually a word, but you get it), that’s why they’re in a classroom.
The best among you will look at this moment as an opportunity for self-reflection. What happened? What did I do wrong? How can I improve? If these are your thoughts, then first thank your parents for raising a well-adjusted human being. There aren’t enough of them or you in this world. Second, go home and cringe as you relive your failure over and over again, wondering what happened. Maybe have a long, cliched stare in the mirror.
So what did go wrong? That’s the easy part. Without having seen you teach I can tell you exactly what happened. How could I possibly know that? Because every single teacher makes the same mistake. I did. We all did. Remember, nobody craps the bed alone.
It starts the moment we open our mouths.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Close your eyes and go back to your high school days when you peaked. Remember your hair? Your freshly-popped pimples? Jesus, you were a loser.
Now imagine one of your classrooms. If your high school was anything like mine, you sat in rows. And if you were anything like me, you sat in the back where you wouldn’t be noticed because hey, let’s face it, you weren’t worth noticing. Remember that seating arrangement? Just like this:
I won’t say that I never use this arrangement in my classroom, but it’s damn close to never. Perhaps for exams or presentations. Perhaps. This set up describes the traditional ‘teacher-center’ classroom where the teacher is primary and all eyes are on him/her. While such an arrangement was perfect for someone like me who wanted to sit in the back and do fuck all, it doesn’t suit the ESL/EFL classroom for several reasons, the most important of which is that you want your students’ eyes typically on each other rather than the back of someone in front of them.
Remember the mantra — ‘students are primary’. I’ll flesh this out in another post, then I’ll beat it like a dead horse. Suffice it to say that your main job is less about teaching and more about providing students with opportunities to use English. So how do you do that?
This is the default setup for my classroom. Do you see the first of the Cons — ‘not suitable for work in small groups’. Bullshit. [I didn’t design the picture.] The horseshoe gives students the opportunity to see each other speaking while everyone can still see the board, but also allows students to peel off into pairs or small groups with minimal movement.
Some teachers choose clusters for their default setup. The cluster is the student’s group or team, and often there’s a running tally of points kept from all the games played throughout the lesson. Students being noisy? Take a point from the team. There is an increased risk of distractions since the students are constantly focused on each other as opposed to the teacher, but there’s a possible hidden advantage to this. Eventually you’ll have a class with an absolute catastrophe of a student. One that will make you question not your choice of teaching as a profession, but the existence of God. Think Type-A, know-it-all, class clown, bully, ADHD, jock, whatever. These students have the potential to ruin a lesson if they’re a constant distraction to the whole class which can easily happen if you’re in a horseshoe arrangement. Put them in clusters, though, and these assholes are neutralized by only being able to distract their group. In your face, John Bender.
My classroom, as noted above, typically begins as a horseshoe, then breaks up into clusters of two or three depending on the activity, then again reverts back to the horseshoe. Horseshoe mode is for presentation and instruction. I want all my students’ eyes on me and the board, not a partner or group member or potential love interest. Then, when it’s time for group-work, students shift into cluster mode. This switching between the two arrangements lets students ‘know what time it is’. Horseshoe means shut up and listen, clusters mean it’s practice time.
[Confession: 75% of my lesson is in horseshoe mode. Students can easily pair off or even form groups of three without actually having to shift their desks into a cluster. Consider me a fan.]
The point is that students should feel comfortable but never completely settled. They need to know that just because they’re in one place now doesn’t mean you won’t move them later. The sooner you can play with different seating arrangements, generally the more amenable students are to changing. Don’t let them grow roots.
Other options to play with:
There’s little you can do with a runway that you can’t do with a horseshoe, but I might employ two parallel rows when I want partners face to face for activities such as speed-dating or dictation.
I’ve only ever used this for presentations.
Rare. Perhaps if some students have finished an activity before the others, I’ll group them up separately for another activity while the others finish.
In a nutshell, the type of activity should ideally dictate the seating arrangement and not the other way around, but in practice teachers are often given limited space and resources which constrains the number and type of activities we can employ. If you find yourself in this latter situation, you’ll probably have one of two possible reactions depending on who you are as a person. The first reaction is to piss and moan about how shit the school is and how ridiculous it is that poor you is forced to slave away under such abject conditions. The second is to be creative and challenge yourself to come up with activities that work within the confines of your resources.
I confess I was in this first group until a wise man told me three pieces of sage advice that have stuck with me every since. Three tenets of a philosophy not just of work, but life: 1. Shut the fuck up and stop whining. 2. Suck it up. 3. Adapt and overcome.
Congratulations. Somebody actually hired you. You’re well on your way to becoming an actual human being rather than just some basement-dwelling, parasitic slob living off your parents. I didn’t think you had it in you.
Perhaps you’re already in country. Have you seen your school yet? Toured the facilities? Been in a classroom? The equipment and facilities in the TEFL world are so varied that a (boring) book could be written about all the configurations. Suffice it to say that while you can change your lesson and activities, it’s much harder to change the equipment you’re given. You can only work with what you’re given and what works in one classroom may not work in another.
Blackboard or Whiteboard?
Why anyone would use a blackboard when there’s such a thing as a whiteboard boggles my mind. There’s literally nothing you can do on a blackboard which you can’t do on a white except perhaps break your writing utensil and leave cocaine-like piles of dust scattered around the area. Whiteboards aren’t only cleaner, they’re also decent media for your projector, so if you’re working off interactive software, you can use a market to write answers, highlight, underline, circle…basically everything you’ll want to do in the program.
How big is the room? How many desks?
The games and activities you plan are constrained by class and classroom size. Do you want a mingle activity? A board race? What if there’s physically no room? Can you move desks outside the classroom? Do you have enough space to move desks for pair and group work? You’ll need to see your facilities before planning a lesson.
Google images says the above image is a Thai classroom but I suspect it might be Burmese due to the shit (thanaka — a sandlewood paste) on their faces. Regardless, the above classroom isn’t atypical for the region. If you find yourself with such a setup, first slap yourself in the face for signing up for that, then quit your job and head to a real school. I jest, but in all seriousness, many teachers make such classrooms work. Just know that all the fun and games you’ll want to play are limited by the physical space.
That’s more like it. In the classroom above you’re limited only by your imagination. Need small groups, pair work, or maybe you need the floor wide open? No problem, just move the desks into whatever configuration suits the purpose. The flexibility afforded by the facilities here gives you far more latitude and creativity in terms of lesson planning. The room probably even has air-con so you needn’t worry about sweating through your shirt and bogging out the class with your rancid onion body odor.
The point (which I’m belaboring so even you can grasp it) is that form (facilities) dictates content (activities). So do yourself a favor and make sure you know what you’re (literally) walking into.