Acronyms probably aren’t what you think they are.

Acronyms probably aren’t what you think they are. Let’s start with some true acronyms:

SCUBA, NATO, NAFTA, AWOL, SWAT

Now here’s a list of what you thought were acronyms:

IBM, CPU, EU, CNN, FBI

Can you spot the difference?

True acronyms are words formed from initials but pronounced as a separate word. We don’t spell out the letters in ‘SCUBA’ when we say it. It’s ‘skooba’ or /’skuːbə/ for you phonetic geeks.

‘FBI’, however, is spoken as individual letters. So are most words mistakenly called acronyms. These are actually known as initialisms. Who knew.

BUT WAIT!

initialism (n)

  1. a set of initials representing a name, organization, or the like, with each letter pronounced separately, as FBI.
  2. a name or term formed from the initial letters of a group of words and pronounced as a separate word, as NATO; an acronym.

acronym (n)

  1. a word formed from the initial letters or groups of letters of words in a set phrase or series of words and pronounced as a separate word, as NATO.
  2. a set of initials representing a name, organization, or the like, with each letter pronounced separately, as FBI; an initialism.

What the hell’s going on here? Acronyms are initialisms, initialisms are acronyms, Einhorn is Finkel, Soylent Green is people. Madness. What does this it all mean? The good news is that I think it means you aren’t as dumb as you look. You haven’t been using acronym wrong, at least not colloquially, but if you’re splitting hairs (and I don’t think you’d be reading this if you weren’t), then it’s good to know there’s a level of technicality and nuance to these terms that you probably didn’t know existed.

Tennis

You know the sport. Nets. Lets. Balls that come in Pringles cans and are hit with quasi-sexual moans and groans. It can be quite the…racket? (Sorry, I had to. Puns get no love, but I’ll smash any served up to me. God, I’m really over the line now. My fault. I thought they were ace, though.)

Tennis is a universal activity in that it can be made to fit a variety of themes and skills. It’s a great way for pairs to do memory checks for grammar or vocab. Best of all, it requires no prep work so it’s great if you’re a lazy bastard, which of course you are.

Let’s say you’re teaching Irregular Simple Past tense. Perhaps your book has a chart like this:

past simple-min

Well, first of all, that’s boring as shit. I hope you aren’t just having your students  memorize a chart like that and then quizzing them on it, but we both know you’re hopeless. Why not do something fun with it? Or at least interactive.

You know how tennis goes back and forth? Same concept with this activity. Here’s how it works:

  1. Put your students into pairs.
  2. Student A will ‘serve’ by saying a Simple Present verb.
  3. Student B ‘returns’ the serve by saying the Simple Past verb, and then volley with a different Simple Present verb.
  4. Student A volleys with Simple Past and then a new Simple Present verb.

It will look like this:

A: Go.

B: Went. Come.

A: Came. Fly.

B: Flew. Eat.

A: Ate. Drive.

And so on and so forth. If a student can’t return the volley within three seconds, a point is awarded to the other player.

This would also work great as a pronunciation activity for Regular Simple Past verbs.

A: Visit.

B: Visited. Stay.

A: Stayed. Miss.

B: Missed. Crap.

Or maybe you’re teaching a lesson on clothes:

A: Shirt.

B: Trousers.

A: Socks.

B: Shoes.

A: Belt.

B: Derp derp derp derp. Fail.

How about a variation with teams?

Put students in two lines. The first two students in each line will play the game above. Whoever repeats a word or times out must sit down and the next student in that line steps up. The winner stays on until he/she loses a game. The line with the most students at the end wins the set. Most sets won wins the match.

Why not turn it into a tournament? Let’s call it Wimbleton.

Students stand and find a partner. All the pairs play one round of tennis. The losers of that round sit, while the winners pair off for the next round. Play as many rounds as it takes until there’s a winner.

The variations on tennis are endless, but my time isn’t so I’ll leave it at that while I go drop a deuce. Ha! Game, set and match.

Grammar for Beginners

The ‘beginners’ in the title refers more to you, rookie teacher, than your students. We both know that you know absolute dick when it comes to grammar. You know when it’s right or wrong because you’ve been using it your whole life, but can you explain to elementary students exactly why ‘you suck at teach’ is wrong? Hint: gerunds after prepositions. You do know what those are, don’t you?

All snark aside, grammar scares the hell out of a lot of budding new teachers. They don’t remember learning the rules (if they learned them at all), and their greatest fear is being put on the spot: ‘Teacher, what is simple past?” Imposter syndrome runs deep in the veins of noobs, as it should, because let’s be honest, that piddling TEFL certificate didn’t make you a teacher.

Imposter syndrome

The good news is that rules have very little place in the classroom when it comes to actual teaching. Nothing is more yawn-inducing or drool-congealing than seeing a board filled with rules. Students aren’t going to remember them, at least not in the time you have to teach. What will likely happen is they grab their pencil and start mindlessly writing down what doesn’t need to be written down. That’s what their books are for.

So, all of this is to say that, yet again, the enemy here are words and explanations.

Here’s the dictionary definition of simple past: “The simple past tense, sometimes called the preterite, is used to talk about a completed action in a time before now. The simple past is the basic form of past tense in English. The time of the action can be in the recent past or the distant past and action duration is not important.”

Yeah, fuck that noise.

So how do you teach it? Here comes a dead horse to beat…

beat a dead horse ‘Do you like that, Ed?’ ‘Nay.’

Show. Don’t tell.

Write this on the board: “Yesterday, I go to a restaurant and eat rice.”

Ask your students what’s wrong with it. Typically there will be one or two or even more that already know the rules anyway. Elicit from them. Use your students’ collective knowledge. It’s more memorable than explanation.

Now fix the mistake. “Yesterday, I went to a restaurant and ate rice.”

T: “Why ‘went’ and ‘ate’?”

Ss: “Because ‘yesterday'”

T: “Yesterday is past, present or future?”

Ss: “Past.”

T: “Very good. We have to change the verbs for the past.”

Now show them a timeline. Ask them to identify where our sentence should go.

simple past timeline

Now elicit a few more past time expressions and write them on the board. “Yesterday, last night, two days ago, last week, in June.” Start using these time expressions wrongly and have them correct you. “Last year I fly to Thailand on holiday.” “I have eggs for breakfast this morning.”

Students should begin recognizing that verbs in the past much change. They didn’t need a rule to tell them this. They came up with the rule themselves through pattern recognition. This is the difference between ‘revealing’ them the answer and ‘telling’ it to them. Again, show. Don’t tell.

Think they got it? Awesome. Now reinforce it with an activity. Tennis, anyone?

Find Someone Who…

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.

STAGE 1:

Write on the board:

Find Someone Who...”                      Name:                                              

  1. was born in Beijing.
  2. is 25 years old.
  3. has 2 brothers or sisters.
  4. lives in Dongcheng District.
  5. has a pet.
  6. likes pop music.
  7. is a doctor.
  8. 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.

T: “Where…were…you…”

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.

STAGE 2:

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.

STAGE 3:

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.”

T: “Great!”

Write Student C’s name next to number 1. Then perhaps model number 2 if you think they’re still unclear.

STAGE 4:

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.

STAGE 5:

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.

STAGE 6:

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.”

Final thoughts:

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.

Embracing your Inner Neanderthal

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.”

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.”

Dog Doodle

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.”

Gay pride dog costume.

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.

 

 

Crapping the Bed (Your First Class)

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?”

Silence.

“Okay?”

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:

deer in headlights

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.