Just a Minute.

Ahh one of my favorite activities. The name alone takes me back to my youth, debating politics with my father. Whenever I’d start talking bullshit, which was admittedly most of the the time, he’d stop me with a steely look, a raised hand, and a firm ‘now just wait a goddamn minute.’ Listening for bullshit (mistakes in this case) is the essence of this activity.

Just a Minute is an EFL classic. It’s rare to find a speaking activity that also gives specific objectives to the listeners.  It’s even rarer to find one that focuses on both accuracy and fluency. But the truest standard of excellence by which any activity is judged is whether or not the students like it, opt in and engage, and by that standard, Just a Minute is a diamond.

Just a Minute works best in Intermediate levels (or a really good Pre-Intermediate class) and above. The idea is that in small groups of three or four, one of the students will speak on a given topic for one minute timed with a stopwatch. What the listeners must hear, and what the speaker must avoid, is a mistake on a particular teaching point that you’ve established beforehand.

Perhaps you’re teaching Simple Past. After you’ve introduced the concept and done some focused practice (perhaps not necessary for higher levels), you think your students have the hang of it. Write a speaking topic on the board which has something to do with the past. For instance: ‘Talk about your last vacation.’

Give your instructions. Tell them that in small groups they will take turns talking for one (timed) minute about their last vacation. If the speaker makes a Simple Past mistake, the listeners say ‘just a minute’, and the speaker must go back to the beginning of his or her story. The speaker must keep telling the story until he or she can do so for one minute without making a Simple Past mistake. Once they do so, it’s the next student’s turn.

Model it.

T: “My last holiday I go to China –“

Ss: “Just a minute!”

T: “My last holiday I went to China for a week. I flew to Beijing and stay there –“

Ss: Just a minute!

T: ” My last holiday I went to China for a week. I flew to Beijing and stayed there three days. I see the Forbidden City –“

Ss “Now just wait a goddamn minute!”

They should get the point, but don’t forget your ICQs. Once all of the students have had a turn, put another topic up on the board: talk about a time you were embarrassed; talk about what you did yesterday; talk about what the other students have said about you, the teacher, behind your back. You get the idea.

The teaching point doesn’t have to be limited to grammar. Depending on your country, students might struggle with final consonants or the dreaded ‘th’ phonic. Part of improving pronunciation is learning how to listen. Fluency, too, can be the objective — any pause longer than three seconds warrants a ‘just a minute.’

Because Just a Minute is all about building fluency and speaking at length, encourage your students to lie if they have to (or want to). A lot of teens are embarrassed about talking about themselves, so this gives them a facade to hide behind. Maybe they don’t remember the last time they went to the cinema. No problem. Make it up. Exaggerating, fabricating and wholesale lying aren’t just good skills for exams like IELTS or TOEFL, they’re life skills that just might take someone to the Presidency.

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?