Have you ever planned an English lesson that you thought would be a real cracker, one you were sure was going to set the class afire, only to find it fizzled like a wet fart when you actually tried it out? You’ve seen the looks on your students’ faces: boredom, indifference, perhaps even disgust as the stench of your own ineptitude wafts around the room. English lessons aren’t easy.
To make matters worse, whilst wallowing in failure, perhaps you blamed the students for their unresponsiveness, or the lesson topic itself for being a real dud. Not your fault, right?
One of the main struggles teachers face early on in their careers is a lack of English activities outside the book that remain relevant to the teaching points. It’s not enough to play a meaningless, time-killing game for half an hour when your students are paying to actually learn the language. You wouldn’t do that, would you?
To make things even more difficult, much of a teacher’s success hinges on making the lesson not just productive, but engaging, entertaining if you will. It’s not easy. Students are demanding. They don’t just want to learn English, they want to have fun doing it. That’s a tall order, especially for someone as boring as you.
What can be done?
Perhaps it is indeed your activities fault. Some activities and lessons just aren’t that great. Some are flat out boring. The same goes for classes. That said, I’d mortgage the house I don’t have to bet that the common denominator in all your failed lessons is you. Yes, you are probably the one mucking everything up.
So, with all that in mind, let’s look at 5 reasons why your lessons suck.
1. Your students don’t understand you.
Communicating with people of limited English ability is an art that takes a long time to master. It’s hard growing up in a world where language is taken for granted and then being thrust into a situation where this is taken away. Frustration often takes over for those teachers fortunate enough to recognize what’s happening. Many teachers never get to that realization. Most overestimate how much their students understand.
Fixing this means concentrating on three things: grade, pace and brevity.
- Grade — the appropriate level of vocabulary and grammar. You can’t use the same words and constructions for elementary students that you would for advanced students. Now’s not the time to show off your erudition with million-dollar words.
- Pace — the speed at which you’re talking. Have you ever heard someone speak in a language you’re not familiar with and it sounded as if they were auctioneers? Slow down. If you’re speaking slow enough that it starts to feel condescending, you’re probably at the right pace.
- Brevity — expressing things concisely. See the next point.
2. You talk too much.
No surprise there. You’ve probably been hearing it your whole life. It practically goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway and make it bold. The more you talk, the less your students understand.
More bad news — you’re not that interesting. Just because your meditation retreat in Chiang Mai was a real eye-opener doesn’t mean it has to be a mouth-opener too. Wasn’t it silent meditation? That’s a noble, if obviously difficult, objective. Take a page out of the Buddhist monk’s playbook and consider the value of an unexpressed thought.
This cascades into the next point:
3. The more you talk, the less your students do.
Higher Teacher Talking Time = Less Student Talking Time
I suck at math, but even I get that the more time you spend talking in class, the less time your students have. I don’t know if there’s an ideal ratio of TTT to STT, but the best I’ve seen was probably 40:60.
Many students have little chance to communicate in English outside of class, so facilitating opportunities for them to speak isn’t just a goal, it’s the goal. Creating these chances is of paramount importance in your English lessons.
It does take some time to give instructions and check for understanding. Often the actual practice time given to students is not much longer than what it takes to set up the activity.
Activities shouldn’t drag on and on. It can be difficult to sustain English-only communication for longer than five minutes at the lower levels.
With this in mind, using TTT for anything other than facilitating student production of English becomes superfluous. You simply don’t have time to waste by yapping away irrelevantly about your last vacation.
4. Your activities aren’t connected to the lesson
A lot of teachers assume that playing a game in class instantly relieves the boredom of the book and that having fun is what students really want anyway. Students do want to have fun, but throwing in a game that has no relevance to the lesson smacks of an unprepared teacher who is just making things up as he or she goes along.
It takes very little effort to connect an activities to the English lessons. Look no further than the lesson’s theme or grammar point. Are you teaching about food? Make sure your game or activity features food somehow. Are you teaching Simple Past? Use it!
Students aren’t stupid. Activities purely for the sake of entertainment are transparent and will eventually alienate the students who are there to learn.
5. Your activities are inefficient.
Too many games consist of two teams with only one student of either team involved at any given point while the rest of the class looks on idly, twiddling their thumbs, or worse, becoming distractions and thus a classroom management problem. Don’t complain when students start checking their phones or pulling hair or speaking their native language when your activity hasn’t given them a chance to do anything.
When you’re planning your English lessons, keep an eye out for ‘efficient’ activities– anything that has all the students communicating at once. These will almost by necessity be activities that are done in pairs or groups of three.
Larger groups = less ‘Student Talking Time’
Once the group size reaches four or larger, it’s too easy for weaker or shyer students to get lost in the mix. Keeping groups to three or fewer affords more speaking opportunities per student.
It’s worth remembering that the first three points all relate to ‘Teacher Talking Time’. Most English lessons become disasters when the teacher makes the lesson more about him/herself than the students. Use your talking time to set up an activity, then shut up and let your students take over.