Note to self – materials lite does not equal planning lite

Today I learnt a valuable lesson: doing a lesson without materials doesn’t mean that the lesson doesn’t require much planning either. In fact, after today’s experience I would say the opposite is true.

A bit of context for you:

I’m three weeks in to an eight week intensive course to complete module 2 of the DELTA. We teach twice a week for one hour at a time and, depending on the week we are either formally assessed, observed but unassessed, or not observed at all by our tutors. Today’s lesson was the latter and the only other non-student in the room was one of the other sleep-deprived DELTA trainees.

In these unobserved lessons we’ve been encouraged to try out new things that we wouldn’t normally do in the classroom, as long as they have some sound teaching principles behind them of course, and to get feedback on these lessons from peers and students. It’s really a fantastic opportunity. You have freedoms that you normally don’t get in English language teaching institutions, and the fact that the students aren’t paying for the course takes some of the pressure off.

I’ve always wanted to try one of those materials lite lessons that I’ve heard so much about. Dogme without the theory or, as my American colleague so delicately put it “just you, some board pens and big set of nuts.” This style of teaching has always appealed to me. I reasoned that if I didn’t have any materials, then I wouldn’t need to do much planning. This unfortunately was not the case.

The lesson itself was on speaking and presenting skills and I went in with an activity I remembered from my CELTA course 4 years ago, where students are given a sheet of A4 and asked to write a topic that they’re interested in and know a lot about at the top of the page. They then sit in a circle and pass their papers around, adding one question that they want answered about the topic at the top of the page they receive. After several rounds the students take their paper back and set about answering the questions by writing responses. Then the teacher encourages them to organise the answers into a coherent and cohesive three minute presentation, which they then give to the class.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well it is, but a few problems came up that hadn’t been anticipated in advance, most of which can be fixed with a few minor tweaks. Here’s a little breakdown of said problems and what I’d do differently next time:

Problem 1:

No prior thought given to a model for the students

Result:

I ended up making one up on the fly, which lacked any relevance to the learners and made it difficult for them to understand what they had to do.

Tweak:

Think up a good example that would be relevant to the class you’re teaching. My colleague suggested “Daily life in Vietnam” which would have been perfect for my 9 native Vietnamese learners. This wouldn’t require much forethought as it’s information that I’ve already got in my head, and making it contextually relevant to the students would mean they wouldn’t be lost from the outset.

Problem 2:

Learners had too broad a focus for their presentations

Result:

It was quite time consuming going around and narrowing the focus on individuals’ topics. The trouble was that some were putting things like ‘nature’ which could end up in questions about anything related to the natural world. This would have made a three minute presentation impossible.

Tweak:

Again, a good model would have helped considerably. Using checking questions on the topic for my model to elicit that it’s quite specific would have made the task set up flow much more smoothly and allowed learners more time for producing, practising and feedback.

Problem 3:

Not enough time

Result:

Students were rushed and I had no time for feedback or error correction on their impressive presentations

Tweak:

Use the activity in a class that lasts more than an hour, or tighten up the task set up stages. A lot of time was wasted going over what needed to be done and giving my delayed, off the cuff example.

Problem 4:

No error correction or feedback

Result:

Although they enjoyed the task and produced a lot of good language, there wasn’t a really clear outcome for the lesson. This left them feeling a little lost.

Tweak:

Peer correction and practice in small groups. This upper intermediate group are really capable and would have been able to give each other a lot of help if there was a drafting stage. This would in turn have made the final presentations a lot better in terms of the language being used.

So, in summary, this could be a really great activity with some small, but beneficial changes. The positives are that the students practised important skills like giving presentations, which no doubt they will need in their future careers. They also had a great time and really enjoyed telling each other about their hobbies and interests, which was great to see. With the small adjustments mentioned above and a bit more thought about what I’m doing before the lesson begins, this could really be a fantastic lesson plan that I’ll be able to use for years to come.

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