Tips for teachers

Saving time on lesson plans

Language teachers know that often the best lesson plans are those they develop themselves.  Course books are fine used in moderation, and there is a wealth of ready-made lesson plans that can be found all over the Internet.  But nearly everything needs at least some tweaking, if not a full scale adaptation if its going to suit the personality of the trainer and the specific needs of the learner.

But the big issue is time.  With all the best of intentions its not easy to set aside time to develop new materials.  This is where automated text analysis tools come in handy, and can save you time when creating reading comprehension activities.  One such example is  They are newly out of beta, and it looks like there are still a few wrinkles that need ironing out, but it’s well worth a try.  Although it is not possible to upload your own text for analysis, there is an extensive database of recent news articles from a variety of sources, and it is fairly easy to find something topical and appropriate.

The process is quick and easy:

  1. Choose your article and level.
  2. Highlight difficult or topical vocabulary (just select the number of words, Lingle highlights a list automatically, which you can save).
  3. Automatically create exercises (grammar and vocabulary gapfills, word matching, word ordering, sentence ordering, or free text options where you can invent your own exercise).
  4. Create a glossary for difficult or topical words. The list is automatically populated with definitions from one of two online dictionaries, or you can add your own.
  5. Create a usage list – a list of sentences with the focus vocabulary used in context (taken from the Lingle corpus – unfortunately the sentences are not always especially relevant, and sometimes too short to give sufficient context).

All of these tools are fairly customiseable, and if you you don’t like any of the words or expressions selected automatically for the gapfill exercises you can delete them and add your own with a little extra effort.

The goal of Lingle is to serve as a platform where you can build up your own collection of lessons, that your students can actually access and use online, so it lends itself well to creating self-access homework exercises.  It is also easy to print .pdfs. But as with any automated tool, you may want to do some cutting, pasting and tweaking before you’re entirely satisfied with the result.  As their user base increases the tool is only going to improve, and at 40€ for a year’s subscription it’s not bad value, and they have a free 30-day trial to take it for a spin.

Lingle lesson plan screenshot

photo credit: blisschan cc

First language class adapted for live online teaching

To teachers and students who are new to live online language learning, I often say that anything you can imagine doing in a real classroom, you can also do in a Virtual Learning Environment, or virtual classroom – except better!  Well, perhaps a slight exaggeration, but it is quite true that there is no shortage of ideas for adapting language teaching material to the online environment.

When it comes to ideas for language teaching, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Most language teaching activities and methods are just adaptations of old favourites that have been circulated in various incarnations for years, and are easily personalised with a tweak here and there. However, teaching live online does require a little originality to adapt activities to the virtual environment.

So over a few blog posts we’re going to look at some of the classic favourites for first classes, and see how we might adapt them to a virtual learning environment.

Wordling Me.

I think I am indebted to Karenne Sylvester for this idea, and I have used it for many first classes.

Object: introducing the teacher
Language input: practicing various question forms
Skills input: oral fluency

Think of about 15 words or short phrases that illustrate an aspect of your life. For example, you may choose « peanuts », « 14 » and « Somerset Maugham », if you happen to be allergic to peanuts, you have been in your present job for 14 years, and Somerset Maugham is your favourite short story writer.

For best visual effect in a virtual classroom, make a Wordle of your list of words/phrases. Remember that to ensure that words belonging to the same phrase don’t get separated, you need to connect them with a tilde (~). Once the wordle has been created you can modify it to your liking using the font, layout and colour menus. Although it is possible to save a wordle to a public gallery with a link, I generally find it easier to create a .pdf using the print menu, or simply to make a screenshot. Once you have your image saved somewhere convenient for easy access, you can easily upload it to whatever virtual classroom you are using, or share it over Skype or by E-mail. A recent example of my own is at the top of this post.

Timesaver tip:

With visuals I know I am going to use again, I generally insert them into a powerpoint that I can add other materials to for a ready made class. It’s great to be able to upload all the materials you need in one go, rather than having to create individual slides each time you prepare for a class.

Once you have introduced the task, your student needs to begin asking you questions until they manage to elicit from you the exact answer. Take « peanuts », for example:

Student: Do you like peanuts?
Teacher: No. (It generally takes a few tries before they realise that of course closed questions are not going to get them anywhere)
Student: Hmmm. What is your favourite food?
Teacher: Pizza.
Student: OK, what did you have for breakfast?
Teacher: Cereal. (At this point you might offer a clue – « Actually, I really don’t like peanuts).
Student: Oh, OK. What food don’t you like.
Teacher: Brussels sprouts 🙂
Student: Or, what food are you allergic to?
Teacher: Peanuts!

The above example conversation would be for Intermediate level students and above, but the exercise can be adapted to any level, and you can decide as the teacher what level of accuracy you are shooting for.

The exercise easily leads into work on the grammar of question forms, so if your wordle is already in a powerpoint you can just add slides with your question forms exercises and you have a reusable class all ready to go.
It can also be extended into an oral fluency exercise by asking the students to create their own list of words or phrases, and having their partner question them in the same way.