Adventures from the classroom 27

Best Friend Forever

I have a new BFF, and it's a company car.

Our beautiful 1999 Peugeot 406 sports a 'BFF' number plate and carries me between classes with moderate speed and only minor clutch issues.

I never thought I would be driving again, but Navarra demands it. It's a state that has a lot of medium sized companies outside of the capital, and these business want English. Cue me and my car.

I travel twice a day to different places to teach a class - one company makes plastic coatings, one is a freight and logistics company, and one is an NGO which consults for local businesses.

Companies can often write off the expense of language classes with some clever tax trickery, so there's a huge demand for English and German (VW factory) in the area.

Everyone is a winner right?

Well, kind of. Most companies ask employees to attend before work or during their lunch break, so this means my classes start early or you have to eat later.

Thankfully, companies aren't too focused on archaic Business English books, so classes are tailored to the students' interests and consist of conversation, games and bad jokes. Keeping the clients happy shouldn't be too hard, although getting them to do any homework is going to be a challenge.

View of Pamplona from Cordovilla offices


Face time:

In addition to business and exam preparation classes, I have several one-to-one classes each week. Many adults are happy to pay for more personal focus, allowing more time for feedback, questions and explanations.

90 minutes can sometimes feel like a long time with one student, and without group discussion conversation can run a little dry. However, by taking a keen interest in their lives and bringing a few prompts or activities to class usually solves the problem.

One of the classes is with my landlord, so we can always talk about the broken socket, of pick a new colour for the walls. Another class is conducted over Skype, so we waste a good 15 minutes fixing technical problems and repeating ourselves.

Some people want to be scolded and corrected at every mistake, and some need a lot of coaxing to express themselves in detail and not just utter the bare minimum. Many are working towards Cambridge exams and we only have time for practice questions and strategy.

One thing I try to get across to my students, is that to progress, they have to fit English in to their lifestyles. The four hours of book work you pencil in for Sunday evening, won't happen. Developing daily habits and blocking out short periods make English less daunting and more of a reality. Even if you don't live abroad, seeing real application for the language you are learning is easier than you think - radio, TV, social networks, application, news. You have to just develop those habits.

A typical exam preparation class at the academy


Etymological salubrity

Vocabulary is one of the easiest takeaways for students. If they learn six new words and practice them, they can walk out of class feeling like they got what they paid for.

As language teachers we often have to simplify our language for such long periods that our own vocabulary suffers. I'd like to give a special mention to a colleague Andrew who is so determined to maintain his lexical variety that he told me he wouldn't be going out for a drink as he was at a 'temporarily impecunious juncture within the calendar'.

After asking him what the hell he meant, he clarified that he was broke.

A lot of my students have a B2 level or higher, so they really gobble up idioms and slang phrases that they haven't encountered before. As a native speaker, this is what I can bring to the table. Student books often contain rather dry, scholastic language so using some real life expressions can breathe a bit of fresh air into the class.

The Cambridge exams are almost exclusively a test of your vocabulary and ability to recognise synonyms, so the more we practice using alternatives, the better.

To be honest, vocab outside of texts or listenings isn't something I have focused on before but I am making a real effort this year. I nag my students to display their vocab sheets on the fridge or below the TV - somewhere unavoidable in your eye line. To successfully acquire new words you have to revise, practice and produce them, so copying them and leaving the sheet in a folder won't help. I had another suggestion to add them as a calendar appointment online, giving you an email reminder to look again.

I like to think on my feet, so I scribble words on the board throughout the class explaining as I go. At the end of class, the students copy the list and test each other through one of the following methods:

  • Which word . . . ?
  • Synonyms / Antonyms
  • Translation
  • Example sentences / questions
  • definition
  • Spelling
  • Mime
  • Parts of speech

So the theory goes anyway. I'll keep you updated with the development of my students' lexical prowess.


Warming the cockles

Pamplona is indeed one of the coldest places in Spain, but this is not this kind of heat I speak of. One particular foible of teaching adults rather than kids is that they like to offer the bare minimum and downplay the events in their life.

"How's it going?"
"Fine . . ."
"Have you got any news since the last class?"
"Not really."

"OK. Turn to page 37 please."

You need to 'warmer' activities to put the little grey cells to work and switch the brain to 'active mode'.

The vocab test exercise works well for this, but it can be a bit repetitive so I've come up with a few other ideas.

Recently, I've been using drinking games to get things going - 21, 5s, fuzzy duck (although I have yet to think of a suitable punishment for losing). We also have some card games like Taboo and Card against humanity which work well if you have more time.

One thing I like to do to break the constricted 'grown up' pattern of thought is get them to solve a problem or make a decision.

"Think of 5 creative uses for paper clips"
"Create a rule that the class has to follow today"

and my personal favourite "What do you know about . . ."

The other day I brought a potato to class and made everyone produce 'potato facts'. It really breaks the linear pattern of thought.

"Yes we know it is a potato. Tell me about the appearance, history, growing conditions, origin, importance, and uses for it."

The winner of best spud fact won the potato as a prize (who says I never buy anything for the students?)


The Twain train

Another part of my quest to guide learners towards authentic English is to work through a book during the year.

I chose the Adventures of Tom Sawyer as it has some fairly simple allegorical concepts, some simplistic characters and is available for free online.

I get the students to read two short chapters per week and complete a short task (summary, order the events, review, character sketch, T/F questions etc.) It is easy to see if they've done the homework anyway!

It is going well enough at the moment and provides a good 30 minute break from the coursebook. However, I am starting to realise that I have really set myself the homework of reading it cover to cover too as the teacher needs to know the text inside out.

End of chapter 27.