Ways to start off a class
Originally published on Think Tank at the ELT News website in Japan. March 2009.
There were two tips I gave to new teachers about the first lesson: learn the students’ names and get them moving about.
The first lesson is unpredictable, and varies according to situation, one factor being how long it is, another how long the students are going to be studying on the course.
Most people consider the lesson unit to be 45 to 60 minutes, with 90 minutes to 120 minutes considered a double-lesson. Double lessons are common in evening classes and are becoming almost standard in many secondary schools in Europe. Teachers point out that it takes ten minutes at least for most students to switch into English mode, and this makes the 45 minute lesson uneconomic. I would consider first lesson strategies to be for no more than for the first 45 to 60 minutes. In a double lesson, I would expect to be teaching something in the second half.
If you have people for ten evening classes, or as I often did, for nine day intensive courses, you don’t hang around too much over the first lesson. You break the ice and get started.
Learning students’ names is essential, though lapses can be forgiven by everyone concerned once class size passes thirty. In groups of forty or fifty, the students don’t expect you to know their names. Learning names takes work. I’d sit down with the register and read them all carefully before the lesson, then concentrate really hard as I called the first register and said a few words to each student, making sure I used the name. Kenji? Ah, hello, Kenji. What’s your job, Kenji? How did you come here today, Kenji?
I had mainly multi-lingual classes which are a lot easier to remember, but at the same time I taught monolingual groups on specialized courses (Kuwaiti nurses, Japanese golfers, Venezuelan oil workers, Chinese translators, Algerian air traffic controllers) and most of these were single sex, which makes them doubly harder.
Many teachers have students make name cards for the first few lessons, but I prided myself on remembering. Teachers would protest that it was hard, but I was the head of department, and instead of seeing five classes a week, I saw all ten or twelve in my department and knew all of their names. That was thirty years ago, I hasten to add. I also banned teachers from writing helpful notes on the register card, which was common practice before I was head of department. However politely they are phrased, physical descriptions are going to be offensive if anyone accidentally sees them. One teacher used to write things like ‘fat, spotty, glasses’ in pencil.
I picked up one other tip watching a colleague, who was fluent in seven or more languages, and native speaker level in four of them. He could pronounce every name in any class perfectly. I noticed that students were intimidated pronouncing English when confronted with his perfect accent in their language. At the same time we had a French-Canadian group learning English, and I’d done a song in class (The Band’s ‘Acadian Driftwood’) which has a few lines of French at the end. They so loved correcting my French accent, that I determined in future to retain a definite slight Anglicization when I pronounced names, and have students correct me in lesson one. And I’d try hard to improve and say, ‘Is that OK?’ The psychological effect is that we’re going through a process together. No one’s perfect. Foreign languages are tricky to pronounce.
Cultural sensitivies intervene in a multi-lingual situation, but nevetheless, I would always have a circulating, smiling, shaking hands and introduction phase, even with zero beginners, though with zero beginners you teach the basic introduction language first. (And it might just be, ‘Hello. I’m Peter.’) You need to get across the idea that the classroom is not a static place. You can also get across that facial expression and friendly tone are as much a part of the introduction as the words. From elementary (British elementary, i.e. level two, rather than ‘starter’) up, I’d have a form so that students could interview each other and find out basic facts.
The problem with first lessons is that spare fifteen or twenty minutes at the end. You learn the names, you have students introduce themselves to each other thoroughly, but then you have quarter of an hour or so before the bell. As a course book writer, I try to envisage the first lesson. I assume that in many situations the book will only be opened in lesson two (or part two of the double lesson). We have often written a classroom language pre-unit because this will only take 15 or 20 minutes. We’ve often built the introductions (including circulating and a pair work form) into lesson one in the book.
Who are the students? Are they students on a secondary or tertiary education course who already know each other? Or are they new to the course? Don’t forget that people might be interviewing strangers, and some facts, even ones as basic as marital status might be information they would prefer to keep to themselves. Most people would be wary about giving a telephone number to a stranger in lesson one. I once attended a talk on Gender & ELT where the speaker was advocating the use of ‘Ms’ in most situations, and one teacher said she would always prefer to use a definite ‘Mrs’ if introducing herself to a male stranger in an evening class.
This is where the course book can help (and so can the teacher without a book) by putting students into a role-play situation right at the start. Think of a famous person. Imagine you’re that person. Write down an imaginary address, phone number, etc.
In one low intermediate book (Grapevine Two) we set lesson one on a space station. There’s a conversation which starts off the lesson where a computer interviews a new arrival. The new arrival is a computer designer and there’s a comic punch line … as more information appears the interviewing computer gets more and more excited and the punch-line is when the computer finally proves who the computer designer is and exclaims ‘Mummy!’ Then students do a role play interview with a blank form and information based on the characters. Then they do a real interview with a partner, and the teacher says clearly that they can invent information or use real information. It’s their choice. Personalization has its place, and with students who know each other, it’s obvious that you will probably use real information. But in lesson one with adult strangers? Students may wish to preserve their privacy just a little longer. Role play allows this.