Setting the Tone on Day One (and Keeping it Going)

Do-nows are one of my most important go-to teaching tools. They aren’t suitable for every lesson in every classroom in the world. But when they do work, they solve one of the biggest problems a teacher can face: How to get students to transition smoothly into class time.

The Problem

When I first started teaching, I did a lot of one-to-one tutoring. So my first time teaching a big class took some adjusting. I got to class ten minutes early, and students started shuffling in shortly thereafter. As they came in, they threw down their bags on their desks and started congregating in the back to chat. Some students sat down, but leaned sideways in their desks to talk across the aisle. A few students would come in to cries of, “Hey, Peter. What’s going on?” A handful of students would come in, settle into their seats, getting out books and pencils. But as class hadn’t quite started yet, the quickly got bored and started playing on their cellphones or doodling.

When it came time to start class, no one was looking up at me and there was quite a bit of background noise. After trying to talk over it several times with no result, I ended up turning out the lights. That quieted them down, but it was hardly a permanent solution.

The Solution: Do-Nows

Instead of letting students get distracted in all that dead time before class, give them a focus as soon as they walk into class. That’s what a do-now (or bell ringer) is: an activity students do as they walk in the door. It sets the tone for the class–this is a place where we work. There’s a nice story here that suggests that do-nows are particularly effective on the first day of school because they set the tone for the whole school year.

What Makes a Good Do-Now?

They Do it on Their Own

In order for students to be able to do a do-now as they walk in, it needs to be a clear task that students can do with no input from the teacher. That means the directions should be available and obvious, whether it be on the board or on a handout. They shouldn’t need to check their answers with you from part one in order to go on to part two, either. A do-now is something they can do on their own, while you are getting ready for class. (I gather these are sometimes called teacherless tasks (And Rachel Roberts has a rather nice post up on what makes a good teacherless task).

One great way to make sure students grasp the task without teacher input is to have a limited set of kinds of Do-Now activities. In my classroom, if students walk into class and see a proverb on the board, they know that their job is to interpret the meaning and decide if they agree or disagree. If they see a word cloud, they know they must guess the connection or the theme of the class.

BoredGirlFBBeing able to do it on their own also means that they shouldn’t need any additional materials. Everything they need should be readily available to them. A student can’t do something now, if they are waiting on something you give them, or even waiting for a partner to arrive. Ideally, they shouldn’t need anything more than a pen and perhaps a handout that you leave in a conspicious location. Since do-nows are a sort of warm-up activity, you don’t want students spending 10 minutes finding a book on the bookshelf or collecting objects around the room or looking up a lot of information on a website. You also don’t want to give students an excuse not to do the activity, so make sure they have everything they need.

Real Work, Just Faster

Doing it on their own also means that the activity is leveled to the students. It shouldn’t be too hard for the student to need assistance, but not too easy to be boring. And there should be a clear time limit. I like a good do-now that takes 10 minutes, with the possibility of an extension. My rule of thumb is 5 minutes before class time and 5 minutes into class.

A good do-now shouldn’t be busy work. It should relate to the theme of the class. Some teachers use class activities or test questions as do-nows. As an English teacher, I like using a do-now that is a bit more fun and engaging than a typical grammar activity, for example.  But my do-nows always have students working with the English language. It shouldn’t be meaningless fun. Students shouldn’t feel that they have wasted their time.

In fact, some teachers argue that a do-now should result in written output which is assessed by the teacher. Otherwise, students will not take it seriously. I don’t necessarily agree that every time you start class, you need an activity that requires an output and a grade. But there should definitely be some result that is a t the very least discussed openly in class.schoolgirlwithbook800x600

The Perfect Do-Now

My go-to do-now is a proverb or quotation on the board. As I mentioned, students can then figure out what it means and decide if they agree or not. Then we discuss it briefly. I then try to link the proverb to the theme of the class.

Other great follow-ups include:

  • Translate the proverb into your language
  • Think of a proverb from your culture that is similar.
  • Think of a story that proves or disproves the proverb
  • Since proverbs often contain an idiom or metaphor or some nonstandard grammar, we can talk about that language feature and try to use it elsewhere.

If you’re looking for a collection of quick and easy do-nows, check out my book, On the Board. It’s full of 200 proverbs, brain-teasers, riddles, puzzles, and jokes that make perfect fast, no-prep do-nows for your classroom!

And share your ideas for do-nows in the comments.

Cross-posted on the Alphabet Publishing blog

How to Use Videos in Class

FIlmFBMediaAlthough, I freely admit that I’ve planned movie lessons upon occasion in order to get out of preparing a real less, students actually can get a lot out of videos and films. When students are watching a video, they’re listening and also absorbing body language. Videos are full of visual cues that students can pick up on. Finally, films are often fun and engaging, so students want to pay attention. But without a plan, a film-based lesson can turn into kids just watching a movie.

Now there are some great sites for using films in class, such as I’ll also  Film English . But what if you have a film you love, and you want to use it in class. But no one’s done a lesson about it yet?

How to Use Films in Class

Here’s a basic framework for how I like to use videos in class, along with some examples of how it can be used with a video that I love: Mr Bean. It does require breaking the video into shorter sections. I recommend watching the video before class to get an idea of how it logically breaks down into sections. Note the times when each section begins and ends.


You’ll also need to prepare a few sets of questions. First you need questions that students can answer while watching the film. These questions should have clear and concrete answers. They should guide the student to understand the important parts of the film such as “Why did the man go into the building?”, “Who did he see in there?” Avoid questions about small details, like “What color was the man’s suit.”

On the other hand, if the film maker is using color or clothing to depict a theme, it’s good to direct students’ attention to that while they are watching.

The second set of questions should be more abstract and focus on the themes of the film or larger artistic issues. Ideally, these should be questions that require an understanding of various parts of the film, and be open to debate: “What kind of person do you think the hero is?” or “Do you agree with the mother that people are always cruel to each other?”

If the film is not one that lends itself to heavy themes, or it’s a non-fiction film, you can ask questions such as, “Have you ever been in that situation?” or “What do you think would happen if something was a bit different?”

The Procedure

1. Put students in pairs or small groups.

2. Play the video bit by bit. Have students watch and try to answer questions related to that section.

For the Mr. Bean video, I’d divide it into the parts where he makes the sandwich, eats the sandwich, and perhaps making tea/the ending. So I’d give students a worksheet with three sets of questions to answer as they are watching.

As for what would be good questions: I’d ask lots of questions about what he pulls out of his coat and why. Very concrete questions about what he does. Incidentally, this would be a good video for practicing vocabulary or verb tenses as students describe Mr. Bean’s actions.

3. Have them check their answers with another pair.

At the end of each section, stop the video and give them a chance to check their answers with another pair or group. This lets them help each other recap what happened, too. If you hear confused students, hopefully you’ll also hear other students explaining what happened to them.

4. If the whole class is completely lost, replay that section.

If 75% of the class, can’t figure it out, give them another chance or two, before stepping in to help.

5. Discuss the questions and any other questions students have to make sure they are following the video.

Before going on to the next section, give students a chance to ask any burning questions or quickly underline any key points. You might say something as simple as, “So, we’ve seen Mr. Bean make a sandwich in a very odd way. And his neighbor, well, his neighbor is pretty surprised. He probably thinks this is pretty gross.”

6. Have students predict what will happen next.

You may also want to give them any information they might need to interpret the next section.

7. For the next section of the video, repeat steps 2-6.

8. When the video is over, review the video as a whole. Discuss questions about the general theme or objective of the video.

You might do a quick summarizing activity, such as having students write a short summary or each tell one thing that happened. I sometimes do paragraph frames with key words missing and have students fill in the missing words.

Then move on to thematic questions. For Mr. Bean, questions about intercultural understanding often work well, as well as the theme of clowning. Clowns show us why we do things the way we do them, by showing what happens if you do them the wrong way. At the same time, clowns are very consistent in their own universe. You might ask students what is the normal way to make a sandwich? Why do you think Mr. Bean does it his way? Does Mr. Bean think we are strange? Can you think of different ways to do the same thing?

You could discuss the performance. Why doesn’t Mr. Bean talk? How does the actor use his face to make us laugh? What is the role of the straight man?

9. Move on to talking about how the video relates to something personal. This is a good time to do a writing or task where students apply something from the video to their lives. Students could also create their own scenes, or talk about a time they saw a clown or comedy performance.

I hope that framework works for you. I’d love to hear how it goes for your film-based lessons. Let me know in the comments.

Principles of Visual Design for eBooks

This is a little video I made summing up some of the stuff I’ve learned about Visual Design and applying it to educational materials such as eBooks. I became interested in this after Tammy Jones and Gabriela Kleckova’s wonderful presentation on Visual Design Principles for Teachers at TESOL 2014.

I’ve done a bit of reading here and there but am by no means an expert. But I hope that my presentation will give you something to think about as you work on your eBooks and I’ve listed my sources and other places to get information below the video.

Principles of Visual Design for Educators

Sources and Resources

A lot of my presentation is basically rewording the information for Purdue’s OW’s presentations on Visual Design.

Purdue also led me to this fun site about the effects of color, Color in Motion.

If you’re looking for inspiration to get a color scheme, the  Color Scheme Designer is the best tool I know of. I like to find a color that speaks to me, then press the Triad button at top to get two other colors and then adjust as I see fit. And again, always think about complementary colors (I think I called them contrasting colors in my presentation) as well as combining light and dark variations.

Canva, which is a cool site for making graphics, also has a nice color tool that lets you pick a color and see related colors, palettes, and a bit of information about the color as well.

There’s a nice tutorial on Spacing and Font Size that gives some advice on balancing your text and your white space.

And finally a site that features some pleasing Font Combinations to give you some good ideas.

The Bottom Line

Summing up with some basic practical advice, in case you don’t have a ton of time to watch a presentation and research online.

  • Have a set consistent style where all the unit headers look a certain way, all the directions look a certain way, all the vocabulary lists look a certain way, and so on….
  • Keep your layout simple and clear and easy to read.
  • Make sure the student can glance at your pages and easily distinguish what’s what–ah, this must be the reading text and this picture goes with these questions.
  • Use a minimum of fonts and colors, but do use some color and decoration.
  • Sans-serif fonts and serif fonts go well together.
  • A little bolding or underlining or making a font 3-4 sizes bigger can go a long way.
  • Use pictures. But align them so that they line up with the rest of the text.
  • Don’t do this (Busy, hard to read, inconsistent):

Or this (boring):

Or this (Too many different styles mixed together):

Bad Design

And I’m happy to take questions, comments, or critiques in the comments here or on the EVO Community site or by email.

Horizontal and Vertical Lesson Plan Templates

I’ve blogged before on this wonderful video from the ever-resourceful Jason Renshaw. If you haven’t looked at this easy method of making nice looking lesson plan templates, check it out.

I’m mainly re-posting on this just to share two Word 2010 document templates you can work with:

Feel free to customize them as you see fit. Because I mostly print out my pages, I do leave the main background white, but a nice light gradient works well too.


How to Kill the Dead Time: Students Who Haven't Done the Homework

I had this saved as a draft and when I came back to look at it now, I realized that this is one of my least favorite parts of teaching and the part I feel most helpless dealing with. What do you do when you are about to go over the homework and a student or two tell you they haven’t done it? If you tell them they can do it while everyone else reviews, you’re basically telling students it’s okay not to do the homework. If you tell them to work with someone who did do the homework, you’re allowing them to copy. And I speak from experience, not just abstract theory. If you give them no task, they whip out those cellphones.

So honestly, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with them.  I have no idea what I was going to write here. I have some ideas on <a href=””>How NOT to hand back homework</a> or go over it in class. But, that only solves the problem some of the time.

So gentle reader I ask for your suggestions. What do you do when some of the students have not done the homework?

How to Kill the Dead Time: Students Droning On

The title of this post sounds a bit unsympathetic, but you know what I’m talking about. You ask a question of the students, perhaps a warm-up at the beginning such as, “How was your weekend?” And one student starts to tell about his weekend in great detail for five to ten minutes. Or maybe it’s the answer to a reading question. You ask, “Why did the man see his father?” and you want an answer like, “To help fix the sink” but one student starts retelling every nuance of the relationship between the man and his father. He’s preempting your next question, “Why is that significant?” by explaining how Dad has Parkinson’s disease and can’t do the job alone. He’s talking about irrelevant details like the color of their clothing which is confusing the class. Most importantly, while this one student is talking, the others are taking out their cellphones, doing homework for their next class, or reading ahead which throws the whole class timing off.

This article is the second to last in my series on How to Kill Dead Time in class. I really think that when we teachers keep the class moving and don’t give students a chance to get bored or distracted, a lot of class management issues disappear. You can read about other ideas by looking at that earlier post. This post is on suggestions of what to do when one student is dominating class time. This is an important area for me and one that I am not good at managing. Hence I’m really enjoying looking at what other teachers do about it and I’d love to hear your comments as well.

Getting Students to Shut Up (I mean…managing over-enthusiastic participators)

This is tricky because we usually encourage students to talk, right? So how do you politely tell a student to give a shorter answer without 1) insulting him or her, 2) discouraging participation, and 3) discouraging complete answers?

  • When you hear the right answer, cut them off quickly with praise. Say, “yes” and maybe echo the answer. This provides a model of the kind of answer you want and also interrupts the student with praise.
  • When the student moves beyond the right answer and starts to preempt your next question, tell them, “That’s my next question. Who else can tell me?” If they persist, say, “Let’s give someone else a chance.”
  • Talk to dominant students outside of class.
  • Obviously NEVER be sarcastic or indicate that talking long is a bad idea. Never mock students in class.

Preventing the Problem in the first place

  • Make sure the question is clear and students get what you want. Sometime students give shotgun answers, they just talk and talk and hope they hit the target.
  • Make sure this is a question that needs to have a free answer. I know we are taught to always let students talk and ask open-ended questions but sometimes holding up a piece of paper with the answer, or matching, or something else is better practice
  • Think-Pair-Share gives students a chance to think first and refine their answer with a partner. Plus talkative students may get it out of their system by talking to another student.

Funnily enough, British Council’s just posted a related question on what to do with a dominant student in class:

The ideas I liked included:

  • A basic, always-enforced everyone speaks once before someone can speak a second time rule.
  • Give students a set number of talking cards per class or activity. Every time they talk, they spend one card. Once they are out of cards, they cannot speak. This helps if you have perpetual talkers in class.
  • Speak to a dominant or loquacious student after class and let him or her know that while participation is awesome, he or she needs to let everyone talk.
  • Force students to raise hands. Never call on a caller-outer.


How to Teach Grammar

So I have been a bit leery of dogme, primarily because it seemed like in the wrong hands, it might turn into anything I do is good for my students or we’ll just go in the classroom and chat (c.f. the first part of the latest ELTchat summary: “Dogme is NOT winging it (@PatrickAndrews)”).

That being said, I’ve been reading some Scott Thornbury lately on teaching grammar and I think there’s a lot of sense in the idea that workbook exercises only go so far. Students need to learn how to use grammar to express themselves and to express nuances. They need lots of input and they need authentic contexts to practice in. And they need lots of student talk time as opposed to doing worksheets.

I work in an intensive English program and each session we have certain set points of grammar that we must cover. The students get tested on them at the end, although only about 20% of the test is choosing a correct grammatical form. Quite a bit of the testing involves interpreting vocab and grammar to answer comprehension questions. In any case, we still have to “do” the present perfect continuous or reported speech.

I’ve been developing an outline of a process for how I develop authentic context-heavy, student-centered grammar lessons that students seem to love. I’m offering it here for anyone to borrow, modify, use, criticize or reject. The process goes something like this:

Where Have I Heard That Before?

I think of a context or function where that grammar point is used, because I want the students to understand exactly where and when they will see this form or use it. I always find that the more specific I can make the context, the better. Sometimes that context may come from the unit or sometimes it may come from the grammar itself. It is very important to determine whether this form is found in speaking or writing and whether students will need to produce it or merely recognize that it is correct.

I remember doing a lesson on inverted conditionals: Had I known, I would have come sooner. I thought, “When on earth do we ever use this grammar?” It seemed very formal to me and I immediately saw some sort of announcement from a fancy hotel. And then I remembered hearing on airplanes, “Should the pressure inside the cabin drop…” So now I had a good context: formal announcements within the tourist industry. From that it was easy to decide the lesson would focus on reading and understanding since this was a primarily written form, one that needs to be recognized more than reproduced.

This is the process I used to come up with this little gem on indirect or reported speech (which incidentally I know was posted to ELTBites, but I can’t find it there now).