Guess What's in the Teacher's Brain

This is a post that has sat in my drafts box for a while now. I can’t remember now if the title comes from Penny Ur or Tessa Woodward. However, the essence of the passage was that too often when teachers pose a question, they are asking students to read their minds. That is, we ask a closed question to students and we already know the answer that we want to hear. We will refuse to accept any answer besides the one in our head.

When we are asking students about a grammar point or a vocabulary word, a question that has only one correct answer, this makes a great deal of sense.  These kinds of questions are also good for comprehension checks. I think they also help with guiding students to a correct answer and modeling thought processes.

However, if we are trying to start a discussion or encourage critical thinking,  then asking an open-ended question which in fact we believe has only one right answer is encouraging the opposite of critical thinking. Instead of reading the source and coming up with their own opinion which they will then defend, such questions ask students to read the teacher and give the kind of answer the teacher agrees with.

Modeling Thought Processes Instead of Feeding Thoughts

NoFor example, I once taught the story, Just a Lather, That’s All, about (spoiler alert) a government general who goes to get a shave from a barber who secretly sympathizes with anti-government rebels. As the general recounts his brutal actions, the barber debates internally whether to slit his throat or not. In the end, he does not. The general gets up and says, “I knew you wanted to kill me and I wanted you to know that it isn’t easy to kill someone.”

In such a story where the two characters have a number of conflicting and complicated emotions, questions like the following have no right answer:

  1. How does the barber feel at the end?
  2. What does the general mean by, “…But killing isn’t easy. You can take my word for it.”?
  3. Does the general enjoy killing rebels?
  4. Why does the barber decide not to kill the general?

Each reader has to interpret the text as he or she sees fit. Asking these questions and then guiding (forcing) students into a correct answer is destructive to their enjoyment of literature, which they will learn is about reading to find the one true interpretation. And it’s destructive to their critical thinking facilities as they learn to interpret the teacher’s world view, not the author’s.

What we can do is ask guided questions that have varying degrees of right answers to help students come up with their own answers to the above questions such as:

  1. What was the general doing before the story began?
  2. Is the barber a rebel or pro-government? How do you know?
  3. What does the barber think about doing to the general?
  4. What does he mean in paragraph 7 when he says, “My destiny depends on the edge of this blade.”

We can draw their attention to the way the author talks about the razor-blade and how sharp it is, the fact that the barber is a skilled barber, to show how the author is saying how easy it would be to kill the general but at the same time how proud the barber is of his profession. We can guide them to talk about the different ways honor and doing your job are portrayed in the story. But in the end, what the story is really about, the significance of different symbols or actions, how the characters, let alone the author, feel…all these are open-ended questions and we do our students a disservice to restrict their analytical abilities. grammar definition

Beyond reading comprehension,

It may not be controversial to say that literary criticism has no one right answer. However,  I think we sometimes squash alternative readings of individual sentences in grammar books or on tests. Often that’s because a student has discovered a loophole in an example sentence and we feel that if we acknowledge it, we will get completely off-course. And we’ve all had the student who loves to pick holes at everything we put on the board in class (out of creativity or out of spite).

On the other hand, when we quash student creativity, we are also quashing their intuitive grasp of grammar and language. Too much, “OK look yeah, you’re right but common sense says that probably what’s going on in this sentence is X.” leads students to again rely on what teacher thinks is common sense rather than their own senses. And in some cases we may lead them to believe certain things are impossible to express in language.

One of the loveliest things about teaching the conditional is how subjective it often is. What’s the difference between starting a sentence with “If I were elected President…” and “If I am elected President…” ? Most of the textbooks on my shelf use this example or one very similar to it. And they all explain that the latter would be spoken by a candidate actively running for President because the first conditional is used only for factual or non-hypothetical situations. When a student begins a sentence with, “If I win the lottery…” or “If I earn a million dollars…” or “If I become President…” who are we to tell them that they are incorrect because they have no chances of achieving those goals?

It’s important to tread carefully when teaching students “correct grammar” or we might be limiting their aspirations, or their understanding of what they can do with words.


Target Vocabulary Questions

This is less of a coherent lesson plan and more of a series of related activities to recycle or review vocabulary through questions that drive the student to use the target words or phrases.  Teaching vocabulary is difficult because it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what learning or knowing a word really means, let alone how we evaluate when a student actually knows a word. As much as possible,  I like to give students the chance to be exposed to and use the vocabulary in a meaningful context. Asking and answering questions that authentically use the vocab is a great way to do that. Questions also lend themselves to incorporating other learning points like grammar, language style, or content. So here’s a few ways to do it.

I. Simple Vocabulary Questions

The simplest way to review or test vocabulary knowledge with questions is to give students questions that have the vocabulary in them, which sounds fairly obvious. See the image below for one example:

SimpleVocabQuestionsIt seems straightforward enough. But there are a few important points for writing good questions .

  1. The questions should use the vocabulary authentically. There’s no point in giving the students input if it isn’t good input. And students can pick up a lot from context, consciously and unconsciously including the most commonly used form of a word, the register and collocations. All of these are things that will help them later. And all of these tend to be things that students get wrong when using a new vocabulary word. For example, while “inflict” means to cause, it is really only used with negative situations and it generally collocates with a handful of words. A question like, “What do you enjoy inflicting on others?” is not going to help students learn to use the word correctly.
  2. The questions should help the student reflect on the meaning of the word in some way. Depending on the part of speech, students should be asked to give an example, or reflect on a nuance of the word, or relate it to a synonym or antonym, or discuss the word in some authentic context.
  3. That being said, you also need to consider what kind of knowledge of the word the student needs. Do they need to be able to recognize the word, grasp vaguely what it means, use it in a set chunk, or write and speak it clearly with 100% accuracy in all situations?
  4. Consider bolding or underlining or italicizing the word in some way so that students notice it.
  5. Finally, don’t be afraid to sneak in grammar review and content review by making the questions also feature a particular grammar form or relate to the theme of the unit you’re doing. This is especially easy if the vocabulary is on a particular topic. However do be sure that the questions aren’t taken directly from the book or already covered elsewhere so that students are sick to death of saying what their favorite food is or why salt is bad for you or whatever.

II. Question Dictations

Even if you can’t relate your questions to another topic, you can get in a bit more speaking practice, not to mention practice asking  for clarification by having students dictate the questions to each other before discussing them. Here’s an example of the Vocab Dictation Game. You’ll see a teacher’s sheet with all the questions that feature the target vocabulary and then a sheet for Student A and a sheet for Student B.  Basically each student has half of the list of questions and they need to take turns dictating their half of the questions to the other student. This is a great way to increase student talk time, force them to pronounce the word, and hear it, and also a chance to practice survival phrases like,

  • What did you say?
  • Can you say that again?
  • How do you spell it?
  • What did you say after “blue”?

Obviously to be done right, students should not see each other’s papers until they have finished dictating the questions. Then they can check if they got everything down correctly before discussing the questions.

III. Simple Vocabulary Answers

Obviously, if students are answering questions that use the word then they are recognizing the word and what it means. However, they may or may not use the word in the answer. If you do Question Dictations, then at least they are speaking the word. However that doesn’t mean they’re getting meaningful practice with it.  So one variation is to in some way force students to use the word in the answers as well as the questions.

A nice way to do this is with prompts:

VocabAnswers So here, I’m demanding that the students use the target idioms in their answers. The trick to doing this is to give authentic questions and imagine authentic answers–without forcing an answer. I think if you look at questions 5, 7, and 8, I’m basically forcing the student to give an answer of my own devising. #5 is pretty much set up for students to say something like, “You have to narrow down the textbook by underlining what’s important and what’s not.” Or, “You have to narrow it down to what you think will be on the test.” And that may not be the student’s strategy, so this is a bad example. Or a good example of what not to do. Because you want students to be focusing on expressing themselves with the language and not trying to read the teacher’s mind.


Goal 6 of 30: Investigate and Instigate Questions

Asking questions happens to be one of my favorite things to do. I used to run a discussion club in Kazakhstan where students could just come and chat about some topic or another. It was my favorite thing to do, to get students up and talking.

So I thought I would share two things here. One is a set of questions that DOES not work to get students thinking. These are questions that have obvious answers, or answers the students think are obvious.

Avoid the Obvious

I wrote a bit about this topic in getting students to speak already and one of the most important insights I think I made there (if I can be so egotistical) is that questions with obvious answers do not get students to talk and do not get them to think. Sometimes as teachers we try to play devil’s advocate or feign ignorance in order to elicit student participation. That can work well for grammar or vocab exercises but in critical thinking exercises it can often fall flat.
Continue reading “Goal 6 of 30: Investigate and Instigate Questions”

Find Someone Who, Greet Them As If

This lesson plan is a variation on the standard activity, “Find someone who…” If you aren’t familiar with this activity, students are given a worksheet with a series of sentences on them. They have to try to find a person in the classroom who matches each sentence.

For example, “Find someone who has a birthday in September,” or “Find someone who likes the color red”. Students then go around the classroom asking, “When is your birthday?” or “What’s your favorite color?” until they find the right students.

This exercise is a nice filler or warm up and it can be tailored to practice specific questions or vocab or structures. Want students to practice the present perfect? Give them statements like, “Find someone who’s been to India.” Or if you’re practicing the vocabulary of the kitchen, use statements like, “Find someone who knows how to flip pancakes in a skillet.”

My Twist: Greet Them As If

I’ve added a new dimension to this. It’s particularly good if you’re doing this activity as a warm-up or practicing social communication.

In this version, you give students a “find someone who” statement and a “greet them as if” instruction. For example students have a card that looks like this:

Find someone who has a pet dog.
Greet them as if they are your boss

Students go around the room asking, “Do you have a pet dog?” When they find someone who does, they now must greet them as if they were greeting their boss. So they might say, “Good morning sir. I’ll have that report for you tomorrow.”

This adds a little bit more fun to the activity, but more importantly it gives students practice in speaking in different ways and in different contexts.

It can also help you lead into a lesson about polite versus impolite speech or formal versus informal speech. Or appropriate ways to greet people, including topics of small talk with strangers.

Hope you enjoy this idea as much as I have enjoyed using it and as usual feel free to leave comments critiquing it or discussing how it worked in your class.

I have prepared 32 general cards for this activity which you can download in .doc format, so you can edit them all you want, but those took me a long time and some creativity to put together, so I’m asking for a small payment of 50 cents if you want to use those. That’s 50 cents for lifetime use. Click on the “Buy Now” button, if you’re interested.

32 sample cards for find someone who and greet them as if… in Word doc format.

Reverse Reading Comprehension

This reverse reading activity by Mike Harrison looks really interesting. The idea is that you have students write questions for an imaginary reading. Then they generate the reading to match the questions.

Seems like it would target a lot of skills at once, not only language skills like grammar, writing, and discussion but also teamwork, creativity, and collaboration.

I also love it as a way of teaching pre-writing. I know a lot of authors come up with an idea for a story, or maybe a first scene. Then they ask themselves questions, at least in their heads, to flesh things out. How did they meet? Why does Bob want the Uzbek Falcon so badly? What could he use to escape from the room? If students generate questions, they are already thinking of a story so it makes it easier for them to generate the text later on.

But also I think this could be adapted as a writing lesson. For example, have students jot down a quick idea (1 or 2 sentences) for a story and then generate 5 questions they would need to answer to finish it. Or have other students read the idea and come up with questions they would like answered by the finished story. Students can use those questions to flesh out their writing.

And I’m talking about stories here but there’s no reason why students couldn’t write non-fiction. A written version of the expert game.

UPDATE: This is a cool variant of Mike’s lesson from Visualizing Ideas.

Pulling Off Discussion Club

That's me!
That’s me

It seems like my most popular lesson plans are for discussion/speaking lessons. And generally when fellow teachers come to for advice, it’s about running English clubs (And not for anything else 🙂 ) So, I thought I would share my ideas on how I run an informal discussion club on the off-chance it’s useful to anyone. And also so I can get some feedback. I’d love to hear from others about how they do it.

Here’s the background information: I’ve been running English Club as a volunteer at an ACCELS/EducationUSA center for about 5 years. We meet once a week and different students come every time. Every session there are some regulars, some people who’ve been there a few times and some new students. Mostly we get high school and university students, but occasionally young professionals, English teachers, and even middle school kids show up. Levels of English and levels of shyness and expectations are different every time. So overall, it’s a challenging situation to work in.

I think the main priority for the club is to get students to speak English. That takes three things:

Safe and Comfortable Space

Students have to feel safe in the discussion club. For me, that means

  • Don’t correct their errors. I try to take them at their level. If a shy, lower-level student says, “I am football very like. Spain best team. I think my opinion,” that’s comprehensible and it keeps the conversation going. I might rephrase it if others seem confused, but in a conversational way: “Who else thinks Spain has the best football team?”
  • Nip teasing in the bud. It rarely happens, but you do get students correcting each other nastily or mocking the other student. I love when students help each other, but not when it’s done in a way that suggests the other student is stupid. If that does happen, I remind them that everyone makes mistakes and that the error wasn’t that big a deal. Students who are particularly nasty get ignored. If I ever had a real problem student, I’d probably talk to them privately after the club, but that has never happened *knock on wood*
  • Make sure there are questions for everyone and every level. I try to start the lessons with easier questions, “What’s your favorite sport?” “What’s your favorite sports team?” and build up to more difficult questions so that there is something for everyone. But even when we get into more complicated questions, I try to have few easier prompts on hand. For example, if I ask, “Should athletes get paid so much money?, which lower-level students might not have the vocab or grammar to answer, I’ll also throw out something like, “Who are the richest athletes you know?” so everyone can contribute.
  • No controversial topics. No religion, politics, ethnicity. Nothing that might offend someone or tempt students to make potentially offensive comments. I always steer the conversation back to neutral ground if it starts to stray into any controversial topics. Often I say explicitly, “Let’s not talk about that because some people may not be comfortable with it.”
  • Be nice and be open.

Make Them Talk, Not Me

  • Pick topics they know about: Every now and then I get a request to do a topic like Black History or how to get into American universities, and I always cringe because those sessions are going to turn into lectures. If you want students to talk you have to pick topics they know something about and/or can relate to: Friends, Happiness, Difficult Decisions, current events, and so on.
  • Deflect questions directed at you: Sometimes they’ll ask you, “What do you think about X?” I always open it to the group, “Well, what do you guys think?” I will give my opinion at the end of a discussion because I don’t want to ignore their requests, but questions about you lead to a lot of Teacher Talk Time.
  • Leave pauses. I prepare a lot of conversation questions and prompts but I try to economize them. When you ask a question and conversation dies down, pause for 30 seconds. Sometimes shy students are still gathering up the courage to speak or waiting for silence to begin. Students also need time to think. And of course, sometimes they end up asking a question that is more interesting for the students than the one you were going to ask. So give them time to do that.
  • Track the conversation. Listen to what they’re saying and what they find interesting. Steer the conversation there. Or get them to talk to each other by bringing up what someone said earlier: “So Ivan, you think happiness isn’t important because it doesn’t feed you. But Sarah said earlier that happy people actually earn more money. What do you think about that?” That gets Sarah talking again. And most importantly it gets Ivan talking to Sarah, not to you.

Make it Useful

  • Make your themes for discussion something they actually might talk about in real life. Or something that elicits useful language: giving an opinion, agreeing, disagreeing.
  • Do step in if they clearly are struggling with something. Mini-lessons on vocabulary or a basic grammar point can be done without breaking the flow too much. And the students tend to appreciate it.
  • Remind them to practice English, not their own language. Cut off too much L1.

Those are my rules/philosophy/program for running a pure discussion club. Any other suggestions or criticisms or questions?

Valentine's Day Discussion

Had another awesome English Club. Of course, the theme was Valentine’s Day and there was a nice mix of boys and girls and new and old. Could have been a sensitive subject but no one was particularly shy. Like the best English Clubs, I kicked it off with a few questions and soon it took on a life of its own.

Issues that came up were what do young people call people they are dating: lover, girl or boy friend or sweetheart. I clarified like this: boyfriend and girlfriend is the most normal thing to call a couple, lovers is a bit too poetic, and sweetheart is something your parents might say about your relationship.

Big discussion about why in Kazakhstan boyfriends and girlfriends are less visible in public and why in general boys and girls hang out separately in public. I raised the question of why I only see girls going out to restaurants, and a big reason seemed to be that the boys might be forced to pay if it was a mixed group (and as university students, they don’t have any money) and that boys would prefer to drink beer or play billiards.

Also one hopelessly outnumbered kid tried to defend his position that even on a date the boy shouldn’t have to pay for the girl. He would have been doing okay except he seemed to be saying that he would never ever pay for the girl.

It’s always a pleasure to do discussion club when I get to talk a bit for the first 30 minutes, and then get to listen for an hour.

Then I asked if they celebrate Valentine’s Day and how or what they do. That got a few stories going and we talked a bit about the kinds of gifts boys get for girls they like. They started to ask me about the traditions in the US so I threw it back to them, then after the conversation died down, I explained that Valentine’s Day is for couples, not really friends because there had been some confusion on that point and normal things to do like give flowers, give chocolates, and go out for dinner. They started discussing differences between young people in the US and young people in Kazakhstan. For the first time, I felt like a participant in the discussion instead of a moderator. And that is the best discussion club of all!