October 5, 2012

Teaching English as a Second Language: Ten Ready-Made Lessons

I can't remember what blogger or expat friend of mine said it, but I once heard someone claim that nearly every English speaker who passes through Spain will eventually, at some point or another end up teaching English for a living here. Such was the case for me this last year, when I landed a (great) job at a private institute in Valencia teaching mostly adults (though some kids and teenagers) at the intermediate (i.e. Preliminary English Test, or PET) and advanced (First Certificate, or FCE) level.

I've noticed that many of you expat bloggers and readers out there who are interested in Spain are also English teachers or "auxiliares de conversación" (whether you're "ESL" versus "ESOL" depends on if you're from the U.S. or Britain, but we're all really "TEFL" if doing it in Spain). So I thought I'd share with you here some of the ideas I've had for English lessons. (NOTE: these lessons were designed to aid Spanish speakers from Spain, and some are specifically tailored to them.) While I'm no expert on language acquisition, I spent a fair amount of time making these language tools and I think they work for helping students explore different aspects of the language —be it cultural, grammatical, or whatnot— and, just as importantly, provide a tool for the teacher to escape from the tyranny of the textbook.

If you are curious, these are the two textbooks I used most heavily. They were both pretty good.
The New English File Intermediate was better for explaining the grammar in a simple,
schematic way, and had nice cultural activities, while the First Certificate Masterclass
was better for test-preparation (for the format of the test) and had excellent applied grammar
exercises, especially for phrasal verbs and collocations.

Digression: A funny story about how my wife and I met, and national differences in language learning... My wife and I met in French class in England. (Yes, long story!) On the first day of class, the poor French teacher asked the class, "How many of you know what a noun is?", and most everyone raised their hands. Then he asked, "How many of you know what a verb is?" Amazingly, some Brits didn't raise their hand. Then he asked, "adverbs?" I kept my hand up (barely), but other Americans didn't. And finally, "Participles?", to which my hand dropped, but my wife and other continental Europeans continued to raise their hands... But they now looked at us doofus Anglophones wondering, what planet did we come from that we didn't even know our basic grammar? 

What I learned from this, and from teaching English to Spaniards this past year, is that continental Europeans learn language in a way that is very different from most English-speaking countries. Whereas we use the immersion method for our own language, and thus (ironically) only learn grammar when learning foreign languages, Europeans tend to still learn structured grammar in their own languages, such as sentence-diagramming, verb conjugations, and identifying sentence elements like adverbs or independent clauses. In other words, many of my students understood the grammar-grammar of English better than me, but often without understanding how to actually use it well.

Me want speak English good!

*** Lesson 1: Tongue Twisters ("trabalenguas") to practice pronunciation ***

Pronunciation is often a key challenge for EFL students, but I personally find the pronunciation listen-and-repeat exercises in language books to be quite boring. One day I got the idea to use tongue twisters, which are not only fun and culturally significant (natives are always happy to perform them for you on the spot), but often highlight a particular pronunciation challenge quite effectively. I compiled this list of what I saw as either the most classic of tongue-twisters, or the coolest that I could find online:

Click here to load a PDF I made with tongue twisters.

To make this lesson more than just repeat-after-me, I recommend you look at the links at the bottom of the PDF, which offer great ideas for more interactive tongue-twister lessons. I found that the "disappearing tongue twister" exercise, using "She sells seashells by the seashore" on the chalkboard, was an excellent exercise for Spanish speakers to practice. And for adult learners who would like to take the pronunciation practice home, I highly recommend the website Forvo.com, which hosts audio pronunciations recorded by native speakers for words in many different languages and dialects.

*** Lesson 2: "The History of English in Ten Minutes" and fun proverbs ***

I ran across this excellent video series by the Open University, which in ten chapters, each one-minute long, manages to provide a pretty good summary of the evolution of the English language, many of the most important internal and external influences reshaping it, as well as the origin of many words and popular phrases and proverbs... all in just ten minutes! To give you an idea of which trends it describes, the chapters in the series are: 1) Anglo-Saxon, 2) The Norman-Conquest, 3) Shakespeare, 4) The King James Bible, 5) The English of Science, 6) English and Empire, 7) The Age of the Dictionary, 8) American English, 9) Internet English, and 10) Global English.

"Chapter 1: Anglo-Saxon or, whatever happened to the Jutes?"

"The History of English in Ten Minutes" is an excellent teaching tool, though it moves too quickly for most non-native speakers to be used unaided. I recommend you show it in class, but be prepared to pause the video to discuss specific phrases and proverbs that it describes, and to add your own embellishments. What with my being a trained historian, I used it to talk a bit more about the history of the English language, to encourage them to think about the language as a product of a history and culture that is constantly changing.

For my advanced students, I brought a Dictionary of English/Spanish Proverbs, and asked them to name some proverbs in Spanish for which I tried to give them the English equivalent. (The video on Shakespeare is "chock full" of wonderful phrases and proverbs coined or canonized by the famous bard.) Even if this proves to be too difficult a translation challenge for you or the students, it gets them speaking about colorful sayings in their own culture and thus trying to articulate subtle meanings. And it is also incredibly fun!

*** Lesson 3: Dictation exercises to practice listening comprehension and spelling ***

I sorely underestimated the value of doing dictations in my classes, and only really tried them towards the end of the year when many of my students began to worry about the listening comprehension portion of the Cambridge Exams. I found some excellent guides to giving dictations, many of which were online and I realized (almost too late for my students) would make excellent self-guided educational tools for them outside of class:

Click here to load a PDF I made with dictation exercises.

In this handout, I tried several different kinds of dictation exercises. I read excerpts from classic novels (which www.dictationsonline.com has wonderfully classified by levels to match the Cambridge Exam system). I read sentences with the "-ough" root, to illustrate how the same spelling can change dramatically in pronunciation for different words. And I found a wonderful online exercise playing with homophones (words that sound the same, but are spelled differently), which was fun for how it tested my students' ability to recognize different spellings, but also introduced them to new and unusual words. Lesson learned. These dictations are activities I will now do from the start next year and will return to regularly.

*** Lesson 4: Christmas special... holiday vocabulary and pop culture ***

For holiday fun and classic cultural iconography,
I recommend students watch the 1964 stop-motion
animation short, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Chic Soufflé wrote a nice entry in Spanish about it.
I'm a big believer that the only real way people will learn a foreign language is by learning about the culture, partly because language reflects culture and some things really are lost in (literal) translation, and partly because I think students have to be motivated, even passionate, to really learn a language well, and so it helps if you can link the language acquisition to their pre-existing personal interests, hobbies or passions. 

Oh, and I love Christmas! I think Christmas (a.k.a. Xmas, a.k.a. "Navidad") is slightly different in Spain than in the United States. So naturally for the last class before the December holiday break I decided to give my students a cultural lesson on classic English-language (mostly American) Christmas songs, poems and other traditions, which introduces them to a lot of new holiday-related vocabulary. A particularly good one which many Spaniards don't know about is the poem, "Twas the Night Before Christmas," which has lots of new vocabulary ("dash away", "snug", "clatter") and is fun to read together with the class. Few of them know about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, so I also included the song lyrics for them:

Click here to load a PDF I made for Christmas.

There are a lot of opportunities for constructive digression with this lesson... you can talk about cultural differences in holiday traditions (the Spanish "belén", "El Gordo" lottery or the Three Kings, versus Santa in the Macy's parade), winter/snow-related vocabulary, or Xmas pop-culture that they might not know about. (I try to bring in a lot of less conventional songs, like "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" by Elmo & Patsy or "Santa Baby" by Eartha Kitt, to play for them, since I've noticed that in Spain Christmas music tends to be more traditional and less diverse than in the United States.)

*** Lesson 5: The Amazing Verb "To Get"... or how phrasal verbs are key in English***

This handout started with a conversation with one of the other teachers at my language institute. He and I were talking at the end of the day about how interesting it was to re-learn English by teaching it to non-native speakers, and he said, "Like the verb, to get. I mean, I love it! Have you thought about all the different ways we use that verb in English?" We started riffing on that theme, and then to wrap up I joked, "Do you get me?" to which he replied, "Get out of here!" That night I talked about it with my wife, and the next morning I sat down and started to make a list. Many hours later, and consulting a few grammar books to construct a loose, informal but helpful categorization, the result was this 4-page handout of examples:

Click here to load a PDF I made on "The Amazing Verb 'To Get'".

I suspect this list is still not comprehensive, and I could have done a more serious job at formalizing it with grammar concepts... but you can have fun with your class for easily an hour just talking about all these different usages and tying it in to larger points about phrasal verbs, how they work (are they "separable", "transitive", or not?) and examples of slang formed from common ones.

 - - - - - INTERLUDE - - - - -

For a laugh, I highly recommend watching this skit by Gomaespuma on "Clases de inglis",
wonderful English-Spanish puns and erroneous explanations of 
how English works according to a Spanish teacher.

 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -  - - - - -

*** Lesson 6: Baseball Language, sports language and fun cultural sayings ***

So to give this lesson you kind of need to understand the game of baseball. And it might make more sense to teach it if you are an American. (Any Brits out there want to work up a similar lesson using cricket?) But the fact is that for American English there are a _ton_ of phrases used which come from baseball or sports in general, and for which it helps to have a basic understanding of the game. And I myself love baseball, so one day I decided to teach my students how it works, and then tie it to commonly heard expressions like "be on the ball" or "you hit it out of the park":

Click here to load a PDF I made on baseball and baseball sayings.

Now as you will see, this lesson is currently targeted to adults. Because the best part of it is when you arrive to the section about "getting to 1st base" or "going all the way". Needless to say, there is nothing more fun than talking indirectly about sex in foreign language classes. So this classic American euphemism, which they are likely to have heard in American movies, can be an interesting launch point into other common sexual innuendoes. (But, of course, if you want to adapt this for younger audiences, I suggest you remove those expressions from the handout and skip explaining them!)

And for advanced students you can take the baseball discussion to another level by introducing them to the classic poem, "Casey at the bat", published by Ernest Lawrence Thayer in 1888. Baseball is rightfully called "America's national pastime", not because it's the most watched sport (today American football or basketball probably trump it), but because it's part of our national DNA, so to speak. Thayer's poem is a classic because of how it takes the baseball-game quintessential moment of tension, "the bottom of the ninth, two outs and three runners on base", and transforms it into a broader cultural metaphor about hubris, human struggle, and defeat. Reading the poem to your class will not only introduce new vocabulary but will also teach them a classic American literary text.

Disney adapted the poem to this equally or even more famous 

*** Lesson 7: Latin and Greek expressions used in English ***

This lesson still needs some work. At the moment, this is just a list of commonly used Latin (and some Greek) phrases that appear in English. It was prompted by my observation that it is more common in English than Spanish to leave certain ancient, fixed expressions in the original Latin rather than translate them to the native language. (This is probably because Spanish and Latin resemble each other, so translating to Spanish doesn't alter the expression much.) The reasons for why these phrases appear in English are manifold, ranging from the entry of legal language ("alibi", "addendum", and "de facto") or scientific language (psychoanalysis: "alter ego") into pop culture to the popularity of "Greek culture" in America, by which I don't mean Greek Americans, but rather fraternities and sororities ("going Greek"?: "alma mater", "alumnus"). But the result is that one encounters a lot of Latin in English, though pronounced differently and sometimes used in a way that is not a linear translation of the phrase:

Click here to load a PDF handout listing common Latin phrases or expressions in English.

Your Spanish students will recognize many of these phrases, but it is still useful to cover them for a variety of reasons: 1) they will not know which expressions English-speakers tend to say in the original Latin, and which we translate, 2) they will probably have seen, and been confused by many of the commonly used abbreviations (for example, "e.g.", "AM" and "PM", "etc.", "P.S."), and 3) they will want to know how you, a native-speaker, pronounce them, which is not the way they might have said it. Also, many of these expressions have cultural nuances in how they appear in popular usage, which you can elaborate on.

It's funny. In English we say "It's Greek to me" when we mean, "I can't understand it at all."
But in Spanish they say, "Me suena a chino" ("It sounds like Chinese to me").
Apparently, every language culture has it's own idea of what a cryptic language
would be, a subject which this blogger wrote up a nice entry about here.

Ideally, you could combine a discussion of these phrases with a discussion about the Latin and Greek prefixes and suffixes that populate the English language. For example, "pre" and "ante" mean before, such as "prequel" whereas "post" and "seq" mean after, such as "sequel". (I have to express a debt of gratitude to my 9th Grade English teacher for this inspired idea, which is his... He really "blew our minds" with this lesson way back then!) Eventually I'll add that to this lesson plan, but for now I direct you to these webpages for a list of examples: Wikipedia's entries on "Latin words with English derivatives" and "Greek words with English derivatives".

It's all relative: Here's a flow chart posted by a UPenn language blog,
which shows the flow of "It's [as confusing as] language X to me" for different languages.
Notice how nobody considers English to be incomprehensible.

*** Lesson 8: "To Be" Versus "To Get", applied grammar ***

This lesson is specifically targeted to Spanish speakers learning English, or English speakers learning Spanish, and centers on the structural differences in the two languages in how they attempt to distinguish between provisional, superficial descriptive statements and deeper more permanent statements using the verbs "To Be" and "To Get", in English, and Ser/Estar and Ponerse in Spanish. I attempt with this handout to systematically explain and explore the parallels between Ser/Estar and Be+past participle (p.p.)/gerund. And then move this discussion on to a parallel structure, where "To Get" works with p.p. and gerunds for descriptors much the way "To Be" does, except it means "to become", much the way Ponerse, Volverse (and similar reflexive verbs) do in Spanish:

Click here to load a PDF handout explaining differences between verbs To Be and To Get.

This was what the board looked like after I taught this topic of "-ed"/"-ing" adjectives
used with "to be" and "to get". I brainstormed some opinion/emotion verbs that use it,
and had students practices talking about things they find annoying, upsetting, or disturbing.

("Oh, no, I've gone cross-eyed!") I don't know how well this grammar lesson translates to paper, so please let me know if you are still confused by what I'm saying here. I wish I was better at sketching, because then I could draw for you the stick figures I draw for my students on the chalkboard, to illustrate some of the comparisons I'm making. Maybe one day, if I get inspired and organized, I can work up a video explanation of it, since mastering these verbs is foundational to speaking both languages well.

The Pre-Existing Conditional tense in America:
This cartoon is just excellent on so many levels... A laugh for any of you who
have ever taught the conditional tense to a non-native speaker.
And (tragically) a laugh for any of you Americans who have ever tried to

explain to all others the U.S.'s non-universal, private healthcare and insurance system.

*** Lesson 9: "English Pronunciation" Poem by G. Nolst Trenité***

I ran across this wonderful poem during the course of the year, and decided to torture read it to my students. It is a great poetic critique of the English language's idiosyncratic tendency to butcher complicate the relationship between pronunciation and orthography. I would hope that students found the poem entertaining, and enjoy learning some new vocabulary and pronunciations. But I suspect it will also frighten them a bit:

Click here to load a PDF handout for the "English Pronunciation" poem by Trenité.

Of course, it is also just darn fun to attempt to read out loud. I bet you will, despite your best native-speaker effort, manage to mispronounce at least one or two words. Which is why you can direct your students to this video of a British speaker reading it, for them to practice listening to it...

*** Lesson 10 (for kids ages 5 to 10): "In the Jungle" ***

So this final lesson is a quick activity I threw together one day "to mix things up" a bit with a 9-year-old kid I was giving private tutorials to. He was a sweet kid, and though probably a bit old for the lesson, he ended up really enjoying it. It was a short vocabulary exercise on the Jungle. Kids love this s**t stuff, and chances are yours will already know most of the animals' names in English. But you can use this as a springboard to discuss other animals, or talk about plants versus animals, or whatever.

Click here to load a PDF handout on Jungle vocab and "Lion Sleeps Tonight" lyrics.

After discussing the vocabulary, my student especially enjoyed singing along with me to the classic song, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," whose lyrics I included on the handout. He loved the video version which I've posted below with a singing hippo. After we watched it together, I had him sing the lyrics, and I sang the "wimoweh" accompaniment. It was good fun. He was requesting the song for weeks afterwards. Whether it was the most instructive lesson is hard to say, but at this age I think the main challenge is making English-acquisition exciting and fun, and it was hard to top this song for that. (I'd place it up there with the "Head, shoulders, knees and toes" for a younger age-group.)

Spanish kids may recognize this song, but have probably never had the chance to sing-along to it.

And that's it for activities I developed this past year. (Addendum: However, the following year I developed 5 More Ready-made Lessons which you can find at this post here, and a "part 3" post with 5 more lessons.) If I come up with new ones I'll be sure to post more in a later entry. I very much welcome any and all TEFL readers to post their feedback on these lessons, or descriptions or links to their own tricks-of-the-trade or lesson ideas. The best teaching is done in an open community of collaboration and criticism, so consider this an open call for that!

I should close by making a plug for my language institute employer:
the American Institute in Valencia is one of the oldest in town.
It has great teachers and offers great rates!

_____________ADDENDUM: FURTHER TEFL RESOURCES_____________

In the spirit of reducing redundancy and the work of new TEFL recruits (why reinvent the wheel?), here I'll add and periodically update a list of web resources that I (or others) have found useful in teaching English to foreigners and specifically to Spaniards. They are listed in no particular order. [A special thanks to Spanish Sabores for this section, since I got many of these initial ideas from her series of posts on "Language Assistants", and in particular her post on "11 Best TEFL Resources"! There is also her 2013 updated and very thorough compilation of links, "Required Reading for Future English Teachers in Spain".]

BBC Learn EnglishRecommended by Spanish Sabores as "the best", I have to agree that it is a very solid resource for all levels and ages, and very professional.
The Internet TESL Journal – Again, I only discovered this now-dormant website recently through Spanish Sabores, but wow! With 15 years of posts from many different people, it is full of ideas and useful suggestions for lesson plans, techniques and games of use to the English teacher.
Oral English Activities [found by Spanish Sabores] – As a native-speaker, getting students to practice speaking is your number one job here in Spain, so this site and its many ideas for speaking exercises is really great.
• Dictations Online – The name says it all. This is a great stop for getting dictations to use in class.
ESL Base [finder: Spanish Sabores] – Another great all-around resource for teaching English, complete with useful worksheets to print out and use with your students.
America's Library – This Library of Congress website, designed for American students, is a perfectly good resource to use for your Spanish students when talking about U.S. history or culture.
To Learn English – Very obnoxious web format and images, but this site has some really nice interactive exercises, such as the homophone one I mentioned above in dictations, or a Pride and Prejudice video with fill-in-the-blanks exercise that is nice.
• British Council's Teaching English – This is up there with the BBC site for solid, professional web resources for teaching English.
Common Errors in English Usage – Frankly, this is a list of typical mistakes that even native English-speakers make, but I think it can be useful to pass along to your EFL students. The list is from a book by Paul Brians, Common Errors in English Usage (2008)... and it lists some more online resources for ESL:
          – Curricular Resources for English as a Second Language
          – ESL Online Help Desk Washington State University 

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