a guide to TODAY’S THEME
new materials to use
with teaching suggestions
I have two principle aims in this article. One is to show how ideas and objectives intertwine with materials and methodology. They all work hand in hand, no less so in their creation and development. So it is with the final product, which cannot be separated from how it can or might be used.
The other aim is to provide a concrete example, one which is designed to help strengthen some of the students’ speaking skills. The primary focus will be learning new vocabulary and incorporating those items into the conversation as well as increasing the student’s confidence in speaking by allowing the student to try them out at his or her own pace.
In this particular example I am going to explain what is behind the cards provided in the TODAY’S THEME series and how they can be used effectively in your class. The materials could be for any upper intermediate level (in Europe a B2 level) up, although a strong and keen intermediate level could take advantage of these materials as well.
Sometimes we hit upon a formula that works for a while such as dedicating the first 10 minutes in class to discussing a theme that I (or the students) set. Or maybe it’s a conversation class and everybody engages in lots of talking. So why do I leave the class with a feeling that we’re not making much progress?
Scenario 2: I get to know a few students over the years and watch them progress through the levels. I catch one leaving his or her class and ask how things are. They’ve successfully passed every level they were enrolled in but are growing less content with each level achieved. Something is missing.
In both scenarios we could write it off as having expectations too high and we might be right, at least partially so. Digging a little deeper leads us to investigate where those expectations are coming from. For me, it’s a mixture of how we interpret progress and the confidence that we are making it.
When I was teaching English in Japan I met many students who knew their vocabulary and grammar well (for their level) and were waiting for some magical point or level in the future where they would be able to use it fluently in their speaking. This led me to make some drastic changes in how I approached speaking. Even in an absolute beginner’s class I decided to acquaint the students more with speaking and conversation, however rudimentary it was. They had to know they could communicate using the language in different situations. And they had to accept that while not everything was perfect, they could accomplish many tasks with the skills they had. My goal was to show them that and our shared goal was to make their skills stronger. While we progressed through these two goals, we also started to build their confidence as an English language user.
When I look at a speaking activity, or any activity for that matter, I always fall back on my objectives. They are not simply “students do a speaking activity” because any form of speaking will accomplish that. It doesn’t help me look at what, if any, progress they are making nor inform me of how well they do. I think of each student’s needs, their ways of approaching language learning, even their personality. And I think of the collective needs, both the character of that particular class, and also the imposed syllabus of what succeeding in that level consists of. Integrating all these perspectives leads me to more directly relevant directions to take, what to focus on while carrying out a speaking task. When those become clearer, I can then better choose which activity to do, or if there isn’t one readily available, then either adapt some existing exercise or create a new one myself.
One of the areas that typically surfaces in these reflections is how to make their speaking (and writing) richer. Students have a tendency to depend on one or two structures for communicating one idea where more would allow them a greater range of expression. One example is using will almost exclusively for the future or A is taller than B rather than A is a bit / much taller than B. Of course not knowing how to use these structures very well would hold them back but if they have already spent some time in class with them then the students should be encouraged to apply them. If it is the first time that the structures are being introduced ever, then some interim steps which include limited speaking should be provided, but even with an introductory class of some structure to a lower level group, I strongly believe that in most cases, some freer speaking activity is warranted. They should be given the opportunity and the exposure of a situation where they can try out using that target language at one or more points during a dynamic and moving conversation. Let them take the decision when to make their move and how to approach it. And let this become a familiar scene, where several times in a class they are in speaking situations faced with not just ‘speaking about last weekend’, but actually having the extra task to use unfamiliar vocabulary and grammar. (Unfamiliar in this context doesn’t necessarily refer to new concepts, structures or vocab to the student, just that it is not typically employed in their productive skills.)
I also believe that it’s important not only to ‘recycle’ or re-introduce elements covered in previous classes, but to become versatile and try things out frequently, including anticipating future challenges. (I’m speaking to the teacher here, but students can also be encouraged to take the initiative and do this as well on their own.) Not to wait for when it will appear three units down the road. If you are considering a speaking activity that might involve using structures the students aren’t very strong in, a quick intro/reminder/presentation could be made, then get into the freer applied speaking. If you will cover it in more detail in a future class when it is more formally presented in the student book or syllabus, then you can get some idea in today’s class where the strengths and difficulties lie, and they may give you some ideas on how to approach that distant unit. I have found it very effective to prepare the students for that complicated future unit by introducing some concepts and brief activities in various classes before it comes up in the calendar and they are better prepared to take on that formidable challenge when the time comes.
With all this and other ideas in mind, I began to explore different ways in approaching getting my students to feel braver while actively participating in conversations. I wanted an activity that was easy to use, that engaged the students and that contributed to encouraging them to not only use a richer repertoire of language, but also to become accustomed to setting goals and tasks to achieve while speaking. I came up with several formats and the one I am presenting today is one of the more successful projects. This project is entitled TODAY’S THEME and one of the thrusts is what the title implies, that there will be a number of themes covered in a number of classes, and that each theme is not dependent on any of the others.
I’ll take one as an example to demonstrate not only how it can be used, but why it is designed in that particular manner. There are a few pieces of information I’d like to bring to your attention that might be useful to you, especially in understanding why the cards and activity came to be structured in the way they are, including the suggestions on how to approach it in your class. Of course you should always feel free to adapt the cards and present the activity in the way you feel appropriate.
One aspect is the one theme / 3 topics idea. In my initial explorations I wanted a variety of themes, any of which could be used either to support something we are currently covering in class, or that could be used independently so it doesn’t have to tie into anything. Many times I saw the students get enthusiastic about the theme and wanted to continue the following class. They wouldn’t want to speak about exactly the same thing, but something related, perhaps a different angle on the subject. From this evolved the general theme such as speaking about CULTURE, and 3 topics which more clearly define a particular direction to explore. In this case we have:
1) Origin and meaning of our holidays
2) Why is culture important?
3) Are subcultures important?
You can select a topic that you think best for the mood of your class and if you would like to follow it up with a new topic in the next class, you still have two more to choose from.
If it’s an active class full of students who need very little prompting, I could, if I had to because of time constraints, for example, just give them the theme, and they’d go at it. But my top priority in this project was to introduce more vocabulary and have the students incorporate it in their speaking. I also wanted them to become familiar with actively influencing their own efforts and the conversation by making the opportunities to insert those expressions. If we did an activity structured in this way several times, it would become easier as we went along.
I kept the vocabulary to a standard six items. It wasn’t too much to be overwhelming and distracting so we wouldn’t need so much time going over the meanings and the students could get on with the speaking. Yet there were enough items for the students to have something of a selection. While speaking they didn’t have to each use all six but they could each try to get more than one into the discussion.
Furthermore, as you would expect, the students get more out of the speaking with some build-up, which in this case means both warming the students into the topic and preparing them by giving them more vocabulary to incorporate into their coming discussion. The lead-in questions, the eliciting and introducing the vocabulary beforehand, looking at the text all was worth the investment and resulted in more successful and exciting conversations. When they were encouraged to use some of the vocabulary again in the closing class discussion, the vocabulary was further reinforced.
I decided against worksheets and homework. I didn’t want the activity to get too cumbersome. Better to keep it light and moving. They will forget some of the vocabulary anyway but there might be a few items they particularly took a liking to and try to use them in the future. More important was to get the students involved and deliberately making decisions on taking some control in their speaking in conversations.
Let me now run you through the various suggested steps of Today’s Theme to orientate you to what is available and how you might use it.
Where to find TODAY’S THEME
Go to the top menu bar, click on MORE LESSONS to take you to the homepage for Today’s Theme. On this homepage you can find descriptions of when it might be useful to use the cards, how the cards are designed, how you might want to use the activity (in the Suggested General Approach which is basically a lesson plan), and an ongoing inventory of the current speaking themes available.
SUGGESTED GENERAL APPROACH
to using the cards in class
If you’re an experienced teacher these suggestions are probably very similar to what you already do. Maybe have a look in case there is a slight twist from your typical approach and you might be interested in exploring it a little. If you are one of many teachers who are looking for a little more direction and some suggestions on how to approach this or other speaking activities, then have a closer look at this guide. You can download or print it for future reference (when you are on the website itself). Feel free to adapt it to your situation and make it work in a way that you feel good about it.
SELECT A THEME
There are several themes to choose from and new ones will be added, each with 3 specific topics. Click on the thick grey toggle bar to see the three topics and on the numbered title (Today’s Theme 2) to get to the page with the materials and ideas. Lesson plans and materials for all three topics for that theme will be presented on that page.
SELECT A TOPIC
On any Today’s Theme page there are three topics and the idea is to choose one which appeals to you to use in class. Each topic has the orange header followed by what the card looks like and some ideas on what you could do at each step of the activity, including possible lead-in questions to introduce the theme.
The card is the principle reference (apart from the teacher) in keeping the students focused on the theme and the vocabulary to incorporate into the speaking.
The students already have been acclimatized to the theme through a lead-in question or two. They then each get a copy of the card and look at the vocabulary in the right hand column. Go over the meaning & pronunciation of these items, giving or soliciting examples where you can and tying those examples in with the theme. For example:
●Do you think you are cut out for life in a commune?
●It’s curious how so many established popular brands get alternative lifestyle people to endorse their products in the hope that it catches on and makes people think it’s super cool to be associated with that product.
This is only an option and not necessarily a recommendation. If it’s your first time trying out these cards, I recommend not using it. Just go straight from familiarizing the students with the vocabulary directly into the text and speaking. If you have tried the speaking cards on a few occasions and feel you and your class are open to it, you can refer to the suggested structure or choose a different one, maybe one that you have been recently covering in class.
If you have students accustomed to taking the initiative, you can give them the choice of what structure they intend on occasionally using. Tell them to declare their goal to the others in the group. You may want to provide a little time for each group to discuss how well they met their objectives immediately after the conversation.
If you go with the grammar option, it’s worth giving a bit of attention to what you want to highlight, like insisting that the students use adverbs while making comparative statements. In the teacher’s guide there are a few examples you can refer to. The focus is still on using the vocabulary while communicating, but try to get each student to use one or two comparatives in their speaking as well.
When choosing which structures should go with which theme, I wanted to offer some variety but also to repeat the structures on the other cards so the students are encouraged a number of times to strengthen their use of those structures in their speaking. Again, if you prefer a different grammar option, feel free to do so.
This is found at the very bottom of the page under the heading of Handouts for Today’s Theme. There you can find the various documents to download or print out for the specific topic you have chosen: the speaking cards and the Teacher’s Guide. There is also the Suggested General Approach described earlier, which is a more general lesson plan as opposed to the briefer but more relevant one offered in the Teacher’s guide.
The Teacher’s Guide gives you
●a quick summary of the Suggested General Approach
- an image of the card that the students will have
- a few examples of the optional structure if you choose to ask your students to include it in their speaking
●follow-up questions for the class in general after the students finished speaking in small groups
I’m a great believer in closing the activity, even if it is to be continued in the following class. If you find yourself running out of time, stop the activity early enough to give you some time to close it in some way, even if it’s just making a few comments about what you witnessed in their speaking and a promise to finish the next day. If you have sufficient time for everything, here are two suggested steps:
1) Bring the focus back to you and the general class. Ask the students one or two questions based on their discussions. You can get some ideas while listening in to their conversations or use an example provided in the Teacher’s Guide.
2) Give some feedback about their speaking such as how well they developed or responded to arguments, their fluency, their attempts to incorporate the new vocabulary, turn-taking & involving others, to name a few aspects. Point out some mistakes or give suggestions on how to improve their speaking that they can apply the next time.
For those of you who like writing assignments and have some free time, you could ask your students to refer to the speaking card and respond to the questions in the text or comment on the theme. It’s not a bad idea to set some limits like a range of words (200 – 300 words, for example) and the final deadline you would accept any writings.
If you don’t have many students in your class, they would appreciate a comment or two about their writing (style, proficiency or contents). Your comments don’t always have to be in the English teacher role, but could be more personal such as, “I couldn’t agree more,” or “I used to think that too until I fell in love with one and got to know the lifestyle better.”
If the activity went over well and you’d like to explore one more topic with that theme, then choose one of the remaining cards or come up with a topical question of your own for the next class. Keep in mind how today’s session went and perhaps give your students a few pointers just before starting the next one.
I mentioned enhancing the student’s confidence earlier in this article. I’d like to elucidate a bit more here how this intention is attempted to be realized in the activity involving the use of Today’sTheme speaking cards.
1) Preparation – The lead-in questions and preliminary class speaking are helpful in orientating the students and this increases the likelihood of their participation in the coming task, even if they don’t participate much or at all in this first phase.
2) Individual pacing – Attempting to do what others want in the way they want adds extra doubts for many people. Providing some flexibility gives the students more breathing room. They can decide which vocabulary item(s) to use in the conversation and when. Depending on their personality and mood at the time, they can take risks with less familiar items or play it safe with something more known, whichever is more appropriate to how they feel in the current class with the current group members.
3) Active participation – By giving them the repeated responsibility (over the course of a number of classes and different topic cards) of choosing which items and when to incorporate them into the conversation, the students, over time, become a little more accustomed to being and seeing themselves as responsible active users of English.
4) Familiarity – There are many speaking cards which can be used in several classes. Once the students are familiar with the situation and the expectations, they feel more comfortable and can focus their attention on doing the task better.
5) Feedback – As with any task where constructive feedback is given, the students can ask the teacher if their usage of the target language is appropriately used when it occurs. It is one thing to do a few exercises and another to know if the situation permits it in a dynamic ongoing conversation. Also, there is feedback from the other students as they respond to the contributions made by the current speaker as well as from the teacher monitoring the conversations and giving some guidance during or after the discussion.
A BIG FOOTNOTE:
I have dedicated a fair amount of the article to how I approached exploring and developing the idea into the final product that you see presented here today. I am often asked how I get these ideas and this article is one response to that question. I see a need or have a goal in mind like how to not only get my students speaking, but actively trying to incorporate some idea into their speaking (in this case vocabulary and perhaps some grammatical structures). I roughly sketch out the idea, think through the logistics like how I want the students to interact and what changes do I have to make in the activity’s presentation to encourage those dynamics. I look at the product itself. Is having a card relevant or could I do it in a different way? Is it clear and attractive? Is it useful and practical? Can it / should it be re-used? What if I play with the design in other ways?
When I think I have everything worked out, I go back to my original objectives and reflect on how well this activity is going to reach them. Perhaps in its development the aims have changed somewhat, which is fine, but good to know about.
Then I try it out in class. I never cease to be surprised that no matter how much thought and preparation I put into an activity, it is always lacking in some ways. Maybe I overlooked some simple spelling mistakes. Perhaps there are a few steps that are needed, or unnecessary or could be done in a better way. Maybe the introduction is wrong or some preliminary preparation would add much to the exercise. And, of course, seeing it in action with different groups, different levels, different personalities, more ideas come to mind on how to fine tune it. (I have a pad with me on hand to jot down those observations and ideas as they occur.) I try to simplify it to allow more flexibility and where something becomes important, I ask myself if I can introduce it verbally or only if or when it becomes relevant. Trying to build everything into the activity doesn’t usually work, especially when different students and different teachers will be using it.
When I am finally content with the activity, I feel it is ready to earn its place in my permanent arsenal.
The cards are great, handy to use, interesting and challenging for the students. But the final product is completely integrated with the methodology surrounding it. The methodology can be altered while the materials remain the same, but the two work together.
So then, I am inviting you to use the materials as you see fit. I have given you the background behind the materials, including suggested approaches. In return I ask you to try it out for yourself and
1) Give me some feedback (if you don’t want me to use your comments in possible future articles or promotion of the materials, let me know and I’ll keep your comments only between ourselves.)
2) Tell your colleagues, either in the same school or somebody you know working in a faraway exotic country. My biggest satisfaction after putting in so much thought and work into all this is knowing that it is being put to good use by a number of people.
3) Show your support In the new world we are entering, evaluations are becoming all the more important, so it would be appreciated that if you like something, click on the ‘like’ button. If you are against such practices, I understand and respect your position. Clicking on buttons and other rating systems are indications that people seem to increasingly place importance on. I am not asking for any money for my work for many reasons, but receiving ‘likes’, comments & feedback, subscribers & followers all contribute to helping me feel I am doing something that has value to other people.
A FINAL NOTE:
Other articles pertaining to the teaching of English can be found in the top menu bar / LESSONS / TEACHING IDEAS . There you will find some suggestions to lesson planning such as #5. Lesson Planning 101 and #3. RVCI(Repetition, Variety, Combination, Integration) and there is one directly related to the theme of speaking: #6. Conversation (In) Classes which covers a wide range of areas such as considerations in planning and executing your classes, evaluating your students and a number of different kinds of activities you can use.
From time to time there will be more articles appearing, but I’ll be taking a break from them for a while to concentrate more on other projects, many of which you’ll see on maxenglishcorner.com as it continues to progress.
If you have found this article useful in any way or have tried one of the activities out in your classroom, let me know. I would be very grateful to hear any comments you might have to offer, either here or directly in the CONTACT section on the website.
Have a good one!