A summary of Designer Lessons’ first ELT outing

A lunchtime chat.  Photograph by Lewis Hine, New York. Public Domain image


  • Error Correction, online tools for TEFL and learner autonomy
  • Cats and the Publishing Industry: The dryness of published materials, and the reasons for it
  • Cultural Sensitivity / for both learners and teachers
  • Choosing and using authentic materials
  • Teaching to learner needs
  • Dealing with Value Systems – to what extent can we or should we be teaching values in the ESOL classroom.

With my head crammed into a tiny crash helmet that forced my cheeks up into a nightmarish hamster-esque grimace, and with Neil at the helm of his moto, we sped along Diagonal, Barcelona. We were on the way to our first Barcelona TEFL Teacher Association (BTTA) meeting.

The TEFL group’s Facebook page has over 700 members—and it’s growing all the time; with many of the members actively posting ideas, questions, job opportunities and social events on the board. If you’re in the area I would encourage you to join the group and see what it’s all about.

Neil and I were invited to attend a BTTA lunchtime chat to talk about Designer Lessons and lesson planning in general. It was a good two-hour session, Sharon Yael did a great job of hosting, there was lots of food, drinks and some great tostones (AKA fried plantain), made by none other than Jade Cintron, who leads the group along with Jen Whelan, and Robert Marquez.

But rather than focus on the food (which was very nice), I’m writing a summary of the conversation we had, as I think a number of thought-provoking ideas and questions came up. The overall focus of the meeting was planning, but we inevitably crossed into lots of other areas.

I’ll do my best to sum up some of the ideas we spoke about, though not necessarily in chronological order (!) – I’m restructuring our thoughts so they make easier reading. If you were there, feel free to correct me if I misattribute ideas, or I forget to mention anything that you feel was important.

Error Correction, learner autonomy and some online tools for TEFL

First, here’s a quick summary of the tools mentioned during the talk.

  • www.vocaroo.com – I like this because it’s simple. Vocaroo is a useful tool for teachers and students to use, especially for those who wish to improve their speaking. Record and correct ‘speaking’ homework. Vocaroo allows you to record a track and mail the link. The student can record their homework and the teacher can record and send the pronunciation corrections. Like this: http://vocaroo.com/i/s0Io5W2oFIam
  • www.Spreaker.com Spreaker is more involved than Vocaroo. Create podcasts and radio shows with the online application. I think it has some interesting applications in both teens and adult classes.
  • http://www.lextutor.ca/ This is Web 1.0 at its finest! With some experimentation you can do some great things; create concordance quizzes, cloze tests, and other types of gap fill. There are lots of applications for teachers with limited resources – and Lextutor is especially good for exam classes.

Mini-recording devices

Error Correction Terror

Neil invoked a moment of paranoid fear during the talk when he mentioned that his students were carrying around mini-recording devices. As we patted ourselves down, and spoke in hushed tones, we realised he was talking about smartphones.

Smartphones can be used as a tool to encourage learner autonomy. Have students and record and play back their classroom conversations. As one is often one’s worst critic, the teacher can use this ubiquitous tech to encourage students to analyse their language production and self-correct.

Improvement tends to come quickly with self-analysis and reflection.

Cats and the Publishing Industry

After a brief introduction to the blog, Jade mentioned how some of the warmers in course books were very dry – with opening gambits such as “Do you like cats?” We mostly agreed that this was an issue, and such warmers fail to engage students. Though strangely enough, the question itself brought about quite an enthusiastic response; I now know who among the BTTA is allergic to cats, who loves cats and who finds them creepy. So perhaps these questions aren’t so bad after all.

Nevertheless, the point stands that published materials can be quite dry, which often leads teachers on down the road to using self-made or authentic materials. We spoke about the reasons for this perceived blandness; publishers are in such a position that in order to sell their materials, they have to consider the broadest spectrum of cultures, ideologies and beliefs. And even then they might still offend.

Our classrooms may well be a microcosm – with a range of cultures, backgrounds, views and opinions – but that’s just a drop in the ocean when compared to 7 the billion potential students the publishers are looking at. When we know our students, we generally know what we can and cannot talk about in the classroom, whereas publishers have no such knowledge and no such luxury.

So the question was:

How do we develop our own engaging, learner focused lesson plans?

Neil mentioned the teacher-training motto “Plan from the Heart.” He didn’t break into song, and before you have him down as a big old softy – he was talking about the importance of having a core to the lesson.

‘Plan from the heart’ is a motto which on the one hand encapsulates a humanistic teaching ideal (i.e. ‘be authentic’), and on the other gives an important practical guideline for lesson planning. Identifying the heart of the lesson is to put your finger on your key teaching objectives: to identify exactly what you want the students to be able to do, and with what language. All your other activities should then feed into (or come out of) this heart. It’s a metaphor which can work visually as a useful way to sketch out the beginnings of a lesson idea. Starting with/from the heart usually ensures a more coherent lesson from a trainee or beginner teacher.

Neil McMillan

Jade spoke about her lesson planning process, and sounded very similar to ours. For us, the process of creating a lesson plan usually starts with finding the right material. (Note that our DL lesson plans are stand-alone and do not necessarily fit into a syllabus).
Neil and I both agree that the material should not be the focus of the lesson – but that it should help provide the students with a context to practise language functions. If the material becomes the focus, we find ourselves trudging through dangerous ground—potentially leaving the learner with nothing but a conversation point, and nothing solid to take away from the class.
We took this image as an example:

By Mo Gelber, New York.

Original by Mo Gelber

The first question would be deciding on the heart of the lesson. It shows a consequence of some action unknown, so either a) hypothesizing or b) story telling with the past perfect tenses comes to mind.

a) Who are the characters? What might they have done?
b) Why were they arrested? What had they done?

The students could brainstorm, discuss the actions, sequence events, write opening paragraphs to stories, write scripts create timelines to analyse how tenses interact – the list goes on. The plan should keep the core focus in mind, while allowing for the teacher to guide and focus on the emergent language.

In summary, each activity should build on the next, giving the students the opportunity to practise language and develop it, in a clear context.

Choosing the Right Material

One member of the group mentioned that she had had difficulties in engaging learners with material that they were unfamiliar with, particularly with material relating to the current US election.

We suggested that perhaps this was down to material choice – and if the learners struggle to engage with it, it might be down to the material, rather than the teaching. It’s very hard to define the ideal material, but generally it should not be necessary for the students to have prior knowledge of the context. Too much explanation or pre-teaching can leave the class cold.
I’ll quote a teacher on our Facebook page;

As an English teacher I learnt very quickly that there was no use teaching skiing equipment to rural Thai children! Lucy Hawkins

I think she’s making a valid point: The needs of the learners need to come first, there ain’t much skiing in Thailand. The material – be it a video, reading or even language point (!) – can be unsuitable.

To support this, a member of the group mentioned that she teaches the phrasal verbs in context, but doesn’t encourage her students to use them themselves. The majority of English language interactions that her students will have will be with other non-native speakers – and so the use phrasal verbs in those situations will be a hindrance rather than a help.

Cultural Sensitivity for both learners and teachers
The conversation turned to cultural sensitivity in the classroom. A member of the group mentioned that she has problems with a student who often talks negatively about immigrants in Catalonia, along with other less-than-desirable topics of conversation. Being an immigrant to the country herself, this causes friction between the teacher and student, albeit mostly hidden. The question was – should she do something about it? Can she do anything about it?

There was a debate – To what extent should we impose our own world views on the student? Should we be accepting of the values of our students no matter how racist or how hard they might be to stomach? Should we be reprimanding our students for culturally/personally insensitive or racist behaviour?

I admitted that once, when a student told the class that the biggest problem with Barcelona was “the Chinese,” I reacted…quite badly. I cut her off and told her it was inappropriate to express those views – and so I found myself telling the student off (despite my being half her age) for expressing this view – as in my eyes it was racist. The other students backed my position – yet I know I should have taken another approach. She did return to subsequent classes, so it couldn’t have been too bad (I hope).

Neil’s point was that we shouldn’t teach values – and should attempt not to impose our beliefs on the students.

It’s a big question and I’m not sure that we came to a final conclusion. For your interest, Michael Griffin, teaching in South Korea, has posted a very interesting article on the matter – Responding to Shocking Comments from Students.

Thank you BTTA

It was a very interesting chat, I’d like to thank everyone who came along for inspiring us. I hope this reflection is close to your recollection. I apologise for not including everyone’s name, I didn’t have a pen and paper! Please feel free to comment and make your own additions, especially if I have forgotten anything important.