Back to School Class: Procedure

Back from a Long Break

At the moment of writing this, I've just had my first class of the new academic year and having been away (from school at least) for the last 3 months, I feel pretty motivated and happy about how the class went with my A2.2 (elementary) group. This is the longest I'd been away from the classroom in my 15 years of teaching (not so much a holiday as a break from teaching to develop the website) and last night I felt a little nervous about getting back into the teacher / facilitator role. As things went really well, what follows is the procedure for the class.

How was your summer? (said with connected speech at native speed)

Okay, so from the bit there in brackets in the above sub-heading, you might be thinking, “What an a***hole!” (British spelling!). And I did myself have concerns about launching into the first class at this level (indeed any level) with phonology. At the same time, this particular group, (2 from last year and 2 new students) seem to be the eternal elementary students who are good at doing direct translation from a text, but fall apart at the seams should anyone actually utter something to them in English. This, I thought (unwisely?), was something that needed to be addressed and sooner rather than never!

So, as they sat down, I asked, “How was your summer?”. And I was visibly relieved when they looked back terrified! (Maybe the a***hole comment may have some truth after all!) You see, if someone had responded, “Oh great. And how was yours?” I may well have fallen apart myself, had to skip 5 minutes of pronunciation practice and been left with enough time at the end of class to finish the last activity. And that would have been far too close to call for my easily agitated nerves!

I then put the following on the board:

/aʊ/ = now
/əʊ/ = phone
/ʌ/ =up
/ə/ = teacher
/æ/ =cat
/ʌ/ = cut
/ɒ/ =orange
/əʊ/ = over
/ɔ:/ = four
/ɜ:/ = third
/ʃ/ = she
/ʒ/ = pleasure
/j/ = yellow
/dʒ/ = just

We went through the pronunciation of the pairs of sounds, some of which are quite challenging for Spanish speakers and drilled them. Next, I wrote on the board:

/’haʊ wɒz jɔ: ‘sʌmə/ ?

While the phonetic transliteration above is quite different from my original utterance, I wanted my students to see the difference between the pronunciation of single words and how they change in connected speech. Using the phonemes we’d just seen, I asked them what the question was. We modeled “How – was – your – summer?”and I asked them if it sounded natural. They agreed that it didn’t. Why not? Because every word is emphasized (they said in Spanish). I then asked them the question again at natural speed. “What’s different?”, I asked. “I only understand ‘summer’ said one of them, the others nodding in committee-like agreement. I now wrote up:

/’hæwəʒə ‘sʌmə/ ?

Going back to our phonetic symbols, I asked them to once again pronounce the question, and they were a lot closer to a natural model. We worked a little with differentiating the sounds, beginning with “haʊ” and “hæ” and went on to connect “hæ” to “wə” then “ʒə”. A final drill of the question got us as close to native level pronunciation as I felt necessary (not very close, but understandable and a much-improved version than they would have been able to produce otherwise). I finally asked them the question again and they replied “great, fantastic”.

What did you do?

Now it was time for the core content of the class, talking about what we did over the summer. First I wanted to model the written part of the class, so my students understood clearly what to do. I wrote up:

  • I went to my cousin’s wedding.
  • I visited a friend in Croatia.
  • I had a BBQ in my garden.
  • I went to Malaga Feria.
  • I stayed at my uncle’s house.

I told themthat I had done 3 of the things listed over the summer, and that two were things other people had done. To discover which, they had to ask me. At first they seemed a bit lost, and thought they were meant to ask me follow up questions t o determine if I was telling the truth or making it up. (which is a perfectly valid way of going about things too, but I felt that activity could get us in a pickle, being first day back and all that!) So, I wrote on the board: Luke, _____ you…? and pointed to the first sentence. “Luke, did you go to yo cawsin wedding?” said one of them. Great! Forget the pronunciation – they got the idea. I then modeled the two replies, “Yes, I did.” and “No, it wasn’t me.” We continued through the sentences, and I removed the sentences that didn’t apply to me (Croatia and Malaga Feria, in case you were wondering) so we were left with 3 sentences about things I did in the summer. I explained that they should now write 3 things they did over the summer. Listed below are some of their sentences:

  • I went some days to Portugal.
  • I went to Manu Chau concert in Frigiliana.
  • I went to go all the days at snorkling.
  • I stayed at Malaga Feria with my friends.

I took in their papers / notebooks and randomly put up their sentences on the board. While I did this (12 sentences), I asked them to work together (in Spanish if they preferred) to decide if the sentences were fine as they were, or needed any changes. This gave me time to write them all up without the possible yawns and chatter that tend to break out if they’re more than 20 seconds without being directed. It also gave me an insight into who was identifying errors more, and what kind of errors they were noticing. We then did some analysis, sentence by sentence and finished the class trying to identify who had written each sentence by asking, “(Name), did you…?” as we’d done before.

Questions (homework)

I took a photo of the board at this stage to put on our Whatsapp group, and told the students to choose one sentence for each person in the class and write 2 follow-up questions per sentence to generate conversation for the beginning of next class. I like this kind of activity because not only does it come directly from the class – they have to look at, and think about information that they’ve recently seen, but also extends the activity over into the next class using language they’ve generated. They therefore gain experience in autonomy whilst maintaining the safety of drawing on recent experience and achievable goals. Also, they will have the opportunity to check their questions in class, have them corrected and use them in an authentic conversation. Good for me as a teacher and good for them too!