Using props in the ESL classroom to keep your students engaged

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

Sometimes, the simplest of materials can offer the greatest opportunities for creative exploration. This week, I’ve invited Rose-Anne Turner of Destination TEFL to share her expert tips on how to use everyday items as stimulating props within your lessons.

In our last blog post, we discussed using technology in the classroom to engage your students. Oftentimes, this just isn’t possible, and we need to look at other low cost and easy to source props for the classroom that not only get the students involved, but create a fun learning environment for the teacher and students.

Here we have a few suggestions that you can easily pick up in a $1 store (20 baht shop for those of you in Thailand!) and how to use them successfully in the classroom.

Balls: The options are endless here! Those cheap plastic ball-pit balls can be used for so many different games. They can also be used as a way to pair or group students for groupwork (put the coloured balls in a black plastic bag, the students pull out a ball and join the group with the same colour balls). You can also use a ball to throw at a ‘dart board’ drawn on the whiteboard to allocate points to questions answered correctly. The games for using balls in the classroom are endless! Just make to use lightweight ones so you don’t end up with broken windows…

Plastic fly swotters: This is one of our all-time favourite props at Destination TEFL. A great go-to game for a consolidation activity is ‘slam’. The teacher spits the class into two teams and calls up two students at a time to the board, one from each team. Flashcards with images from the words learnt in the lesson are stuck to the board (lower level students, just 2 words to choose from, higher level, you can put up more options) When the teacher calls out the word, the two students have to ‘slam’ the correct flashcard. The one who slams the correct card first is the winner and gets a point for their team. For more advanced students, this could be changed into a grammar exercise: put parts of speech words to the board such as noun, proposition etc. Call out a word and the student who slams the correct part of speech is the winner. We have had equal success with slam across all age levels, from kindergarten to adult lessons. Warning: you’ll need a pacemaker activity to calm down the class afterwards as the noise and excitement level can become quite high!

Funny hats and glasses or puppets: Sometimes students are shy to speak. If they take on another ‘persona’ in the form of a puppet or dress up, then it can encourage them to participate in a fun way with a speaking activity, as they are not being themselves but the character of the puppet or prop.

Stickers or ink stamps: children respond well to the positive reinforcement of receiving a ‘reward’ for correct work or even just participation. They love being able to show their parents a sticker of praise in their workbook or even on their hand. TIP: stickers can get expensive for a teacher, but a rubber stamp with an inkpad is a cheap way of rewarding students.

“An AWESOME book!”

Dice: These can be used in so many ways. Here are a few examples: Use it for dividing students into groups – you land on a 4 and you divide the class into groups of 4. Or students roll the dice and line up in order of the number they rolled. When answering questions, students roll the dice to determine which question to answer. Think of 6 topics, students roll the dice to determine which topic they will speak on for quick oral practice.

Scrabble tiles: Again, the opportunities to use this simple prop are endless. Use them to line up students (in alphabetical or reverse alphabetical order) after the students pick a tile from a bag. Use them to group students according to letters selected, or in groups according to vowel and consonant. Select a category (perhaps topics you have recently covered in class) and students take turn to draw letters and name a word from the category which starts with that letter (you can remove any letters that won’t work for a topic). Let teams draw 10 letters each, and they should come up with as many English words with those letters in a specific time.

Beanbag or soft toy: Use this to throw to the students to determine who will be next in answering a question or participating in the task. Rather than the teacher always being the one to throw the toy, give them a chance to throw it to the next student after answering the question or drilling the word. This keeps them on their toes as they don’t know who will be called on next, as you are not going by order of seating.

Ball of string: a length of string or rope can be used in so many ways. Use it to line up students as a timeline to teach tenses (they can peg words to the string in order of tense). Use it as a ‘washing line’ activity. Students pick the words of a sentence out of a bag and need to peg it to the line in the correct word order. Have two washing lines and two teams so that there’s a winning team based on time and accuracy. 

Remember that for all games, there MUST be a purpose. The purpose for the teacher is for the students to learn and practice the language by playing the consolidation activity or production game. The purpose for the student is to complete the task or win the game. A game or activity that has no outcome or result (usually in the form of a winner) will not be as engaging for your students. Do keep games and outcomes age appropriate. For example, at kindergarten level, we don’t want to focus on winning quite as much, with participation being the main goal at that level.

What props do you use in your ESL classroom?

Guest blog written for Richard James Rogers by Rose-Anne Turner – Destination TEFL

We welcome you to join the Richard James Rogers online community! Join us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates, giveaways of Richard’s books, special offers, upcoming events and news. 

Using Technology in Your ESL Classroom

It’s a common known fact that the youth of today are naturally drawn to technology and we are far more likely to hold their attention by using it, rather than just traditional teaching methods. We can argue the point about the ill effects of too much ‘screen time’ until the cows come home – but perhaps a better saying would be ‘if you can’t beat them, join them!. This week, I’ve invited Rose-Anne Turner at Destination TEFL to share her tips for using technology in the ESL classroom.

Not all teachers will be lucky enough to teach in schools that have access to technology, but if you do, use it! Perhaps only the teacher has access (TV, projector, interactive whiteboard) or perhaps the entire class has access (tablets, computers, phones). Either way, if you can, do try to incorporate technology into your lessons, as you will be connecting with your students on their level – and perhaps learn a thing or two yourself. Another good reason to add tech to your teaching skills is because at any moment, classes may need to go virtual due to the pandemic, and you’ll then be best prepared to present interactive and engaging lessons to your tech savvy students.

Here are some ideas on how to use technology in the ESL classroom:

  • If all your students have access to a device, we highly recommend using Google Classroom as a great way to hand information and assignments to your students and for them to hand back completed tasks. This is a FREE resource.
  • AnswerGarden is a new minimalistic feedback tool. Use it for real time audience participation, online brainstorming and classroom feedback. This free resource has several different users, including classroom, conference and corporate audiences, creative teams, online crowds, and mind-mappers.
  • Scribbl is an online version of Pictionary, which is a great way to get your students speaking as they guess what is being drawn online by a classmate.
  • Educaplay is a great free online platform for teachers to make quizzes, word searches, matching columns, crossword puzzles and more.
  • If only the teacher has access to a TV or projector, then using short and simple films, YouTube videos, etc. will engage your students and you could use this as listening and comprehension exercise. If you don’t have access to a TV, then an audio played from your phone with a blue tooth speaker would be a good compromise. Podcasts can work for this too. It’s good for students to hear other voices and accents, and not just that of their teacher.
  • Most students have access to a phone, and can download the free Memrise app. It offers several languages including of course, English, and students can go up in levels as they progress with their language skills, challenge each other and hear the language spoken by native speakers with different accents. There is a paid version, but the free version offers more than enough to get them going.
  • ePals is an online version of the old-school pen pals we had as kids. This is a great way for students to practice their English with another ESL student somewhere else in the world. Students can select an ePal of a similar age and level.
  • Use free blogging sites for your higher level students to practice their writing skills. Blog settings can be set to private where only those with a password can access it, for instance the teacher and their classmates. Classmates can utilise the comments section of the blog.
  • In the same way, the teacher could connect with another ESL class, perhaps in another country and have the students chat to other students over Skype, Zoom or other video chat platforms to practice their speaking skills.
  • Khan Academy is a fantastic free learning platform (financed by donations) with login options at both student and teacher level. Students can learn and progress and teachers can monitor their progress. If you are teaching more than just English, Khan Academy also covers many other subjects including mathematics, science, humanities, coding, SAT and other test preparation, and more. It’s very interactive, and has video tutorials, exercises and more.
  • Try using interactive games like Kahoot, where students use their phones to log in and answer questions under timed conditions. Questions appear on the classroom TV, or whiteboard and scores are then displayed on a screen. You’ll find hundreds of quizzes on the site, many aimed at ESL learners or you can even create your own.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated why online and virtual education should be an essential part of teaching and learning. By integrating technology into existing curricula, as opposed to using it solely as a crisis-management tool, teachers can embrace online learning as a powerful educational tool. Using technology and online learning platforms in the classroom can not only increase student engagement, but also help teachers improve their lesson plans, and facilitate personalised learning. At the same time, you are preparing your students for 21st-century skills in the workplace. If you are not actively using technology in your classroom, you are going to be left behind.

Do you have any classroom technology tips to share?

Guest blog written for Richard Rogers by Rose-Anne Turner – Destination TEFL

We welcome you to join the Richard James Rogers online community! Join us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates, giveaways of Richard’s books, special offers, upcoming events and news. 

Using Group Work in Your ESL Classroom

Group work may take a little more planning as a teacher, but the benefits are clearly visible, if utilised correctly. The purpose of doing group work is to build confidence, give learners a less threatening environment to express themselves in, learn from peers, and build community.

Often the dilemma facing a teacher who would like to try group work is how best to group their students. Here are some tips from the academic director and trainers at Destination TEFL:

A mixed level class could be put into groups of the same ability, and the same task gets adapted to suit the different group levels – in other words the activity is scaled up or down according to ability. The class feels that they are all doing the same task, however those students who are more advanced are challenged with an activity that is upscaled to their level, and those of a lower level can still participate and improve their skills. Alternatively, the teacher could purposely put mixed levels together, so that stronger students can help more challenged students as we learn well from peers, and peer teaching helps to reinforce a concept for the student teaching it to their peers.

For group work, good classroom management skills do come into play. The teacher needs to ensure that everyone is participating. In the classroom, it’s good to mix up activities with a combination of group work, pair work and individual tasks, as it reflects real life and prepares the students for a work environment where they will sometimes have to work individually as well as in teams.

For group work a pyramid activity can work well, where students do the task individually and then pair up and reach a consensus, and then the teacher puts pairs together into groups. Each time the task is repeated until it is the whole class. This allows students to recycle and reuse the taught language over and over, building their confidence.

In our culture lesson, we set up stations around the classroom with mini articles on aspects of Asian culture. Trainees spend 30 seconds at each station to match a title to an article. There is then another round where they spend 3 minutes at each station to answer more specific questions about the article and the aspect of culture it refers to. Then in groups they create their own presentation on a culture topic and the task sheet as a group.  Then they do it as a listening skills lesson where the group reads their summary, presenting it to the class and the rest of the class answers questions.

Here are some suggestions on how to repair and regroup students in order to mix them up:

‘Mingle-mingle’ gets students out of their seats and interacting using one of the following ideas below. During this time, encourage them to use English, rather than their home language. Choose an idea based on your class’s age and language level.

  • Uno cards – each student gets a card, and they look for the person with the card that added to theirs equals 10.
  • Puzzle pieces – they look for the person/people whose pieces complete their puzzle
  • Collocations – each person has half a collocation daily/newspaper, sports/arena, etc.
  • Verbs – each person has either the V1, V2 or V3 of the same base verb and they have to find the other people who complete the set.
  • Chocolates – each person gets a chocolate and they find others with the same chocolate. Stickers or ink stamps work well too.
  • Colours/Shapes/Animals/Emotions – each student is given a coloured square and they need to find the other people with the same colour, shape, animal, etc.
  • Parts of Speech – each person is given either the name of a part of speech or the part of speech and they have to find their match.
  • Tenses – same as with parts of speech but with the tense name and an example sentence.

Some fun ideas to get students lining up for an activity – line up based on:

  • Mobile phone battery percentage
  • Birthday
  • How far they live from school
  • How many of something they have, or have done that day (steps walked today, coins in your pocket, cups of coffee had today, etc)

We do hope that you will try to incorporate more group and pair work into your lessons. A little more effort on your part will reap rewards both on a learning and fun level.

Guest post written by Rose-Anne Turner, admissions director, Destination TEFL – with input from Kathryn Webb, Academic Director and the trainers at Destination TEFL.

We welcome you to join the Richard James Rogers online community! Join us on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates, giveaways of Richard’s books, special offers, upcoming events and news. 

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10 Groupwork Activities That Can Be Applied to Any Subject Area

An article by Richard James Rogers (Award-Winning Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management and The Power of Praise: Empowering Students Through Positive Feedback).

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati.

When students work together on a task/project that is well-planned and carefully executed, a number of incredible things happen:

It is very important to stress again, however, that group tasks must be very well-planned, otherwise they can “frustrate students and instructors and feel like a waste of time” [University of Waterloo].

So, the next question has to be ‘What types of group activities are most effective, and, ideally, won’t cost me too much planning time as a teacher?’. Well, I’ve got some good news for you – I’m going to pretty much answer that question in today’s blog post. As a high school Chemistry teacher, I’ve had the opportunity to try and test a large number of group-based activities over the past 16 years. What I present here will be my distillation of the top ten that work the best.

#1: Podcasting

Podcasts are all the rage at the moment, and have been for some time. In addition, forecasts by eMarketer, Grand View Research, and many others predict huge growth in this sphere for at least the next several years, and probably much longer.

In other words, the industry is literally booming, and getting our students involved in podcasting provides not only a creative output for their research projects, but also equips them with valuable key skills.

As a podcaster myself, I’m delighted to bring some excellent news to teachers and schools everywhere (garnered from lots of personal experience): podcasting is very easy, and virtually free to do.

Here are the steps that I personally suggest students should follow:

Step 1: Record the audio on any device available – a mobile phone, laptop computer, tablet, etc.

Step 2: Save the file somewhere. A .wav or .mp3 is perfect

Step 3: Download Audacity – it’s free sound engineering software that is just literally awesome (I use it myself for my podcast).

Step 4: Import and manipulate the sound file in Audacity (Hint: For podcasts, set Loudness Normalization to -18.0 LUFS, as this will make the voices of the students nice and clear – to do that, just select the audio, then go to Effect > Loudness Normalization, and keep the check mark the box that says ‘Treat mono as dual mono’).

Step 5: Export and save the file. I suggest exporting as an mp3, rather than a .wav, in order to compress the size of the file dramatically. Sound quality is not affected by this.

Once the sound file has been exported and saved locally, the students can then send that to the teacher in any way that seems appropriate – via e-mail, Google Classroom, uploading to YouTube (which requires another process that the students will have to learn), etc.

#2: Create a short lesson that contains some kind of practical element

Ironically, research shows that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach the topic that you have to learn. So, quite simply, ask your groups of students to prepare a lesson which they must teach to the whole class. To spice things up, the students could build a model, demonstrate an experiment, pass objects around the class or do anything that stimulates touch, smell, and, maybe, taste.

Allowing students to have some creative freedom over how they deliver the lesson should lead to some very interesting and entertaining moments.

#3: Cloud Computing

This is one area of education where Google really has the monopoly – and understandably so in my opinion. Their tools for students are second-to-none. Book the schools ICT lab, iPads/laptops or allow students to use their own devices in the following ways:

  • Google SlidesImagine you’re in a group of 5 people, each working on the same slide presentation simultaneously on 5 different computers. You’re all editing the presentation in real time – that’s what Google Slides is, basically. It’s really powerful, and I’ve found that students never grow tired of working in groups to create beautiful presentations. Get your students to present the slides to the class when the project is done and you’ve ticked so many boxes – collaboration, using ICT to enhance learning, leadership skills, courage, and on and on we could go. Just make sure you’re walking around the classroom to check on the students as they are doing the work, and ask the group leader to ‘share’ the work with you (this involves clicking a button, and selecting the teacher’s school Gmail address to share it to).
  • Google Docs: This is similar to Google Slides, albeit with a slight difference: the students collaborate on a word-processed document in real time, rather than a slides presentation. It’s great for producing leaflets, infographics, reports, booklets, summaries and traditional ‘assignments’.
  • Google Sheets: As the name suggests, this is a spreadsheet application that the students can collaborate on in real-time, in groups. As a science teacher I find that this is perfect for data collection and processing as it can be used to generate graphs and charts. It’s also good for keeping lists (e.g. lists of revision websites).
  • Google Forms: Great for surveys and peer-assessment tasks. Students can create forms for other students to fill in, share these forms with their peers, receive responses and the software will even generate pie charts of the responses for quick analysis. It’s a fun way to use ICT to enhance learning, and a quick way to gather interesting data.
  • New Google Sites: This is Google’s amazing website creation software. In a matter of a few clicks, students can create their own websites that are securely linked to the school’s G Suite server. I’ve just recently used Google Sites with my Year 7 students to create ePortfolios. These ePortfolios act as online records/journals where the students can record their reflections on their work, school achievements, extra-curricular activities and photographs of schoolwork they are really proud of. At many schools, these ePortfolios act as an ‘entire’ record, with students adding work to them throughout their time at school. It’s something meaningful that the students can take pride in, and spend significant time developing.

I’ve written a separate blog post about using Google Apps in teaching which you can find here.

#4: Create a Quiz

Quizzes can be a really fun way to test student knowledge, and when done via a group-creation project they can be much less stressful for students than traditional testing. Furthermore, there are a number of great, free multiple choice and graphic quiz creation tools available on the web:

  • Kahoot!: Students can create an account (Attention: Make sure the students use their school e-mail address for safety) and then create a great multiple choice quiz. Always specify the number of questions you’d like the students to create. When ready, the group can present the Kahoot! to the class, and the students watching/playing will use their mobile devices as multiple choice ‘clickers’. The software comes with music (so use your classroom sound system, if you have one) and shows a running student ranking after each question. It’s great fun, and I’ve never known a student to dislike using Kahoot!.
  • Quizlet: This comes in the form of virtual flashcards that the students create (e.g. key word on one side, definition on the other), but the fun starts with Quizlet Live. Basically, when the group has finished making their Quizlet, they activate Quizlet Live which automatically puts all the students into new groups to compete with each other. Again, music and a main screen showing the real-time progress of each team make for a very lively, active classroom experience.
Quizlet Live teacher screen (showing real-time group progress) and student screens [Courtesy of teachwithtech.com]
  • Wordwall: This app allows students to be more spatial in their quiz creations – offering word-matching, category brainstorms, rank orders and many more activities. You can read more about the wide-range of tasks that students can create with Wordwall here.

Can you think of any others? Please do feel free to comment in the comment box below this blog post.

#5: Marketplace activity

In a marketplace activity, the following steps are followed:

  • Step 1: Students are placed into small groups and given material to learn. They could spend perhaps ten minutes learning about one aspect of the topic you’re teaching (each group can learn a different aspect/sub-topic, or each group can learn the same sub-topic).
  • Step 2: One person from each group goes to another group to teach them what they have learned.
  • Step 3: This ‘designated teacher’ also gets taught by the group.
  • Step 4: The assigned person goes back to their original group and teaches them what they have learned

I have drawn a diagram of the process below (if my handwriting is too small to see on your screen, then please feel free to download the image and zoom in):

You can read more about marketplace activities here.

#6: Model building

Get your students to build things. Materials like plastic bottles, bottlecaps, cardboard, coloured paper, plasticine/modelling clay, straws, shoeboxes and old rope can all be used creatively by students to make models of the concepts they are studying. I’ve used this technique across my teaching in Science to get students to create everything from atomic models to makeshift ‘eco gardens’. Here’s a model atom that one of my IGCSE Chemistry students made out of rudimentary materials a few years ago:

#7: Making videos and stop motion animations

Movies and stop-motion animations are fun projects which can really encourage students to approach a problem from creative perspective. The result? – Memory of the concept is greatly enhanced when compared with traditional teaching methods.

Stop-motion animations do take a long time, and are more suited to processes and systems (e.g. DNA replication, corrie formation, steps in differential calculus, etc.), whereas movies have a wider-range of applications.

You can find out more about how to make a stop-motion animation at this great ACMI webpage here. The students will need everyday objects and inexpensive materials (e.g. modeling clay, coloured paper, straws, etc.) and someone in the group will need to ‘film’ the project. Due to the high-amount of thought and planning involved, stop-motion animations are best suited to complex topics, as the level of thought and immersion needed by the group will lead to useful long-term memory of the concepts.

#8: Create a news report

A suitable example might be a group of three students being assigned the task of creating a news report about a chemical explosion. One student might be the best at art, and could be assigned to produce the graphics. One student might be great at verbal communication in front of an audience, and could be the ‘news anchor’. One student might understand chemical calculations really well, and could provide the script for the news anchor for that particular part of the task.

Students can get really creative with news reports, as nowadays there are so many ways in which they are done:

  • Webpages (e.g. created using New Google Sites)
  • Audio reports (e.g. for podcasting or internet radio)
  • Video reports (e.g. for standard terrestrial TV, internet TV or a Vlog)
  • Social media posts (If you go for this, then ask the students to compile an array of posts – one for IG, one for Facebook, one for Twitter, etc. – and make sure they link to a webpage the students have created)
  • Print media (e.g. a newspaper, magazine article, newsletter, etc.)

This works great when you can provide the groups with a menu, like the one above, from which they can choose what to create.

#9: Create a puzzle booklet

The beauty of this task is that it is both fun and lends itself really well to delegation – one person can create a crossword, one person a word search, one person a fill-in-the-blanks, etc.

Another great thing about puzzle-building is that there are literally tons of free, puzzle building websites out there. Check these out:

#10: Create a classroom display

A warm, inviting classroom that’s colorful, fresh and light can really benefit your students. In fact, expansive research published by the University of Salford shown that well-designed classrooms can improve learning progress in primary school pupils by up to 16%.

This was the first time that clear evidence of the effect of the physical classroom environment on learning was established.

Oftentimes, teachers are stuck with the classrooms they are given. If your furniture is old, natural light is bad or the air-conditioning isn’t perfect, then it’s tough luck. One thing we can change, however, is the quality of our displays. Other aspects of the classroom environment can also be adjusted alongside this (See my article about this here: The Starbucks Protocol), so don’t neglect that side of the equation either.

So what are the best ways that we can create beautiful classroom displays? Good news – I’ve written a whole, separate blog post this very topic (with examples and instructions) here.

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