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Teachers helping teachers: Find and share classroom tips, research, experiences, and stories.

Teaching Through Play: Using Role-Playing-Games to Teach English

in Teaching

Diving into the realm of fantasy and role-play is a foolproof way of getting your students to step up their language game (pun intended). Find out more about this communicative approach to learning English.

“You have been travelling through the galaxy for three days when you see the space station. It is enormous, but dark, with no shimmering lights or glowing windows. It doesn’t look like anybody has lived here for decades – the crew went radio silent thirty years ago while they were mining rare metals from a nearby asteroid and nobody knows what happened to them. It’s your job to find out. What do you do?”

In these five sentences we see the present perfect progressive and past progressive tenses, the present perfect simple, past and present simple, and two different forms of the auxiliary verb ‘do’.

But rather than thinking about the English, most people will be thinking about the spaceship when giving their responses, whether asking questions:

“Is the space station damaged?”
“How many people were working there?”

…or creating a plan of action:

“I think we should scan it for life.”
“We need a doctor, a soldier and a scientist. I’ll sneak in first.”

… The communicative purpose of the language comes to the fore. Students will use it naturally as it exists in the real (or fantastical) world.

Consider how much more interesting an RPG scenario – buying an invisibility potion from a surly orc – is than the textbook equivalent of the same language – buying bread and milk from a supermarket clerk. The latter example also offers no reward beyond praise; the former could be essential to their characters’ in-game success.

Role-playing games or RPGs are a fantastic way to learn English. They are basically ‘interactive stories’ and use a wide range of vocabulary and functional language, which must be used to convey complex ideas – often in a much more interesting and dynamic way than counterpart textbook exercises.

 

A picture of dice
Most RPGs use dice of varying sizes – but don’t worry, the rules can be very simple!

Some basic principles of role-playing games

RPGs come in a multitude of forms, covering every genre imaginable, but a fairly typical (sci-fi) game might proceed like this:

The Game Master, or GM, tells a story, and the players each represent characters (a dashing pilot, a cowardly robot technician, etc). The players might act or talk in-character, but they all make decisions and take actions. A die (or dice) is usually rolled to decide the results of an action, and the story continues:

[Player] “I want to scan the space station for life. I rolled a 14 on the die.”
[GM] “A 14? That’s a pass! Your ship’s computer detects a very faint, human heartbeat deep inside the ship. And also, something else… The computer doesn’t know what it is, but it’s not human. What do you do next?”

Thanks to their variety, these games are suitable for a huge range of learners – I have played a simple example of the genre, No Thank You, Evil!, with ESL students as young as seven. These are not just kids’ games, however – having really taken off in the late 1970s, RPGs have fans of all ages.

Furthermore, their variety comes not just in complexity and genre, but in entire philosophy – The Quiet Year is a game in which players work together to draw a map and tell the story of a single year in the life of an isolated village. There are no dice, and no GM – prompts come from drawing cards (“Which group holds the highest status in your community? How does one gain access to this group?”).

Very often, it’s not a matter of whether you like RPGs, but which one is suitable for you.

 

A simple map, made for an RPG
Professional-looking maps can be easily made with the right software.

Tips and tricks for using role-playing games in the classroom

Role-playing games are becoming part of the zeitgeist. The YouTube Show Critical Role aimed to crowdsource $750,000… and raised a record $11 million! New games are springing up, and new players are joining every day. Now is the perfect time to introduce them into your classroom…

… and that brings me to a little bit of self-promotion. I’m developing a gaming session for kids in Berlin; having run some trials, it will be launching very soon. I won’t sell it too hard here (though please check out our social media!), but here are some tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way…

  • Find a game that suits your audience! Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is by far the most popular; your students might have already played it, or want to. It isn’t the simplest or easiest, though. For my game I use the Cypher System, as it can be adapted to any story genre and copes well with whatever left-field actions younger players want to take. It also, very importantly, requires little maths or arcane rules-knowledge when under pressure.
  • Find a story that suits your audience! Even within one game, there are many different stories to choose from (just as there is a difference in sci-fi between Star Wars, Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey). You can write your own stories, buy ready-made stories, or mix these approaches. This can tie in to my first tip – popular games such as D&D have a lot of material ready-made. Other perfectly good, but less popular, systems will require more preparation on your part.
  • Introduce your target language! Even without any extra work, these games are great for language use. Vocabulary will be introduced and reused and language will be deployed in service of a tangible goal. You can alter the script for your story to make sure it covers the language you want your students to hear (e.g. “People have visited this shrine for hundreds of years…”). I also customised my game to offer bonuses to die rolls if English questions are answered correctly.
  • Introduce other activities! Students could draw pictures of their characters to match the descriptions they have written, or draw maps of these characters’ home towns. They could prepare a speech their character must give at a wedding (too many mistakes and maybe they will cause a scene in front of an important noble…). Maybe they could design a wanted poster for the villain they are seeking. All of these extra activities can also have ‘real-world’ impacts in the game, providing greater incentive to do them well.
  • Consider props! I drew pictures of my students’ characters to help build their interest and created eye-catching cards as aides-mémoire, as well as maps of relevant locations (there is specialist software for this, see below, which makes it loads of fun!). I also use a toy duck to limit children speaking over each other. Only the person holding it may talk.
  • Practise! Gather your friends for an evening and play with them first. You can tweak the story a little so suits them, but just get used to the rules, to following a rough plot you’ve prepared and to improvising unexpected scenarios. It also helps you get familiar with your characters and locations – maybe you can try doing different voices for different characters or a friend will suggest an interesting plot twist you can steal.
  • And, to finish on a cliché… Have fun! If everybody’s having fun, they’ll be talking, asking questions, making suggestions and hanging on every word you say. Isn’t that every teacher’s dream?
The most famous RPG of them all – Dungeons and Dragons

Recommended resources (many of these can be bought as PDFs and home-printed, avoiding postage fees):

Dungeons and Dragons – the most popular RPG by far, set in a Tolkienesque fantasy world.

The Cypher System – the system I use. It is flexible, simple, and easy to use under pressure. It is also generic, meaning you can use it for any genre of story. I have used the supplement The Stars are Fire to help me create a sci-fi story.

No Thank You, Evil! – a modified version of the Cypher System aimed at young children. Very simple and easy to use – I’ve had success even with very low-level students.

The Quiet Year – not a traditional RPG; players draw a village on a map and draw cards which give them prompts to add to the map and describe interesting events. If you buy the PDF rules, this is also very cheap and easy to set up.

You Awaken in a Strange Place – a very cheap, no-prep RPG. The players decide the genre and setting themselves. I’ve not played it myself, but suspect it would work well in the classroom.

Inkarnate – an online app for making maps. Descriptions are great – but a picture paints a thousand words, allowing you to focus on only those that matter.

My sessions, Role Up!, will be starting in March-April, and will cater for both children’s and adult’s groups. To find out more, contact kitflemons@gmail.com or Facebook.com/RoleUpBerlin.

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Webinar Review: “Let’s Do some Text Squeezing: How to Get Learners Excited about Reading” with Britta Landermann

in Teaching

This 60-minute webinar organized by Cornelsen provided a nice refresher on different ways for teachers to use reading texts with students. Jennifer Knaeble explains her most important takeaways.

To start off, Britta reminded us that some texts that we find exciting might be linguistically or lexically too demanding for our students, or the latter may not share our interests.

So to avoid silence and blank stares post reading, we should be prepared to fully squeeze the text for all it’s worth. We need to ask ourselves not only how we make the most of a text but also how we keep it fresh and relatable for our students.

Here are three ways Britta recommended approaching texts to enliven the way we teach.

Consider the text as a:

  1.  linguistic object
  2.  vehicle of information
  3.  springboard for production

Approach number one: the text as a linguistic object

A teacher can use the text to draw attention to specific lexical sets, grammar elements or word patterns. Fair enough – we see this all the time with activities in EFL course books. However, it’s nice to be reminded that this can be done before or after reading the text. (Especially if you’ve fallen out of the habit of reading tips provided in teachers’ resource books).

As a pre-reading task, teachers might ask learners to choose words from the text that they already know and explain what they mean aloud; or have learners choose a word from the text, spell it aloud, and see if their classmates can find the word in the text.

Similarly, teachers could get learners to identify grammatical or lexical patterns within the text (e.g., past tense verb forms, prepositions of place, adjectives, etc.), which will provide some initial context, such as time, setting, or topic, about the text.

These are quick, yet important, warm-up exercises that especially benefit low level learners (A1-B1) as they help familiarize them with the content while providing an opportunity for learners to demonstrate their previous knowledge.

Ultimately, this empowers learners to bring to the reading what they already know, which in turn builds confidence and motivation.

Before-During-After

With more advanced learners (B2 and upwards), Britta recommends not diving too deep into the linguistics of the text prior to reading. This is because students at higher levels are more likely to welcome the challenge of reading the text without analyzing its features first. Instead, she suggests teachers use a BDA (before-during-after) approach to the text.

For example, first set short pre-reading tasks where students briefly discuss, say, the title (e.g., “The entrepreneur handbook to success”), then pose a more generalized question (e.g., What do you think motivates entrepreneurs?), followed by a personalized question (e.g., What motivates you in your work?).

As learners read the text, teachers might ask them to note down any new language or words they find particularly challenging, interesting, or useful. And as a post-reading task, students can be asked to share the words they’ve selected and to use them in a more personalized context.

Approach number two: the text as a vehicle of information

This approach seems quite straightforward, yet there is always room for improving how our learners interact with reading materials. Britta gave us a few tips:

  • prediction questions (What do they think the text might be about?)
  • follow-up comprehension questions that check learners’ understanding
  • dissection tasks, such as matching subtitles to each part of the text, a sort of signposting activity that can be useful for helping learners to navigate longer texts; one can ask gist questions, as well as questions for specific details

A personal favorite of mine is to cut up a larger text into sections and assign one section to each student (the teacher may help by providing three or four points to concentrate on). Then, after reading, ask students to summarize their text to the others in their group. Since the individual sections make up a whole, learners are often curious to know how the other texts relate to their own text. This works especially well with stories.

Lastly, another element of looking at the text as a vehicle is thinking of it as a means of transporting learners to somewhere else. This could be, for example, a similar experience they’ve had themselves.

You can do this by asking:

  • What did you like/dislike about the text?
  • Have you ever had a similar experience?
  • Do you know anyone like this?

Through personalizing a text, you enable learners to expand and incorporate the text into their own experience using their own repertoire of language.

Approach number three: using the text as a springboard

The last approach Britta mentioned is thinking about the text as a springboard for further reading, discussion, or a writing task.

After reading the text, teachers could give students the chance to transform it into other forms or styles; for example, turning a menu into a marketing ad, a letter of inquiry into a customer reply, a story set in the present into one set in the past. This gives learners the chance to recycle the language and to expand the content before embarking on a full-on discussion (something which can prove more challenging, especially for lower levels).

Another springboard activity that Britta suggests is web quests, in which you set learners a post-reading task of going online to research the topic further, then reporting their findings to the class. One of the webinar participants made a similar suggestion – that is, to use reading activities as a preparatory foundation for more challenging listening activities such as watching TED talks that are based on the same topic, or person, that the text was about.

Whatever the springboard task – remember that keeping it realistic and relatable is the best way to ensure learners engage with a text.

In short, this webinar provided some very useful suggestions and tips on how best to approach texts and use them with your students.

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ELTABB Book Review: Top 10 Picks for English Teachers

in Teaching

Dear ELTABB, thank you for stocking my bookshelf with some fresh teaching resources!
I recently received €150 from ELTABB to purchase ten new books for my teaching library. My goals: to find material that would serve as quick resources for classroom activities and to find ways to further develop my teaching methodology. Which of these books did I find successful in accomplishing this? Here’s my review…

5 Books for quick access teaching ideas (in order of favourites)

1. 39 No-Prep/Low prep ESL Speaking Activities – Jackie Bolen

I love having warm up, filler and closing activities in my lessons. 39 No-Prep/Low Prep ESL Speaking Activities has been one of my go-tos since I got it. If you are at a loss for ideas of how to start your class or need something extra for your lessons, try this one out.

I’ve also been able to adjust activities so they’re suitable for any language level. What’s more, the book is easy to fit into your teaching bag and comes at a great price (under €10).

2. ESL Classroom Activities for Teens and Adults – Shelley Ann Vernon

Shelley Ann Vernon’s ESL Classroom Activities for Teens and Adults is quickly becoming my other book of choice. I had to get used to the strange way that activities are organized in the book (there’s no page index for the activities), but once I did, I found loads of interesting and creative ways to enhance my lessons.

This book definitely meets my needs of having fun and fresh classroom ideas at my fingertips.

3. ESL Classroom Games: 180 Educational Games and Activities for Teaching ESL EFL Students – Denise Scott

ESL Classroom Games: 180 Educational Games and Activities for Teaching ESL EFL Students also has some superb supplementary lesson content. What I found annoying however (yet again!), is that there is no clear index for how to find the activities. The author only has activities listed under language level headings (no page numbers). Once I started flipping through the book, it was furthermore hard to find activities because of the layout.

However, there’s lots of useful material and the book doesn’t cost much to buy.

4. The Ultimate Book for Busy English Teachers – Marc Roche

Looking for new content for your conversation courses? The Ultimate Book for Busy English Teachers will give you lots of material for upper-intermediate to advanced students. On occasion, you can also use this book for pre-intermediate classes if you adjust the language.

Marc Roche gives you an array of topics and discussion questions which require little to no preparation, yet lead to engaging and lengthy conversation from your students. There’s also a great section in the final part of the book about phrasal verbs.

I’ll be using this book a lot!

5. 39 ESL Vocabulary Activities – Jackie Bolen and Jennifer Booker Smith

Last on my list is 39 ESL Vocabulary Activities. I’ve looked through the book, but I haven’t found as many activities I’d like to use for my classes…yet. However, if you are looking for ways to practice and build vocabulary in your courses, I think this book is a great one to have on hand.

Books to improve teaching skills: My 5 picks

I’m excited to bring Andromeda Jones’ text book free lesson methodology to my classrooms:

1. The Ultimate ESL teaching Manual – Andromeda Jones

2. The Ultimate Teaching ESL Online Manual – Andromeda Jones

3. The Ultimate ESL Vocabulary Manual – Andromeda Jones

Jones’ Manuals can be used to either to design fully text book free courses or to provide you with extra material for already text book established courses. These books will not only enable you to have fantastic lessons, they will also help you to become all around better teachers.

I’m planning on taking some time this semester to read them all in order to ‘up my teaching game’.

4. The Drama Book – Alice Savage

Alice Savage’s The Drama Book is also going to be an interesting one for me to try in classes this year. Being a performing artist myself, I love incorporating role play work in my lessons. Theatre is fun and gives learners a more realistic arena to practice language.

Included in the book are things such as warm ups, pronunciation practice, sketches, scripts and script writing activities…and much more.

5. Word Order in English Sentences – Phil Williams

And lastly…Word Order In English Sentences by Phil Williams. Despite it being last on my list, it’s a good one. Are your students making silly mistakes with sentence structures? Do you need some brushing up on explaining word order to them? Take this book out and do a few exercises with them! You can even assign small sections of the book as homework.

My students are already having lots of fun with the material from these books and my teaching preparation has been made much easier. ELTABB, thank you for helping me to accomplish my goals through the scholarship funds!

With best wishes,
Vanessa Lanch

***

All books can be purchased on https://www.goodreads.com.

embrace social media in the EFL classroom
Photo credit: nominalize, Pixabay

Workshop Review: “Embracing Social Media in the EFL Classroom” – with Greg Wagstaff

in Teaching

How can we use social media and other apps to motivate, engage and interest 21st-century learners? At this year’s YLTSIG Conference, Greg Wagstaff shared some tried and tested methods for incorporating technology in the EFL classroom.

Greg kicked off his talk by stating that the average person spends 144 minutes per day on social media, which comes down to more than two hours on apps like Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn. Thus, social media – and technology in general – are very much part of our everyday lives. But do our classrooms reflect this reality, and why would it matter anyway?

Tasks in real-world context

Teaching usually focuses on language acquisition, not the context in which what is learned will be used. This separation has a downside: sometimes it isn’t fathomable to students in what way the lesson will help them; and if it is, learning may still feel “clinical” and lack a sense of genuineness. As a result, learners may not be as engaged and interested as they could be.

That’s why providing the missing link between the classroom and the real world can be a game changer. Once students learn to apply something that benefits them on a daily basis, learning will feel much more meaningful and intriguing.

Greg suggested three technology-based activities that can help create a realistic atmosphere:

  1. Sending emails: Instead of practicing writing emails on paper (or in a Word document), learners can simply write real ones and send them to the teacher, themselves, fellow learners or other contacts.
  2. Making phone calls: Instead of doing a standard role play, let students call you/each other on the phone and practice speaking.
  3. Being active on social media: Learners can create posts or write comments using their own accounts. As an alternative, they can create realistic simulations of social media posts on zeoob.com.

Seeing the immediate real-world benefit of what they do in class is guaranteed to get your learners on board and boost motivation.

Using language from real-world contexts

Besides giving tasks that feel real to your students, you can breathe life into practicing grammar and vocabulary by using “digital realia” as discussion starters.  Greg recommended the following:

  • Voice notes: These are great for practicing reported speech. Just play the note to your learners and let them repeat the message in RS. Youtube works for this, too.
  • Twitter posts: They can be used to practice the past tense (“When did (person) post tweet X, and what was it about?”).
  • Photo caches: You can let students share their photo caches to talk about their experiences, wishes for the future and regrets.

Connecting with the real world through authentic materials will make any session of yours much more relatable and interesting.

Resources through connectivity

When we communicate via social media and messenger apps, we automatically create resources. Greg showed us how to use WhatsApp chats as lesson materials. He gave us a screenshot of a conversation between two people, with one side being blanked out. We then were to guess and fill in the missing lines.

The result was a gap-fill exercise that felt realistic and engaging. The good thing about this kind of resource is that you can easily make your own and even have your students create resources themselves.

Self-assessment

Other than for exercises, technology can be used for self-reflection. The recording function on cell phones is a great way to facilitate self- and peer assessment. It gives students a direct impression of their skill level. Having learners evaluate their pronunciation can be part of the lesson.

Just remember that perfectionism is a trap – it’s not about sounding like a native speaker with perfect RP. Learners can ask themselves:

  • Were they intelligible and fluid?
  • What was good?
  • What can be improved?

If your learners are interested, video recording can help them evaluate themselves even better. Greg suggests making space for single, pair or group work, to make sure your learners are undisturbed while recording themselves.

English outside the classroom

There are some simple things that can help students stay on track outside the classroom, and they are just a click away. Greg encourages his learners to change their phone settings to English, to
follow English channels (such as the BBC) on Youtube or Twitter or to start their own channel in English. Modern technology makes all of this as easy as can be.

Modern communication is…different

Keep in mind that technology is constantly influencing modern communication. 20 years ago, mobile phones and text messages were considered advanced technology. Nowadays, emojis, video calls, voice messages and text speak (i.e. acronyms such as IMHO, FYI, etc.) are part of everyday communication.

This also means that, depending on the age group you teach, your learners might know more about tech than you do. Greg’s advice on this is to embrace learning from your students – as an English teacher, you don’t have to be a tech expert as well, and they will enjoy sharing their knowledge with you.

Use technology wisely

Especially when teaching younger learners, using digital tools like smartphones is a double-edged sword. As a teacher, you want to reap the benefits of technology while avoiding the pitfalls: overuse and distraction. So before you start incorporating technology in your teaching, you might want to have a conversation about it.

You can tell your students that you’ll be happy to use technology for specific purposes, but that you don’t condone the excessive use of smartphones and tablets, especially when not related to your lessons. (Again, this probably depends on who you teach, but can be a sensible one-off statement, no matter the group of learners).

Final thoughts on using social media in the EFL classroom

Greg’s interactive and fun presentation made it easy to follow. It gave us a glimpse of what an interactive, social-media-infused lesson could look like. As long as we manage to stay on the ‘constructive’ side of things and use it wisely, technology is a great way to make lessons more vivid, realistic and engaging.

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Greg Wagstaff is a freelance teacher trainer based in Seville, Spain, where he works for Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Assessment. He also works for the YouTube channel ‘Learn English with Cambridge’, scripting, editing, and starring in videos for English language learners. Greg’s practical talks are full of innovative tips and activities that can be implemented in class straight away. You can find him on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

Mind Your Language – on Being Both a New Parent and a Language Teacher

in ELTABB/Teaching

One stereotype of teaching is that it is a busy life, buried beneath piles of lesson plans, timetables and grammar books. Swapping out these for nappies, toys and laundry, we find a not-too-dissimilar stereotype of parents… and when the two collide, we find ourselves in a very chaotic world indeed.

How does one balance the demands of teaching and parenting? The Eltabb Journal set out to investigate – and our first subject is Shaun Trezise, a new father raising a child with a very diverse linguistic heritage…

Video calling – some people are born naturals

There are many things I have done via video chat that I would have thought highly unlikely a couple of years ago. Playing quizzes with Eltabbers, teaching my university courses and leading other classes – all are directly connected to the pandemic and our responses to it. What I could never have imagined is that I would have to witness the first month of my son’s life through the same medium.

Due to a combination of factors, namely Brexit, covid and visas, I have had to take my first steps into fatherhood from 15,000km away. The hundreds of hours of online classes I have taught since March last year are no kind of preparation for meeting your first-born this way, although I take heart from the fact that he probably can’t see me too well yet. When we talk on the call, he doesn’t have too much to say – and only occasionally looks terrified to see my face beaming at him from the other side of the world.

A rose by any other name

My main task during the pregnancy was to come up with a name. I wanted something that reflected my Cornish heritage but wouldn’t be too mangled by a German or Filipino tongue. My son is going to be at least a third-culture kid and I wanted to help by not forcing him to exasperatedly explain his pronunciation his whole life. My surname will give him enough headaches! I spent most of the 9 months considering, debating and essentially focus grouping name suggestions, before checking with my wife – and her power of veto. 

Trying to consider three pretty disparate languages simultaneously, I researched historical names and read dictionaries with the aim of finding a good fit. Names beginning with J, like Jowan were considered but dismissed because of the amount of ways it could be said. No one could agree on how it should be said, even within my friends and family group. Tristan is maybe the most classical of Cornish names, but the 3 T’s, when combined with my surname, just took it over the edge of plosive acceptability. Branok is an old Cornish name that was very well liked by all of my family, and had made it through to the final stage. When my wife heard it for the first time, she started laughing and told me that’s the noise a chicken makes in Bisaya, her native language. 

When her labour started we still didn’t have a name and so I made the decision to abandon my Cornish roots and look for something that would be able to pass the veto. In the end – and believe me this is the short version – we decided on a name that had significance in Cornish (‘much loved’) and Filipino (‘king’) but wouldn’t be a hindrance to a German speaker (or any other nationality, hopefully). So in September we welcomed Hari into the world and rejoiced at the fact that we had finally found a name for him.

Bilingual bother, trilingual tribulations and quadrilingual qu… qu… erm…

I am choosing to think of this as a warm up for some of the tribulations that will come as a result of raising a multilingual child in a country that neither of his parents come from. I am an English speaker who has passable German. My wife speaks Tagalog, Bisaya, and English fluently but very little German. Hopefully he grows up as a fluent speaker of all of those and more, but it is hard to know the right way to approach it. His Lola (maternal grandma) doesn’t speak much English – whilst his Nana (paternal one) speaks only English. 

Do we need strict borders between the languages, or can we allow him to figure it out on his own? How is he going to do in school when German isn’t a language spoken well at home? Will he want to keep his linguistic connections to his forebears or will he immerse himself in German surroundings. Should we teach him or let him learn as he wishes?

All this is probably a bit too far in the future; he can’t currently hold his head up on his own, let alone converse in multiple tongues. But I am working on the assumption that if it took 9 months to choose his name, we probably need to allow a while for choosing his language.

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If you liked this article on being a new parent and a teacher, head over to Part 2 with Sherri Williams here.

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