ALT Notes is...

a place for wide-ranging ideas on team-teaching, lesson planning, activities, strategies and teaching know-how for foreign and Japanese EFL teachers.
Have an idea to share? Email me, or start a conversation by leaving a comment.

July 2, 2009

Handling Disruptive Students and Classes

In a meeting with other ALTs recently, we noted these ways to handle disruptive students during a classroom lesson:
  • Try to make the lesson content relevant to the students’ lives- remember to Engage, not Entertain.
  • Use reward systems, such as giving points or stickers, as a regular part of your teaching strategy. One teacher used a class evaluation system of 0, 1 or 2 stickers, given at the end of each class, and posted Around Australia posters in each class. The students themselves monitored the trouble making students, in an effort to get more stickers to be able to beat the other classes.
  • Make free activities as truely communicative as possible. Most students like to talk to their friends, but the content must be relevant and meaningful to them. Try leaving strategic blanks in Interview and other activities that allow students to control the content, yet allow you to control the structure.
  • Proximity- stand near the student during an activity.
  • Try sitting in the troublemakers seat when they move out of it, and tell them they will be the teacher.
  • For a regularly disruptive class, be ready to switch a freer activity to a sitting-and-writing activity. At the end of the class, ask them which activity they prefered. Ask if they know why the freer activity ended abruptly.
  • In an extreme case, make the student move his/her desk in front of the blackboard, facing the other students.

Some activities to use for disruptive classes. These focus on listening skills, an important component of language learning:
  • Dictation- Prepare a sentence, question or short conversation. Say 3 letters aloud at a time, repeating once (‘c-a-n’, ‘c-a-n’), and students write these into their notebooks. Read through the letters once more at the end of sentence/question AS YOUR WRITE THEM ON THE BLACKBOARD. Ask if any student can read the sentence. Write the correct sentence on the blackboard.
  • A Cloze listening activity- Prepare a speech. On a print, remove random words and add lines/underscores in their places on the print. As an option, you can write the missing words in non-sequential order in a border of the print. As you read the speech, students listen and write in the missing words.
  • A speech, in 3 parts- Prepare a speech with each sentence a numbered line. Translate the speech to the students’ native language, and prepare 2 posters: one with the translated lines in order, one with the lines out of order. When you read the speech the first time, have the mixed-order sentences posted on the blackboard (you’re lucky if you have a poster-printing machine to use!), or prepare a print for each student or pair of students. As you read the sentences, let the students choose the corresponding sentence from the blackboard/poster/print. Read the speech again a second time, this time with a poster/print of the translated sentences in the correct order. Last, read the speech a third time, this time without any translated support for the students. This activity works well for self-introductions.

Motivating Students

Internal motivation is the best. Every student will have their own best way to be motivated. Appeal to as many kinds of motivation as you can to reach as many students as you can. Remember- one size DOESN’T fit all!
  • engage, don’t entertain!
  • points/stickers as rewards (especially for younger students, up to JHS 2nd grade).
  • relevant content
  • be as communicative as possible
  • incorporate a variety of skills focus in your activities
  • bring in real-world music, video, print media. you might need to focus on materials for younger age levels of native speakers to make the content accessible to your students.
  • guarantee early success in your activities.
  • wear a crazy hat!

Ordering Activities Within a Lesson Plan

Here are some sequences to be mindful of when ordering activities within a lesson plan. One or several can be used in a single lesson plan.

  1. controlled practice
  2. accuracy testing
  3. free oral production
  1. non-affective/low-stress
  2. whole class
  3. small group
  4. pair
  5. individual
  6. higher speed/higher stress
  1. meaning-focus (comprehension)
  2. pattern-focus/vocabulary
  3. meaning-focus (production)
  1. listening input-meaning focus
  2. reading input-pattern & meaning
  3. writing output-accuracy checking
  4. oral output-communicative/meaning focus

May 19, 2009

Focus on Meaning or Form?

In my 15 years in Japan, I have asked countless Japanese adults why, after 6-10 years of studying English, they are unable to have even a simple conversation. The majority tell me that when they start to think of English, endless rules and grammar lessons enter their heads and the resulting confusion makes speaking impossible.
And a few years ago, when I was doing some research on Error Correction in the EFL classroom, one comment especially stood out for me. One researcher said: “Error correction done wrong turns a student’s attention to form, not meaning.”
From these two anecdotes it would be easy to conclude that there is an over-emphasis on form in many Japanese English classrooms. Knowing there is also a tremendous focus on training-for-the-test, this simple conclusion finds more and more support the more I look at the English education system in Japan.
Form (that is, speaking correctly) is certainly important and cannot be overlooked. But when attention to form, or anything else for that matter, becomes an obstacle to developing speaking ability, however, can there be any disagreement that we need to be very careful how we correct, or interact with, our students?

Teaching Students How to Remember

A student told me today that English was difficult for her because there were ‘so many words to remember.’ I have heard that our number 1 job as EFL teachers is teaching vocabulary. As the daily speaker of a foreign language myself, knowing the right word to say works better than trying to say something another way every time.
So this girl’s comment really struck home to me. One of my goals in the classroom is to give my students the skills they need to be successful learners after they leave my class. So I wondered how I could help this girl succeed in what is perhaps the most important task in her English education.
This is the lead-in to more entries to follow. If you have some of your own ideas, write them as a comment below. And click here to see what other posts I’ve added on this all-important topic.

April 28, 2009

Teaching and Correcting Form in an All-Class Setting

Negative Evidence and Positive Evidence

Students need to be shown what is not correct as well as what is correct. Following are explanations and examples of explicit teaching of language forms, and also methods for explicit correction in an active class, not a one-to-one teacher-student dialog, setting.

At the beginning of each lesson, put the target sentence on the blackboard, perhaps using different colored chalk to draw attention to one part of the sentence if it is to be the focus of the lesson (there might or should be a Japanese translation written, too). If there is information to be taught (patterns to be noticed by the students), attempt to first elicit the information from the students by asking questions rather than just telling them directly. Write on the blackboard- I like dogs. He likes dogs. Then say- T- ‘Can anyone see something different about these two sentences?’). Illustrate parallel examples (refer to something the students already know. I like dogs in the previous example. See Lesson Building Key #4.); refer to meanings in Japanese language; find something concrete the students already know (on the blackboard- I like blue. Kenta likeS blue. (Kenta was chosen because he has a blue pen case on his desk.) (see Lesson Building Key #1).

At the end of each lesson or a pattern-focused activity, write on the blackboard one or some of the common mistakes you’ve heard/seen during the lesson, and explicitly point these out as incorrect (though not why). Then ask for a student to volunteer the correct form for writing on the blackboard (perhaps redundant if the pattern from the beginning of the class is still posted.) Or ask a student to express the differences in the two forms (native language is OK). Or ask a student to explain why the incorrect pattern is wrong. Using these strategies will help students gain a recognition of the pattern without you telling them explicitly.

Strategies for Corrective Feedback

Implicit and Explicit Correction Strategies

As there is doubtless a right way and a wrong way to speak English, correction and/or presentation of correct form is necessary. When conversing with a student or students, corrective feedback by the teacher serves as a prompt for students to self-repair. The goal is to incorporate ways that motivate students to produce language that is not only comprehensible but also accurate.
One point that is especially important is that of error correction: one researcher found that error correction done wrong pushes students to focus on form, not meaning. This point is critical in a meaning- and communicative-focused language classroom.
During English conversation with students, teacher corrections need to be focused on meaning, not form.
A general rule would be, when speaking with individual students (whether alone or in front of the class), to focus on the content or meaning, and not the form, of the message.
Some corrective strategies more than others challenge students to use their own abilities to figure out the correct pattern themselves (for example, asking what an answer is rather than explicitly telling the answer outright). These kinds of corrective feedback strategies best lead to language acquisition, and promote learner self-sufficiency as well. This should be one of the primary standards for judging the effectiveness of corrective feedback.
Corrective Strategies that encourage students to decipher meaning and form for themselves are superior to those strategies that don’t.

The Life Long Learning Skills

Following is a list of the communication and life-long learning skills that are I use in my classes. They are based on my own experience of learning 3 foreign languages, study, and helping students become conversationally fluent. These skills are used in almost every activity on the Ready-Set-GO! English and sites.
-Listen & Repeat (L & R)- repeat word-for-word the previously spoken English.
-Say the Same Sentence- repeat word-for-word the previously spoken sentence.
-Repeat the Same Question- repeat word-for-word the previously spoken question.
-Say Another Sentence- change one or more words in a previously spoken sentence (ex. I have a fish. -> I have a brother.)
-Ask Another Question- change one or more words in a previously spoken question (ex. Do you have a sister? -> Do you have a brother?)
- + Not- Repeat a previous sentence, question or command with not (don’t, can’t, haven’t, etc.) added.
-A + 1 Answer- Use a 2-part answer (ex. Do you have a blue pen? -->No, I don’t. I have a red pen.)
-Q + 1 Question- After another student’s answer, ask a related, follow-up question (ex. Q-Do you have a sister? A-Yes, I do. Q + 1- What is your sister’s name?)
-Pardon?- Asking for the previously spoken English to be repeated again. And, the English being repeated again.

Finish with a BANG!

Students will usually remember best what they did last in a class. If they remember the class was fun and interesting, they will be motivated to participate in your next class. And following the rule of sequencing activities from low-affective activities to fast, higher-stressed activities, this is naturally accomplished by having free speaking communicative activities at the end of your class.

Making Group Work Work

1. Students in groups need to be close enough to maintain eye contact, talk quietly, and share resources.

2. Groups of 4 seem to work best in most cases. Sometimes, odd numbered groups of 3 or 5 are required.

3. Maximize student commitment towards achieving the best possible outcome. Awarding points to groups competitively or based on other criteria work well for this.

4. Make each group member accountable.

5. Teachers may need to train and monitor students in skills for effective collaboration.

6. Groups need to maintain some continuity in membership. The ability to work together effectively is a skill that takes time to develop.

Teaching in Mixed Ability Classes

Students of mixed ability are one of the common features of the Japanese EFL classroom. One of the easiest ways to approach this often troublesome situation is by using small group activities. There are several listed on the minialt blog and the More Activities section at
Teaching and learning are both part of the wheel of learning. By having higher and lower level students in the same small group during activities, the higher level students naturally take on a teaching role, reinforcing what they know. Lower level students benefit from this added instruction, and are enabled to participate in the group activity.

Teaching vs. Testing

Activities in the classroom can loosely be divided into those of a teaching nature and those of a testing nature (and perhaps also pratice). It has been very important in my teaching to understand which activities are inherently testing activities and which are for teaching. My own motto is: “Teaching or testing, at the right time.”

Teaching and testing are both important, but a student’s affective response, usually negative, to being tested in an inappropriate time or way can retard the learning process. And after years of being trained that using English equals being tested, many students will become greatly discouraged from wanting to speak English.
Language teaching, and testing, in the classroom is usually either accuracy-focused (grammar and structure), or meaning-focused (communicative). The testing function of communication is a correctly-received message; as such, communicative testing is inherent in any truly communicative activity. The testing activities below are for grammar and structure. If your present classroom activity is communicative and meaning-focused, be careful not to use them, or risk changing your students’ focus to accuracy, and not meaning and communication. Choose the right kind of test for the right focus!

Some of the testing activities involve direct teacher interaction, others do not. Done properly, either style still has the accuracy-checking and accuracy-reinforcing functions common to testing.
And remember-Teaching or Testing, At The Right Time!

Production Accuracy-focused-
Play CROSSFIRE for production accuracy checking, and also conversation skills accuracy checking.
For Conversation Janken Rounds, have one volunteer student (or the teacher) stand and do the target pattern with the opposite row all standing, while the other students watch and listen. Or, after having each seat pair practice the pattern, ask a volunteer pair to stand and do the pattern for all to hear.
The teacher walks down the aisle of desks, and does the target pattern/dialog with each student. This is much faster when you have 2 teachers in the classroom.
After a Hot Potato round, have the ‘losing’ student in each group stand and say a correct target sentence or question aloud.
After Find 3 People, have the winning students come to the teacher(s) and ask their question before sitting down.
After Liar-Liar, have the winning students come to the teacher(s) and say their sentences before sitting down.

Comprehension Accuracy-focused-

Play Pair Slap.
Play O/X Game.
See also teaching- and testing- sorted activities on The Minimalist ALT blog for examples.

Making Odd-Numbered Groups

Groups of 3 or 5 students can be made in any class size from 8 to 41 students by making 0, 1 or 2 groups of 5 students; the remaining number can be made into groups of 3 students. For smaller class sizes, you may need to include yourself in a group to make all groups odd-numbered. For larger class sizes, you may need to make more groups of 5 students, until the remaining number is divisible by 3.

Recycle vs. Review

The need to review previously studied material is well recognized by teachers. This is also true in the EFL classroom. Rather than commiting time to focused review, however, there is another way to think of doing it: Recycling.
Recycling means to continually use previously studied material throughout your ongoing lessons. This includes using previously learned vocabulary and grammar patterns, as well as conversation communication skills.
A very simple way of doing this is the Q-Card activity, or Janken Conversation Rounds as a Warm-up at the beginning of every class. Click the links for more information.
A note about the Janken Warm-Up activity- it is also the easiest way to teach and practice conversation and communication skills. See more here about why I think these are so important.

April 14, 2009

What Do We Teach

As language teachers, the shortest and simplest answer is:
  • Words, Vocabulary, Alphabet/Letters
  • Yes/No Questions;
  • Wh- Questions;
  • Sentences and/or Negatives;
  • Commands
Be clear which is the target pattern in your lesson, and strive for continuity throughout the lesson. Mixing newer language structures (see the list above) in your lesson will tend to confuse your students, or worse, compromise their success in the lesson.

Where Do You Get Ideas for Activities & Lessons?

We all have great ideas, or see them somewhere, sometimes. So when I find one, I put it in a List. Then, when I need a great idea for an activity or lesson, it’s there, ready to use.
Some Suggested Resources:

Any teachers' resource book: Don’t look at them as a resource of ready-to-use materials with a specific focus, but rather as a resource of activity ideas that can be adapted to your needs.

The Minimalist ALT. A list of 12 language activities requiring neither preparation nor materials. The focus is on listening & speaking.

More Activities & Q-Cards @ The first is a list of communication and conversation activities, with explanations and downloads; the second is an explanation and resource for the Q-Card warm-up/review activity.

The Best Resource- A list of all the activities you know. Try dividing them up by: Language Pattern; Pattern- or Meaning-focus; Non/Low-, Medium- or High-Affective Filter; Listening, Reading, Writing or Speaking; Teaching, Practicing or Testing; and/or any divisions that will help you to choose the right activities to have great lessons!

Doors to English

I will often ask a Japanese person I meet who speaks English well why they have gained such a high level of ability. Often, there was something in the person’s life that made English attractive to them. Their answers I have come to call ‘Doors to English’.
The answers have included music (‘I love the Carpenters!’), movies, Harry Potter books, desire for travel, interest in foreign cultures, inability to communicate in English at an earlier time,... the list goes on.
I try to use this knowledge in the classroom to motivate my students to WANT TO study English. My approach has been to include a wide variety of media and cultural content in my lessons as a way to ‘open’ the Door of English to as many students as possible.


Many of my thoughts on motivation come from the sports-training experience I had previously. Simply, we can contrast internal and external motivation. Imagine a coach that must run around a track behind a runner encouraging them to run faster. This would be an example of external motivation.
Much more effective will be the coach (or teacher) that can ‘light a fire’ inside the athelete (or language student) that will burn even in the coach’s absence.

Success Builds Confidence

And early success in learning is often noted in teaching texts as critical to maintaining student motivation. There can not be enough emphasis placed on the importance of beginning with easy/easier tasks and progressing to tasks of greater difficulty and speed.

What You Need to Know to Prepare a Lesson

Before I prepare an activity or lesson for a class, I am always careful to ask the JTE for these points:

-What lesson number will the lesson target? (If the lesson will not target a particulary lesson in the textbook, is there some other reference that will help to indicate the to-date progression of the students’ studies? That is, what will be suitable vocabulary and grammar to include in the lesson?)
-What is an example of the target pattern to be studied? For example: Can you play tennis? Yes, I can. No, I can’t.
-Will the lesson be a new/introduction, practice, or review lesson? (This information will help determine the activity types and pattern- or meaning-focus, and overall diffultly of your lesson.)