Thursday, January 21, 2010

5 problems and 5 solutions

I hate instructing or advising people without being asked to do so. If I don’t like what I see I usually keep quiet but this time I could not.

Three weeks ago I attended a few workshops run by experienced teachers new to the art of public presentation. The content of their presentations was fine but they had some serious problems when it came to dealing with the participants. I imagine similar things happen in their classrooms so if THEY had difficulties, how about regular teachers?

Here’s an outline of the problems I’ve observed with the solution that work for me.

Problem one: Teacher asks an open-ended question to the students e.g. ‘What are the advantages of using computers in class? Students look at each other, one of them replies, the rest is quiet. Teacher asks ‘Anyone else? No one else replies. The discussion is abandoned.

Solution: Give students a few minutes to work in pairs/groups and discuss the issue you’ve chosen. Then proceed to whole class feedback.

Problem two: Teacher wants the students to wander around the classroom asking each other questions e.g as in Find Someone Who. S/he distributes the handouts but the students don’t feel like moving and continue sitting.

Solution: Stand still and make the students come to you to get the handouts.

Problem three: Teacher wants the students to work in groups and make a list of five important people from their country. After a few minutes students work in pairs and make lists of ten famous musicians.

Solution: Check your instructions by saying ‘What are you going to do now?’ It might become slightly annoying but it’s definitely worth the effort. More importantly, the students will get used to paying more careful attention to what you’re saying because they’ll remember you’ll ask for a recap.

Problem four: Teacher asks ‘Do you understand’? Students say they do. Really? How do you know that?

Solution: Ask students to repeat what they’ve heard from you to their partner or yourself and in case of any misunderstandings, allow more time for further explanations.

Problem five: Teacher wants the students to talk about the effects of global warming and gives them some questions to discuss. After some time s/he realizes the students are talking about the causes of the problem. They forgot what exactly they were supposed to talk about.

Solution: Write the subject of the discussion and possibly related questions on the board so that the students can refer to them while talking. Elicit or provide students with task language.

If you have different solutions and/or find mine inappropriate/useful, feel invited to comment :)


  1. Very nice! I particularly like the simple elegance of solution 2.
    An added suggestion for problem 1: put students in pairs and give them a concrete goal to work towards, e.g. "In pairs, think of at least TWO advantages of using computers in class. Think on ONE disadvantage. Write down your THREE sentences on a piece of paper." Write on the board COMPUTERS IN CLASS 1 disadvantage, 2 advantages, 3 sentences total. Or some variation of that. Then open it to a whole class discussion afterwards.

  2. This is a fantastic post. I'm always trying to find ways to make things go a little smoother in the classroom. These are all excellent solutions.

    For problem two, I would explain that I want the students to imagine they're at a party and they need to move around and talk to several different people. I might even say "talk to 5 different people". I would follow it up with your solution for problem number four (get a student to repeat what I said).

    I teach in Taiwan, and it's not easy getting students in Taiwan to do mingle activities. I think it's largely because their previous experience of schooling has told them that learning is something that you do sitting down at your desk. Mingle activities and running dictations are a shock to many of them, especially those with no experience of the wild and wacky world of EFL. As a result, I need to wander around with them, repeating the instructions, and making sure that they change partners often and avoid forming a group that stands around in a circle.

  3. Excellent tips Anita and very practical to implement immediately.

    For problem number one I would introduce a very quick counting game. Eg I give the students a time limit of one minute to list the advantages orally and to count them with their fingers. This introduces a fun element and usually students do enjoy thinking quickly and seeing how many they can list. When time is up, ask how many each pair has come up with and then elicit answers from the class as a whole.

  4. Lindsay, Hall and Janet - thanks a lot for stopping by and sharing your ideas :)

    That's what I really like about blogging - we can all learn so much from other people!

    Sorry for the very late reply and hope to see you here again!

  5. Simple & effective indeed! Great summary of some of the easy little tricks to greatly improve the effectiveness in class.
    Thanks for sharing Anita!

    (found your blog via @luclip on Twitter)

  6. Glad you've found my ideas useful :)