10 Old Chestnuts …some tough nuts to crack.

An “old chestnut” is a subject or joke that has been repeated so many times that it is no longer funny or interesting.  This is what I learnt from my Director (being from Australia, I’m lucky to even know what a chestnut is!), who wanted to discuss recurring issues that seem to plague even some of the most experienced teachers.  Looking back through past observation reports, we came to realize that we were seeing the same old problems again and again.  Essentially classroom management issues, we believe these “chestnuts” are fundamental to a good learning environment and are the foundations for good teaching practice.  How to change the “old chestnuts” into fresh, tasty treats was the challenge.  The slogans that follow are the result of a brainstorming session with the teachers of International House Buenos Aires (Recoleta), with the aim of making these points memorable for everyone involved.

  1. Voice, your choice!

Much is said about the need to simplify your language for lower level learners and this is no doubt true.  But what about those who are more advanced?  The primary source of input for students is often the language in the classroom, so this needs to be of high quality. It may require us to simplify or increase the complexity of the language we would ordinarily use. 

The way the voice is used is also important.  The voice is just another tool and needs to be trained to be effective.  For example, a slightly longer pause allows the learner value processing time.  Use a confident, clear voice – if you don’t sound sure, how can your students be?

While the idea that “students need to get used to natural speech” has its place, the place for authentic listening in the classroom is within the framework of a controlled listening lesson with proper support.  Not being conscious of the effect of your voice is just laziness.

  1. The lesson is not over until the homework is done.

Homework is not additional part of the lesson but an integral part of it.  How much is set is up to the individual institute, but is should be varied, relevant, meaningful, doable and as enjoyable as possible.  It should also be written clearly on the whiteboard so that students know exactly what they are supposed to do and can copy it down, and checked using a variety of methods. The homework may even provide the subject matter or material for the following class.

  1. All a-board!

The teacher’s number one visual tool is the whiteboard.  It is from here that students copy down a record of the class to take away for self-study, so it is vital that this be legible, logical and carefully planned.  A vocabulary column down one side and use of different colours consistently are healthy routines which allow work to stay on the board and be revisited during the class.  This can then also cross over into your learners’ notes, so scrappy, odd vocabulary scattered around willy-nilly is not allowed.

  1. What day is it?  It’s ti-day!

This one is self explanatory.  Cleaning your whiteboard, putting chairs back into place and returning any other resources to the appropriate places in the teachers’ room or library just makes everyone’s lives easier.


  1. Mind the gap!

Class dynamics are affected by the way in which the space is used.  There is a tendency for students to put their chairs in a line against the wall in a “judging panel” formation.  Instead, get them into a tight semi-circle with no gaps between them (bags and jumpers can go elsewhere) and if space allows, move away from the wall.  This lets all members of the group make eye contact, and also gives the teacher a good monitoring position behind the students.  Encourage students to fill out the seats from the middle, leaving a seat or two near the door free for latecomers.  This helps to avoid disruption. 

  1. Oi, you!

Ever been into a class halfway through the year and heard, “You know…… her”?  Obviously, the teacher needs to know and start using the students’ names as soon as possible, but it is also important to spend some time getting the students to learn them too.  This is extremely important for class dynamics, bonding and rapport.  And don’t forget those who join a little later on.  Repeat these ‘getting to know you’ activities after one week, one month, whatever is necessary to build a community of learners, and give your classes that personal touch by using their names or nicknames as much as possible.

  1. Instructions or ructions?

Give clear instructions in stages and concept check the learners’ understanding.  This is given a lot of attention on CELTA courses, and it often those teachers who are fresh out of one who do it best.  Old lazy habits can set in quickly, so we can make sure even the slowest students understand by doing an example across class, writing instructions on the board, showing the page and asking for repetition by a class member.  Pause, and think before you speak.  Keep instructions clear, short and to the point.  Check understanding by asking closed concept questions, followed by open ended ones.  And remember – ‘Is that clear?’ and ‘Does everyone understand?’ do not count!

  1. A little a day keeps the ADoS away.

Unfortunately, administrative paperwork can’t be avoided but keeping it up-to-date should stop it getting out of hand.  Whether this is absences, homework records, exam scores or your students’ frequently occurring errors, this data not only is a requisite of the job but makes you appear more professional.  Regular liaisons with the office also help to provide clear channels of communication and in turn, smoother operation of an institute from the front desk to the classroom.

  1. Cas-te-lla-no – don’t let it go.

Of course we want our students to speak as much English as possible in classes, however, there is sometimes a place for the learner’s L1 (in this case, Castellano).  If someone is upset or doesn’t know how to say something, it makes sense to use this resource if you have it at your disposal.  Make sure you give your students the classroom language they need to communicate in English during the lesson, and establish your expectations of when it is acceptable to use the L1.

  1. On your bike, again?

Finally, this cryptic crossword style clue refers to recycling.  Nation (2001) says that it’s necessary to encounter a lexical item in different contexts between 8 – 12 times to know it, and that spaced repetition with insertion into previously learnt language over time is more effective than massed into 1 or 2 exposures.  Varying your techniques to appeal to different learning styles and keeping and using vocabulary bags are a couple of principles that the teachers here have taken on board. Games, too, have a valid place and collocation work becomes increasingly important at higher levels.  Learner training also falls into this category, and it is essential to give students at all levels the tools they need to become successful language learners e.g. ways of recording vocabulary.



Since coining these slogans, the frequency of these problems in observations has reduced.  I have heard some teachers in conversation about their feedback commenting on the number of “chestnuts” they had broken, and being determined to improve upon this next time.  There is a poster on the back wall of every classroom in the institute to remind us of these good teaching practices.  Some of them are specific to our teaching context here at IH Buenos Aires (Recoleta), but the essence can be transferred to almost any situation.

When we have these basic principles in place, we have more opportunities to experiment and develop our teaching practices and methodologies.  As some wise bloke once said, “You have to know the rules before you can break them”.



Hedge, T.  (2000)  Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom.

Oxford University Press.

Nation, P.  (2001)  Learning Vocabulary in Another Language.

Cambridge University Press.

Scrivener, J.    (1998)  Learning Teaching.



Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Summary of #eltchat: Differences in approaches between regular classes and those with an exam focus

Summary of #eltchat:  Differences in approaches between regular classes and those with an exam focus (FCE, CPE, IELTS…)

Wednesday, 8 February 2012 at 9pm GMT

The discussion kicked off by asking participants if they taught exam classes in a different way to other classes such as General English.  “Apart from exam skills, what is actually different?” prompted one of the moderators.  The learner objective is quite explicit so this changes our approach in some of the following ways:

  • There can also be a tendency to test rather teach.
  • Aims of exercises may need to be explicitly pointed out to sts.
  • Often a greater writing focus than with Gen Eng.
  • Just plain dull?

But who is it that thinks of them differently?  Is it the students or us as teachers who make such a big deal out of them?

There was some talk of why exams are so important for students and what motivates them beyond the mere taking of the exam, and the commonly cited reasons of university entrance, staying in a current job or improving future career prospects, migrating or studying/working abroad.  There was discussion of differences in difficulty level between exams, the lack of authenticity of tasks, and insufficient varieties of English in certain tests.   

Overall, exam English was really coming up for a bit of a slagging!  Other downsides of exam classes included:

  • too much focus on exam skills rather than actually improving overall or general English level, particularly closer to the exam date
  • short length of many preparation courses
  • a stronger focus on covering the syllabus as opposed to dealing with naturally emergent language
  • exams don’t cater for sts´ future needs and often have little practical relevance
  • student expectations are not always realistic
  • less freedom with material and themes, although this may be an institutional issue
  • quality of materials sometimes not up to scratch, irrelevant topics and the nature of many coursebooks encourages constant testing

Some excellent practical tips for exam classes were offered:

  • focus on the test format but try to keep this as communicative as possible vickyloras
  • importance of awareness raising activities as to how exams are actually constructed e.g. recognising distracters  MrChrisJWilson
  • general test familiarisation, sts should be familiar with all parts
  • try to provide lots of backup material on blogs & wikis and get students involved in projects hartle
  • for longer courses, explicit focus on the exam should be left for closer to the exam date ManosSY
  • getting sts to create their own exam exercises
  • use the same recycling activities that you would in a Gen Eng class chiasuan
  • paying attention to individual learner needs within the larger class group vbenevolofranca
  • practise working with allotted times vickyloras
  • teach sts marking criteria to bear in mind whilst writing ChristosPas
  • try to make writing tasks more realistic/authentic  e.g. write to a real person ljp2010
  • gets sts to write their own questions and compare them with the original ones MrChrisJWilson
  • ensure sts read a great deal, particularly of different genres vbenevolofranca
  • expand on practice tests with discussion, skills work, vocab development, etc  hartle
  • Reading & listening challenges for extra independent work -giv list of exam topics and have Ss find extra stuff to do in own time  Marisa_C
  • get sts to listen/record themselves in class and reflect on their performance Room2Chris
  • Use Voicethread or Voxopop for extra speaking practice Marisa_C
  • Make an exam guide booklet for your ss – how to be successful in exams – include any tips, tricks in there – get them to add stuff   Marisa_C
  • Use vocaroo after every unit to record reading progress about  once a month  Shaunwilden
  • Get Sts to collect writings of the same genre from diferent resources to identify relevant features, also looking at good and bad models   toulasklavou


And of course it wouldn’t be #eltchat without more useful links flying around than you could poke a stick at!  Here they are (feel free to explore them, have only cited each site once, not individual pages):

http://www.scoop.it/t/testing-times/  A handy one-stop site to find all things exam .

http://cybraryman.com/study.html  Test & study prep skills.

http://l.georges.online.fr/tools/cloze.html  Online cloze test maker.

http://chiasuanchong.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/devils-advocate-versus-phil-wade-on-exams-and-testing/ Blogspot on exams and testing.

http://www.flo-joe.co.uk/  and flo-joe on facebook  A classic.

http://teacherdudebbq.blogspot.com/2007/02/using-video-to-improve-students.html Tips on preparing sts for FCE, CAE, CPE speaking.

http://cdextras.cambridge.org/phrasalverbs/phrasal.swf Cambridge phrasal verb site.

http://kalinago.blogspot.com/2011/09/10-speaking-english-activities-using.html Speaking activities.

http://www.voxopop.com/group/eb78fcbf-5a8d-4937-ac20-7d58c31fe561 An example of some voxopop threads.

http://www.englishclub.com/esl-exams/index.htm Overview of exams + some useful links.

http://www.splendid-speaking.com/ Speaking skills for advanced learners.

So in conclusion, exam preparation involves awareness of exam strategies and practice (or as leoselivan dubbed them, the 3 Ts – Techniques, Tips & Tricks) without losing sight of General English and the overall goal of communication and communicative competence.  Apologies for any misquotes or omissions.  Too many great ideas and not enough space. 

See you all again at the next #eltchat!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Is there anybody out there?

My first foray into the mystical land of blogs.  I feel like some intrepid pioneer exploring new frontiers.. or hang on – is it pioneeress?  Yes, this is the first of many questions that I’ll be posing and exploring.   Pointless?  Well, I’m off the opinion that no knowledge is truly useless and the only stupid question that which goes unasked.

So whack on your Indiana Jones hat, arm yourself with a spirit of investigation and prepare yourself for a lot of inane pop-culture inspired references.  I’ll probably go on about teaching English most of the time but keep an eye out for those tangents…

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment