Preparing for iTDi’s course with John Fanselow

JohnF1This is my fourth opportunity to revisit my practice with John in the mentoring role. A great teacher as he is, he knows how to guide us through something and when to let us think for ourselves. He never gives us ready answers but ideas to experiment with. Playfulness is the key word in his training and we learn by doing and reflecting on what we do.

Now, in order to prepare for this course John asked us to write down two activities I have regularly used to teach grammar and vocabulary.

When teachers search for a course to take they are keen to know the goals of the course and what will be done in each session. But I am not able to state the goals of the course nor what will be done in each session because I have not met any of you much less know what you do in your classes or what you hope to change in your classes as a result of participating in my class.

To transform our teaching we need to first understand what we’re actually doing in our classrooms. Before the first class I would like each participant to write down two activities you have regularly used in teaching grammar and vocabulary. (John’s message about the course)

I could say that in the last couple of years my approach to work with language changed a lot. Because of that I’m only contemplating here what comes to mind as being the backbone of my practice lately:

  • Learners should have time to understand things by themselves.
  • Learners should be able to use the language first and work toward understanding their mistakes/errors with guidance or on their own if they can.
  • Learners should practice with models that are meaningful to them.

Do I teach grammar first? I rarely do it nowadays. Even the coursebooks I work with introduce texts (written or spoken) as pretext to teach grammar and vocabulary. However, CBs are very explicit and controlled to what kind of grammar and vocabulary learners ought to use during the lesson whereas when I’m not working with a CB, students respond/react to the texts (writter or spoken) by using English they know or want to know in speaking or writing activities.

The texts are triggers and the aim is to understand the message. Then, when learners do are not able to understand it, we work together to check what the problem was that prevented him/her to understand it. Was it vocabulary or grammar? or something else? I noticed that usually that the problem is learners difficult to put the message together on their own especially if they are poor readers. So it is a matter of not knowing the language or bits of it, but also read it fluently.

If it is vocabulary, learners are encouraged to use dictionaries (bilinguals for lower level learners and monolinguals for higher level learners if they can’t guess from context). Sometimes, it happens to discuss the meaning and give examples according to the student’s need of word knowledge, this can happen in L1 (lower levels) or L2 (higher level learners). If possible, a drawing is also used to illustrate the meaning. Sometimes I also use L1 translation if appropriated.


  • Learners work out the message by themselves or using a dictionary;
  • Learners ask me to clarify the meaning of a passage and we often do it through a discussion, examples and drawings.
  • When suitable, I or another student provides the L1 word.

Images and audiovisual can also be used to support learners in understanding the message.


The way I deal with learners needs and errors is not a very conventional one here. I do not prepare grammar lessons for them, but I create tasks/situations where they will use language they known. Then, we work on language correction and discuss usage. Sometimes we do this on the board and sometimes I use a delayed approach by giving feedback and explanations in their notebooks. With pre-intermediate level learners upwards this seems to be a great way to work, but when it comes to lower level learners it shows that it becomes very frustrating for them to produce something when they are short of words. Therefore, they need models which are interesting and engaging. Games and stories have been a great way to expand vocabulary as well as helping them thinking of language patterns.

In either case, grammar is worked within a context where learners can naturally engage with the text/task, be it using their own words or language provided through a model.

Activity used with 14-years-old as part of the story-based material.

a) Imagine you are walking in a dark empty street and you hear someone shouting, what would you do?

a) I would continue walking.

b) I would shout to the person from the street.

c) I would try to find the person.

Lower level has options to react to the text while higher level can answer and express also their reasons.


Or a drilling-like activity:

Activity used with 11-year-old kids yesterday:

a) Draw a picture of someone in your family.

b) Think of the following information about the person:

Name, age, nationality, city where they live, job, appearance (eyes and hair color), likes and dislikes.

I provided them with models on the board when reviewing what we had seen on previous lessons through video stories instead of talking about grammar. Most what we did with the videos below was with learning vocabulary and understanding the video message. The activity above is to work on writing and speaking by personalizing the information.

Next to the picture, they only wrote the information and on the back we worked on meaning and form. To register how to say it, we wrote on the back of the drawing the sentences. Then, we looked at the words and elicit the sentences to talk about the person without looking at the back.


Dealing with Differences: Gender differences and personal views

This week I was working with a lesson that is very common in any English classroom: Introducing people.

One of the suggestions from the authors in the second episode of English for Zombie Apocalipse is a 4 sentence introduction that can be explored in many ways. After following the authors’ suggestion to complete the introduction with the missing pronouns which had been reviewed quickly on the board, I decided to expand it to a more complex dialogue by having my learners suggest and create a scene to role play.

The scene needed two people (A and B) who might be walking and suddenly bumps into a friend (C). While A is so excited to catch up with his/her friend, he/she totally forgets or ignores the presence of B. A then apologizes and says, “oh, let me introduce you to my ___________” Say the name and something else about the person.

Nothing problematic about that until someone suggested that the couple could be people of the same sex. Another learner called it gross right after and another yet rejected the notion.

No idea who Robert Green Ingersoll is, but I totally agree with him.

Time for a lesson in TOLERANCE which meant something very different from what most people do out there. Tolerance is when both are respected and differences are acknowledged while setting limits to where and what one can or can’t do.

My position was simple. It wasn’t in my power to accept or reject a different way to role play. It wasn’t up to me to decide if two students (male or female) were going to act as boyfriends or girlfriends. We briefly discussed my position while leaving to them the decision to act as they wish in the role play activity. And others like me who had a different view on relationship would respect and cherish their attempt to use the language. Because we are in there to become competent users of English and not judge each other.

My personal view of family does not give me the right to dictate how people run their lives inasmuch that it does not give them the right to question my personal view. I also have the right in political debates to vote against what I believe to be against my personal views. That is the role of democracy. We have the freedom to discuss and disagree. However, my classroom is not a political arena, it is a community – a small part of society and as such there are differences we must acknoledge and respect the differences. Gender is one of those issues that people in charge tend to impose their view and diminish a view different from their own. I’ve seen this happened in both cases – pro and against gay rights.

The lessons I learned about tolerance did not come from the debate that society usually carries around with much prejudice in both sides of the debate. My personal view of respecting people’s view about life and themselves come from Jesus. The same Jesus that many people reject, despise and mock. In fact, when I hear Freire talking, I can clearly hear Jesus words which I have taken into my heart all these years.

I’m a Jesus follower. Do I love God above all things? Sure. Did God comand me to stone people? Nope. Through Jesus I learned to love, not to hate. In fact If I have to hate, I’d have to start by hating myself with all my imperfections. Jesus did not call me to judge others, but to love. It’s written all over the gospels. If there is a need to change something, it is in me. The rest is not up to me.

For those in education who believe in Jesus, I call you to take Jesus words and put into practice. But if the word of Jesus is too much for you to take in or care for, then I ask you to listen to Freire.

 According to Freire there is an essential virtue in which teachers should develop, that is being “tolerant”. He goes on explaining in the interview below that being tolerant does not mean killing your own personality, but seeking understanding through listening to one another. Tolerance can be a synonym for ACCEPTANCE. We should accept that people are different and think, see and do things in a different way. Freire doesn’t see that as something bad at all. In fact, he goes on saying that we learn different things from different people and all learning is good.

“[..] it’s through the exercise of tolerance that I discover the rich possibility of doing things and learning different things from different people. Being tolerant is not a question of being naive, on the contrary, it’s a duty to be tolerant… an ethical duty, a historical duty, a political duty, but it does not demand that I lose my personality.”

Paulo Freire

I’m sharing this story because I spent a lot of time in the last couple of years questioning my own way of reacting to this matter; and, seeking through my faith and what Jesus says what was the right thing to do. I hope that this can make you reflect on this too and instead of replicating the common approach of self-imposing yourself, let learners make their own decisions while learning how to deal with this complicated world themselves. Teens are pretty confused on how to respond to this. They should be encouraged to have empathy instead of becoming apologetic to the matter.

I can say that the student who made the comment saw that there was nothing gross about introducing or meeting a couple of the same sex. I did not interfere with their choices but I requested them to be respectful and focus on the task. I gave them the space they needed, they helped each other practice the language and rehearse the scene until they were satisfied with themselves. Before giving them the space they needed, we discussed on the board variations for the introduction supplying the language according to their ideas. If it was a friend or a family member what they could complement the introduction with.

A step toward change: What can I do?

Anne Hendler just shared a snapshot of her class. I love the snapshot series.

I’m sharing in my blog as a reminder of the importance of spotting the problem and bringing learners onboard to discuss a solution. It’s a shared responsability, not top-down act which never works really.