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One of the things I often hear about in the English language teaching world concerns that dreaded ogre, observations. I know there are examples of good practice here, where observations are part of a holistic cycle that really helps teachers develop, focusing on what they do well and those areas they need to improve. However, too often observations are used as a stick with which to beat teachers. Instead of being something that can support teachers make their practice better, they are held up as evidence of failings. ‘You are not a good teacher’.

How off putting is this? Is this going to motivate a young teacher to find out the improvements they can make to become better teachers? Or are they going to be browbeaten and almost pushed out of the profession before they have properly started?

It’s even worse when the supposedly ‘developmental’ feedback goes along the lines of ‘You didn’t have a detailed plan, therefore you didn’t plan’, ‘you didn’t have alternative activities written down, so you had no plan B if things went wrong’, or my personal bête noir ‘you didn’t use technology’. In these instances, it always pays to ask the person who observed you what they would do if they were teaching the lesson or for suggestions on how you could improve what you did. All that would come after looking at what actually went well in the lesson.

Not that kind of plan, bee...

Not that kind of plan, bee…

Anyway, I don’t mean to get into a diatribe about how observations need to be improved to be effective. No, this blog post deals with the second standard feedback item I mentioned above: not having a plan B. Rather than having something written down as an alternative to save you should your original plan goes to pot, it pays to learn a few activities or routines that can easily be adapted to whatever content the lesson focuses on. They can then be your stand by options, there in the back of your mind ready to go should you need them. Here are a few activities I like to use when the lesson isn’t going completely as planned:

Dictation and dictogloss

These are brilliant to do in their own right, and can often actually form the basis of a very successful lesson without being the plan B. However, they are also great activities to have on hand when that reading you’re going through, or that speaking presentation just isn’t going to plan. Just tell your students to close their books, hand out a few sheets of paper, and use the material for a quick dictation. Do this sentence by sentence, or a paragraph at a time if they’re short enough. You’ll be able to find out what words and phrases your students might have difficulty with, provide them with language in context, and work on connected speech.

Alternatively, use the text a basis for a dictogloss, where the emphasis is less on word-for-word transcription as you the teacher reads the text, and more on using the text a vehicle for listening and collaborative writing work. You can read more about dictogloss in an earlier post I wrote here.

Stop the clock/quick turn writing

A couple of ideas here, for spicing up things when a writing activity is flagging. The first is one that I read about in Music and Song, a book from the OUP Resource Books for Teachers series by Tim Murphey. It’s called ‘stream of consciousness writing’ and the basic premise is that you set the students a topic or theme to write about, play some music (a dynamic piece that changes mood a lot is recommended), and while the music plays the students have to write, write, write and not stop writing. Maybe a challenge, but this fluency focus gives space for thoughts to flow and gets words on the page, avoiding writer’s block scenarios. The activity can then involve swapping texts, commenting, questioning and adding more information. Then if you like a bit of impromptu editing (for those of you who are wanting an activity that focuses the attention on grammatical, lexical or discourse accuracy). I can’t recommend the book highly enough.

The second idea is a little more complicated as a spur of the moment, back up activity, but it does train you in one thing: never enter a classroom without a supply of paper (individual sheets, rather than bound up in a notebook). As above, you may wish to set a topic or theme, or you might not, depending on how much control you want to have over the types of things your students will write. Make sure everyone has a piece of paper and give them the instruction to write in complete sentences and with the aim of producing a proper text (although this can again be edited for accuracy afterwards), but when you clap your hands, they must stop writing, even if they are in mid sentence. Make sure that everyone starts at the same time, you may also want to give them the first few words or lines as a prompt, and when everyone has something on their page, clap your hands. Get the students to pass their paper to someone else, until they all have something in front of them written by someone else. They have to then continue writing the text as best they can or whichever way they can. Repeat this a number of times until everyone has a more or less complete text, made up of contributions from a number of different students. Read them out, and give points for the best, most unusual, funniest, etc.

Picture dictations

Combining the two standards of dictation activities and taking a lot of blank paper into class, this is a great activity if you want to focus the attention on listening for detail. Give each student a piece of paper, tell them you are going to describe a picture and you want them to draw it as accurately as they can. Something like this is good:

It’s a picture of a woman. She’s sitting down and it’s like she’s looking at me, well not straight at me. More like looking over my shoulder. She’s got her hands on her lap. She’s got quite long straight hair and a sort of smile, I think it’s a smile, on her face…

Something you might want to prepare for this kind of stand by activity (although going a bit against the notion that these should be as low on prep as possible) is to have a number of short paragraphs describing pictures. You can then pair students up: one to read the description and the other to do the drawing. Then you can kill two birds with one stone and assess both productive and receptive skills.

Never enter the room without your dice!

Another essential for your teacher kit bag is a set of dice. At least three, and more than that is best if you want to set groups working on their own on different things, but if you have three you can do a number of things. On the board write up a number of different elements, maybe like this:

Dice roll Dice 1 Dice 2 Dice 3
1 tiger London a gold watch
2 snow leopard Paris a firework display
3 electric eel Lubljana a bunch of grapes
4 field mouse Moscow a mystical pendant
5 sheepdog Sydney five shiny gemstones
6 lemur Algiers a suit of indestructible armour

Roll the dice and challenge your students to come up with a sentence, phrase, story (dependent on how long you want them to work on it) incorporating all three elements. There are instructions for running a version of this activity focusing on question forms and generating discussion here.


So, I hope those activity descriptions give you a few ideas of easily adaptable things you can do when the initial plan goes screwy. But get them in your teaching memory bank (in your head, not on your USB stick) and don’t write them on your plan.