Last lesson at FELLOW: breaking news

Last week I taught my first FELLOW lesson of the new term, to a room of largely unfamiliar faces. Over the course of the Easter break we’ve acquired a lot of new learners, and unfortunately this has thrown the dynamic a little bit. The majority of the learners threw themselves into the warmer (a good old-fashioned race-to-the-board team game), but retreated into their shells when we moved into our groups to start the lesson proper. We were inundated with volunteers last week (two teachers and four assistants for one session!), and I’m really grateful that they were there to lend a hand and give our learners some extra support.

I taught the higher group, picking a topical news lesson from One Stop English’s collaboration with the Guardian. Current affairs materials are perfect FELLOW lesson fodder because learners are likely to be familiar with the topic already from their own reading and listening in L1. As the group includes learners of all different abilities, it helps if they already have a good grounding in the topic in their own language. Topical news lessons are also useful to take out into the real world: if we study something really up-to-date, the lesson equips learners with the language they need to make small talk in English with friends, neighbours or colleagues.

My favourite places to ‘shop’ for topical news lessons are One Stop English and Breaking News English. Both are useful, but One Stop English is certainly the gold standard: the lessons are usually fully-formed lessons (with a warmer, neatly set-up reading stages and a productive task), whereas Breaking News English contains reams of activities from which you need to evaluate and extrapolate those which are most suitable for your learners. Normally I tend towards Breaking News English, but I’m still enjoying a free trial for One Stop so I want to use everything I can!

The only flaw in the One Stop lesson plan was its level. The lesson (which you can download here if you have a OSE account) comes in three levels: Elementary/Pre-Int, Intermediate, and Advanced. Macmillan/the Guardian do not have their levelling under control – something they admit in the comments section on the page. They know this, I know this… and it’s something I try to mitigate when teaching with the material.

I chose the Intermediate lesson plan, hoping for something B1/B2. I added in an extra warmer with picture prompts to introduce the topic and make sure that learners were clear about the names and locations of the cities mentioned in the text. I spent extra time reviewing the target vocabulary, and had two assistants monitoring the learners and helping them with the written exercises.

Unfortunately the learners struggled even with this extra support. It took over 45 minutes for us to cover the new language in the text – and that was before we strayed from the suggested topical vocabulary set to explore additional unfamiliar words. We did manage to squeeze in the post-reading comprehension questions before the end of the lesson, and I was really surprised by how well the learners coped with them. That said, the vocabulary tasks were painful – for all of us! – and we needed so much time for them that we never reached the final discussion stage of the lesson. This does happen at FELLOW from time to time, but it is always a huge shame – and leaves me feeling like a terrible teacher!

This lesson wasn’t a great start to the new term: a combination of new learners and unsuitable resources is almost always a recipe for disaster! I think I’m going to have to re-evaluate my source material over the coming weeks.

Why speaking Russian made me a better English teacher

This week the British Council republished an old post from 2013 across a couple of their social media accounts. Graham Hall and Guy Cook’s study of own-language use in ELT (available here) is well worth reading if you can spare an hour or two (or jump to p26 for their summary of findings!).

L1 in the classroom has a bad rep. When I was doing my CELTA course, use of L1 was actively discouraged. I didn’t really think too much about this at the time; I didn’t speak the L1 in question (Ukrainian), and I imagined that one of the draws of the private language school was the promise of ‘immersion’ during the class. Although I didn’t know much about language teaching methodology at that point, I had studied languages for long enough to know that immersion = good, and translation = bad.

Fast forward to the start of my teaching career: I was in Moscow and, what’s more, I had moved to Moscow in order to improve my Russian. I was desperate for the immersive experience that had been missing during my university studies in the UK – so I understood why my students were so keen to be taught by a native speaker. More on native/non-native teachers to come from me at another juncture…

Earlier this month, Lizzie Pinard wrote a blog post for the British Council called ‘Why learning Thai made me a better English teacher’. It made me pause – and now, here’s why speaking Russian made me a better English teacher (in, er… Russia):

  • I could draw comparisons. Russian only has three tenses; English has… many more. Fortunately, Russian has aspects (imperfective and perfective), and these can be very helpful when it comes to explaining perfect and imperfect tenses.
  • I could translate. I much prefer teaching vocabulary by showing words in context, and glossing in English, but sometimes the classes moved too quickly. Why hinder a student’s flow when they need a word to continue a story they’re writing? I certainly quick-fired a few translations across the class.
  • I could understand students’ mistakes. If you know a student’s L1, you can often untangle their lexical or syntactical errors more quickly and, usefully, anticipate them when you are planning and delivering your lesson. There’s nothing like staying ahead of the game!
  • I could build a rapport. It’s definitely possible to build a rapport with someone without sharing a common language. However, I found that adult students in particular felt more at ease once they knew that I spoke their language. If beginner students were struggling, they knew that they could take a time-out and clarify a point in their own language. My experience of language learning was also useful when teaching students who were anxious or lacking in confidence: I could reassure them that I had been in their position as well, and I’d made it through.
  • I could laugh at myself (and my students could laugh at me). I’m sure that we’ve all chuckled at our students’ mistakes on one occasion or another. It’s certainly a great equalizer when they can laugh at you instead. During my language-learning journey I have proudly told a class that I had wet myself (note to self: word stress is very important in Russian), and asked a travelsick young student if he wanted drugs (again: ‘medicine’ and ‘narcotics’ are not interchangeable po-russki). And guess what? My mistakes – stupid as they might have been – showed my students that it’s OK to say the wrong thing sometimes. Because it really is! And what’s more, it’s inevitable…

I can’t imagine moving to a country without speaking at least a few words of the native language, or intending to learn. That said, it seems to be the norm and it makes me wonder how different other non-L1-speaker teachers’ experiences have been to mine. Now I’m editing and teaching ESOL in the UK, one of the most interesting aspects of my classroom experiences  has been listening to students whose L1 I don’t understand – and trying to work out as much about their native language as I can.

Короче, L1 в классе – это здорово!

Could you be a good volunteer?

As I mentioned in a recent post, it can be tough to recruit FELLOW volunteers. Although our core group of volunteers have been around for months (and years!), there are a lot of people who volunteer for a term or two before stepping back, as well as those who sign up to teach a session and then fail to turn up on the night (which of course makes the lesson challenging for everyone).

Our volunteers also have their fair share of issues and complaints – although I’m happy to say that most really enjoy the experience and do stay the course! Here are five qualities I think you need in order to get the most out of FELLOW – and probably out of a lot of volunteering schemes!


The most important quality of a FELLOW volunteer. If you teach at FELLOW, learners will be late. There might not be enough chairs for everyone. Some of your learners might struggle in ways you hadn’t anticipated when you were planning your lesson. You might have to pause your lesson for a moment because your students can’t hear each other over the noise of the other class. Another group using the premises may have misplaced the board pens. Basically – any number of things could go wrong. The important bit is not letting these things get to you! The learners take everything in their stride, and our volunteers do, too.

A short memory

Quite a lot of volunteers join us fresh from one of Oxford’s many CELTA courses, and are looking to exercise their new teaching skills before embarking on a career abroad. A seasoned FELLOW teacher’s advice would be: forget everything! Forget it now. Your class will have more than eight learners. Learners will come and go. It is highly likely that at least 10% of the class won’t achieve the lesson objective you set at the beginning of the night. But it’s all OK! Expectations at FELLOW are lower (they have to be), but that can be a good thing. There’s no pressure to perform, and you can be a bit more experimental than you might be in a private language school.

The ability to think on your feet

See point one! Sometimes, things don’t go quite as you’ve planned. If a learner doesn’t have a paper or pen, you might have to shift the aims of your next activity. If you want to do a listening exercise but can’t use the CD player, you might have to ask some stronger students to play the roles of Mark and Allie (obligatory New English File reference – I love you, Mark and Allie!).


It can take a brave person – or at least one with a foghorn voice, like me! – to quieten a room of fifty learners. It can also be tough to teach a group of learners who have questions about anything and everything; questions about grammar or language points that you hadn’t planned to answer.

The ability to relax

FELLOW is really a low-stakes teaching environment: we’re teaching general English to learners of all abilities who come and go as they please. If you can remember that – and not get hung up on comparing FELLOW to your private language school experience, or your CELTA – then you’ll be brilliant at teaching with us!

An uncomfortable lesson

This week’s lesson was tricky.

The warmer was innocuous enough – or so I thought. We played ‘Give Me Five’: five teams, five categories (read one-by-one), with learners required to think of five items within that category and write them down. The first team to write down their answers – and have them checked – wins.

Things began to fall apart with the example category: ‘Things in a town’. The quickest team reeled off their five words, and one of them just happened to be ‘hospital’. This was enough to anger one student in another group (let’s call him ‘Learner A’), who complained that in Oxford, the hospital isn’t in the town centre… so the winning team was actually incorrect. I explained that I didn’t name a specific town – and if we wanted to argue specifics, the hospitals in Oxford are inside the ring road anyway! – and that the winning team had given correct answers. There was a little tension in the class at this point, but no more than you’d expect from a (surprisingly competitive) team game.

The first non-practice round of the game was ‘Vegetables’. Perhaps I should’ve known better. The quickest team included ‘tomato’ in their list, and I allowed it – saying that some people say ‘tomato’ is a fruit, while others say it is a vegetable. This was enough to provoke the wrath of Learner A, who loudly complained to his team members that the game was ‘stupid’ and I should at least ‘communicate the f***ing rules’. The atmosphere was tense, to say the least.

I asked him to repeat what he said to me – and he chose to remove the expletives. I calmly explained that we were playing a game, and that I made the rules. I re-explained the rules, and then told him that if he didn’t want to play, he was welcome to leave. Lessons are run by volunteers, and attendance is also voluntary. No one was making him play the game.

Learner A folded his arms and retreated to the corner of the classroom, and eventually the game came to an uneasy conclusion. When we split the learners into two groups as usual, he went and sat with the other teacher – ultimately participating in a disagreement with another learner that resulted in the second learner storming out of the class. My half of the class continued as normal (save for a slightly controversial discussion about the countable nature of peas), but nevertheless I couldn’t shake that uncomfortable feeling. Since the lesson, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on how I could have managed the situation more effectively.

Did I do the right thing by telling the learner that it was my classroom, and my rules? I have never said that before, even when confronted with particularly disruptive groups of teenagers, and I didn’t like saying it. I am a firm believer that lessons should be learner-led, rather than teacher-led, and I think that lessons work best when everyone (me included) learns something. It also felt more than a little ridiculous for me – a 28 year-old woman – to say this to a 50-something man. Had I already mentioned that Learner A is middle-aged…?

I think that someone had to say something – and, as I was leading the warmer, it needed to be me. Other learners were looking uncomfortable, and I did not want Learner A to ruin the class before it had even begun.

That said, as soon as I finished speaking, I felt that a little bit of the FELLOW magic had been broken. FELLOW is a relaxed environment in which it is supposed to be enjoyable to learn English and get to know people from other cultures. It is not supposed to be a place where the teacher leads, learners follow – and definitely not a place where the teacher has to admonish learners for their behaviour.

I’m not sure what I could have done differently. Should I have selected less controversial categories? If even vegetables are controversial in this class, was my warmer doomed from the very start?

What would you have done in this scenario?