Why did my foolproof activity just fail with that class?

Summary: Why did my foolproof activity just fail with that class? … and how to make sure it works again next time.

Why did my foolproof activity just fail with that class?

... and how to make sure it works again next time.


This is a comment I have heard in teachers' rooms all over the world- "How on earth did that go wrong, it always went down so well before?" Unfortunately, this is usually more of a vent than a true question, and few teachers sit down to think about the answer. I think that is a shame, because the serious analytical examination I have sometimes put myself through when looking back on the same experiences has been one of the most valuable things I have ever done- not only helping me match activities to classes more carefully in the future, but also making me think about what makes activities suitable more generally. I dare say I'll be able to develop these ideas a lot the next time it happens too, but here are the ideas I have come up with so far:


Possible reasons why activities that have worked with every other class suddenly went wrong


  1. You've become automated

I find that if you do the same activity too many times, you don't present it with as much enthusiasm as you used to. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that a teacher's belief in what they are doing in the classroom is by far the biggest influence on its success- much more so than the theoretical soundness of the methodology. Ways of retaining your enthusiasm without having to abandon an activity completely include thinking up variations each time, rewriting the worksheet or textbook page (to polish it up, change the level, make it more interesting or relevant for a particular group of students etc), and using that as an opportunity to polish up your worksheets and explanation ready to explain it to other teachers in an article or workshop.


  1. Your explanation has got too short

This one is connected to the one above. Many teachers report that they finish an explanation of something that they've done in class many times before only to see the blank faces of their students looking back at them. The first unspoken reaction by the teacher is often, "Oh come on, I've explained what you have to do/ we've done this loads of times before", only for them to then realise that in this case neither of these things is true. Ways around this include giving them the written instructions to work it out from (also a nice variation to keep you interested, and something you can polish up after the lesson to make sure you are still learning from doing that activity), and writing down gestures etc that you can use to improve your explanation on your lesson plan.


  1. They aren't used to that kind of activity yet/ they haven't been trained up/ they've never done something similar

It could be that the previous classes you used that activity with were already used to working in pairs, doing communicative activities before being given the language, guessing vocabulary from context etc, but this class is not. That could be because their previous teachers didn't use such activities, because it is earlier in the course than it usually is when you do this activity (maybe because they are higher level and so the language point came up earlier in the book), or just because such activities are more difficult for them and they need more time to adapt. You can get round these potential problems by planning the introduction of things like students being put in charge of their own learning or peer correction in exactly the same way as you would plan any other thing on the syllabus, with little steps up in challenge until they reach the point you are trying to get to.


  1. They wanted/ needed more support

This is similar to the point above, but seeing it more as what you could do in that situation rather than timing using that activity well. More support could mean a longer explanation, more examples of what to do etc, but most often means more language support, e.g. giving them functional language that they can use in the roleplay. This is something that varies a lot from class to class and student to student, with some students ignoring language in a "useful language" box even when you've pointed it out and practised it, and others freezing if they are forced to use their own words to cope. This is less easy to guess from level than you might think.


  1. They've already done one or many things that are similar

If they have done those activities with a different teacher, the admin solution is to have a system of telling other teachers what supplementary activities you have used. Techniques include a "games played/ activities used" section of the lesson notes, having a "the students are familiar with" section of handover notes, and having a slip of paper in each supplementary book where you write which pages you have used and with which classes. Failing that, the options are to hold a worksheet up in the teacher's room and shout "Has anyone used this this year?" or to rewrite worksheets so that at least the details are unique to your version.


  1. They did something similar recently

In this case, you are probably guilty yourself! It might be that the similarities between the activities weren't obvious when you thought about doing it. Parallels that are less than obvious to a teacher who is focused on more fundamental things include any ones that involve standing up, matching things, moving around bits of paper, and logical puzzles.


  1. It was too soon after the language input

This is a weakness of PPP and some other methods as they are often taught- however well you teach and practice the phrasal verbs of the day, students' brains are not likely to be ready to produce them in natural speech until they've had the chance to subconsciously absorb them and consciously or subconsciously reinforce those memories for many weeks or months, and certainly not by the end of the same lesson! Early on in my career I often ran over on my warmers, lead ins, language presentation and using the nice controlled practice games I had discovered or made up, and sometimes didn't find time to do the free production activity until the third lesson on that language point. Needless to say, my training made me think of this as a huge failure. I was quite surprised to find, though, that when my timing became more "successful" the free production activities became less so, with a previously successful third lesson free production task turning into a painfully difficult first lesson one and producing that familiar "Well, it always worked before" feeling. Now I think I understand a little why.


One approach that can help you avoid this problem is leaving freer tasks and more demanding controlled practice tasks until students have had a time to sleep on the language a couple of times, e.g. by setting the homework straight after the controlled practice stage and doing further controlled practice and free production in the next class, or by taking a break from that language point and then coming back to it later.


  1. They are tired

This could be because it's after lunch, because it's near the end of term, because the lesson or work they had before your class was particularly tough, or because the language input etc you gave them before that activity (earlier in the lesson or even earlier in the week) tired them out. Trying to predict what mood they will be in and their energy level is a standard thing to include in your lesson planning for kids' classes, but should probably be done with all kinds of classes. For example, business classes tend to be tired or even absent at the end of accounting periods and at times like New Year when there is lots of business entertaining going on.


  1. They remember less of the language than other classes did when they did that activity

This could be because you tried it straight after a long weekend, because they never do their homework, because other commitments or stresses are distracting them, or because they have never developed good memory skills. If there is any chance of this being the case, you could brainstorm language they could use before the activity starts and then do some more improvised controlled practice if they need it.


  1. You are at a different point in the course

This has been mentioned as a factor in tiredness and being "trained up" to do those kinds of activities, but where they are in the course could also affect how focused they are on what will come up in the test (and so maybe make them less willing to do speaking activities if there is no speaking test) or mean that they want to do more activities where they get to know you and each other (e.g. near the beginning of the course).


  1. They're a different level

"The future with will" comes up in books from Elementary to Advanced, but you cannot use the same practice activities with every one of these classes. This due to factors like the level of intellectual challenge, combinations of different meanings of that tense, combinations with other tenses, and combining it with new or difficult vocabulary. Even with classes that are labelled the same, you should be able to fine tune your analysis to informally decide if that class is "low Upper Int" or "high Upper Int". The next stage is to decide if particular skills are higher or lower than that level, e.g. "the class are generally good Upper Intermediate, but their fluency is Intermediate at best". Knowing this should help you choose activities more carefully.


  1. They needed a different level of challenge

As well as their general level being different from other classes you tried that activity with, there is also the amount of challenge they were ready for at that time. Some classes love to be challenged, and some tend to let challenges get them down. Most classes, however, like to coast and have their confidence boosted sometimes, and then to be given something to "get their teeth into" at other times.


  1. They're a different age group

Possible effects of age include being embarrassed by something that seems childish (something teenagers are even more sensitive about than adults), having gone through the education system where using your imagination and being left to study your own way was less common, which topics you are interested in, what you think the role of a teacher should be, etc.


  1. They don't trust you (yet/ anymore)

To give an example, I tend to play a lot of games in my classes, and some students cannot see through that fact to notice that they are also speaking more in English than they ever have before and mainly using the language we are working on. Knowing that this is a fairly common reaction, I now make a huge effort in my early classes to appear the epitome of the serious teacher in every other way (dress smart, using phonemic symbols, be strict about homework etc). If I have been a bit slack about that with one group of students, I am much more reluctant to use the more "adventurous" games with them. I am also similarly careful with a class that hasn't responded well to a couple of activities, making sure I switch to activities that are really failsafe (but maybe a little dull) rather than ones that usually go great but have a one in a hundred chance of bombing.


  1. You added too much to it

For example, after the last time you did that activity with another class you thought that adding some functional language would be useful, but that has made the whole activity unwieldy or not so much fun.


  1. You have changed the level of challenge

Seemingly tiny changes, including ones that have no connection to the language used, can make a big difference in how difficult a task is to complete. For example, telling students to come up with their own questions seems just one step above using the questions in the book, but if some imagination is needed to think of enough questions about the chosen topic then the level of challenge has at least doubled for students who aren't confident about using their imaginations.


  1. You cut down on one stage

Maybe you kept the activity the same length as every other time and also keep the level of challenge the same but spent less time on error correction than in previous classes and so failed to make up for the silliness of the game by doing something "serious".



I could go on, but the point is to be able to analyse your own successes and failures to learn from them, so I will instead just give a few other suggestions that you might want to develop if you think they are relevant to what has happened in your classes:

  1. You've tried to use it for a different purpose

  2. They don't need or don't think they need that language

  3. You haven't shown them how it is relevant

  4. They have a different attitude towards games

  5. There isn't good class or group dynamics

  6. The negative attitude of one person infected the whole class

  7. They needed a warmer


Copyright © 2009

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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