F is for First Lessons

4 07 2010

Students doing pair work in the first lesson of the beginners group

The Methods course that I am teaching this summer has just embarked on a short round of teaching practice classes. To help the teachers plan their first lesson, I pulled a few old favourites out of the drawer. They are roughly divided into those that have a mainly interpersonal function (such as forging a collaborative group dynamic) and those that are primarily diagnostic (identifying strengths, weaknesses, interests, and styles). Feel free to post variants, additions – or attributions (apart from the few I dreamed up myself, such as the star warmer, I have no idea who invented the rest).

1.         Interpersonal

•          My name is… and I like… A memory game. Go round the class: the first person completes the formula “My name is …and I like ….” (Or “…and I’ve always wanted to…” or whatever seems appropriate for the level).  The  next person reports this (“Her name is …and she likes….”) and then adds their own name and something they like, and so on, each person reporting on what everyone else has said, before adding something new.

•          Five-pointed star: Learners each draw a five pointed star. On the first point they write a person’s name that is important to them; on the second a place name; on the third a number; on the fourth a date; and on the fifth a sign, symbol or logo.  They then get into pairs or small groups, show each other their stars, and ask and answer questions about them.

•          Find someone who…: Students circulate, with prepared questions, and then report to class. A useful variation is where everyone (anonymously) supplies an interesting fact about themselves on a slip of paper: these are then collected and one student dictates them to the class (“This person has been to Hawaii…” etc). The dictated sentences are then used as the basis for the Q & A milling activity.

•          Teacher interview: In open class, question a selection of students individually re jobs, English learning experience, mainly, about 5 minutes each, very conversational. Ask them to do same to you, but first to prepare questions in pairs (writing). Check questions; write erroneous ones on to board. Class check. They then ask you questions. In pairs/groups they write up a summary about you. Monitor writing and share any interesting errors. (If there are several teachers – as in the case of a shared teaching practice class – each can be interviewed in rotation by different groups, and then summaries compared).

2.         Diagnostic

•          Topic ranking: students in groups brainstorm topics they are interested in and would like to talk about in class. Feedback on to board in the form of a list.  Re-group students, and each group has to choose a short-list of, say, three. Feedback on to board. Then have an open class vote (show of hands) for the final three.

•          Questionnaire/survey: Prepare a questionnaire/survey about students preferred learning styles and activities. E.g. Do you prefer to work a) individually; b) in pairs; c) in groups; d) as a whole class; e) doesn’t matter?  Students complete individually, then discuss either in groups or open class. (Students could also prepare the questions themselves, working in pairs or small groups).

•          Activity smorgasbord: Prepare a sequence of short activities of different types, e.g. game, pair discussion, group paragraph writing, listening task (eg. describe and draw) etc. Each activity should last no longer than 5 minutes. Then hand out questionnaire listing the activity types and ask learners to rate them (e.g. like, didn’t like, neutral). Then compare findings in small groups and report.

•          Free discussion: generate an open class chat about a theme of common interest to all (e.g. the best/worst things about this town). Using your best dinner party host skills draw students out, and keep the focus off heavy correction. If/Once the discussion gets going let it run. Then put sts into pairs/threes to write a summary of what was said  e.g. as if for an absent class member. Monitor and correct. Note any interesting language stuff that emerges.

•          Discussion cards: Prepare some discussion topics on cards. For the first day, these could focus on language learning experiences and preferences.  Number the back of the cards. Place these face down on the floor at the front of the room. Students form groups: a representative from each group takes a card, returns to the group; the group discusses the topic until it’s exhausted; then they take another card. Groups report on their discussions at the end.



42 responses

4 07 2010
Fernando Guarany

Hi, Scott!

Just a short note to thank you for sharing this nice collection of lesson ideas. They’ll be very helpful when school starts again in August. I’ll surely want to recommend them to fellow teachers in my area in Brazil.


Fernando 🙂

4 07 2010
Janet Bianchini

Hi Scott

Thank you for this lovely collection of ideas. I’ll be starting up with 2 classes tomorrow, so it’s great to have lots of variations up my sleeve. I’ll include them in my list of Intros and Icebreakers.


4 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Janet! Check out Janet’s Wallwisher: http://civitaquana.blogspot.com/2010/06/introductions-and-icebreakers.html

A case of synchronicity!

4 07 2010
Peter Fenton

Wow! Perfect timing as I’m just about to start teaching at summer school tomorrow! Thanks a lot 🙂

One of my favourites, which can be both diagnostic and interpersonal is the ‘Dear teacher… ‘activity taken from p38 of The Developing Teacher by Duncan Foord. It’s a casual needs analysis and involves writing a letter to the students and asking the students a bit about themselves and their expectations. To make it a bit more fun for young learners, I often turn my letter into some kind of shouting or running dictation exercise.

Once the students have the correct version, they can then write their replies, either individually or in pairs. You could then turn it into a mini-competition and memory game by letting the other students read each others and have them try to remember as many facts as they can about each other, giving points for who can remember the most.

5 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Peter … really nice sequence. The idea of soliciting learners’ needs via a letter is a lot less impersonal than a questionnaire.

4 07 2010
Willy C. Cardoso

Very interesting! I look forward to using some of these.

I got one of my favorite first lessons from A Framework for Task-Based Learning (Willis, 1996) in the section Tasks for beginners (p 119), where she suggest a series of tasks for the very first lessons.
It starts out with words beginners are likely to know already like, football, hamburger and other words used internationally, also if it’s a monolingual group you can use cognates, and of course ask students to tell you some words they already know. So the teacher collects about 20 of these words and then there are many things that can be done like, odd word out, classifying into categories (sports, transport…). What makes this first lesson good is that it makes students aware that they already know something and that even with limited vocabulary they can already manipulate and play with language, which in many cases will be a motivation booster for beginners, esp. adults.

5 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Willy – another great sequence which builds on students’ (collaborative) strengths (even at beginners level), rather than attempting to elicit their weaknesses. I like the way the words are then used in some kind of sorting/categorising activity – hadn’t thought of that!

4 07 2010
Eva Büyüksimkesyan

Thank you for sharing all these.
I always use a similar activity to #1 my name is… on the first days.( an activity from a teacher training course I attended years ago.) You have to introduce yourself with some words beginning your initials. So I would say something like this: I’m Eva the enthusiastic engineer from Edinburgh.

5 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Eva – that’s a fun variant. I’m assuming the sentences don’t have to be true – although that would provide an interesting challenge at higher levels.

5 07 2010
Eva Büyüksimkesyan

They don’t have to be true sentences but trying to remember all of them is a great challenge for the last student and may be a lot of repetition of the names can help the teacher learn the names.
Another activity we had sone years ago was you write your name just in the middle of a piece of paper and on each corner of that paper you write something, a song title, a fave food or a name, etc. then you mingle around asking questions to the ppl about the things they have written and chat about the things you’ve written. maybe another alternative to 5 pointed-star.
Eva B.

5 07 2010

Wow! All the standards and more! Heaven!

I’m really a little different when it comes to “first lessons”. Mostly because of my anthropology background. My own “standard” is to focus on creating class atmosphere through “mock violence”.

From what I’ve understood about human nature and how indigenous people’s “bond” (or even modern “civilized” peoples) – we often ritualize aggression and violence. So I try to enact such ritual activity in my “new” classroom.

So what I do is have everyone write down on a piece of paper 3 or 4 things about themselves. Lower level classes, I’ll provide the examples on the board or prompts. Usually simple but increasing in complexity. “I love…..” “I hate ….” ” I have never…”

then, I get everyone to crumple up the paper into a snowball. And we have a snowball fight! yes, lots of fun. Then after 30 seconds I ring my bell and we pick up a paper nearest us and try to guess who wrote it / who it is about.

The key is this “ritualized violence”. After this, the class is much more at ease and relaxed. Even young kids. It is the perfect way to create class atmosphere, IMHO.

that’s how I do it anyway.


5 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks David – whether or not your activity enacts “ritualized violence”, it sounds like a lot of fun, and makes the point that an early release of laughter is a great way of defusing the anxiety that many learners bring to the classroom with them. I suspect that it would also be a good way of starting a teacher training course, for the same reasons. One question: have you ever encountered a student who refuses to “play ball” (literally!)? How did you (or would you) react?

5 07 2010

You are right Scott, not something for “every” class. I usually get a feel for the class in the first few minutes of chit chat but IF I feel the group just won’t be into a “fight”, I go with something else. That’s probably about 10% of all new classes. but generally, most classes and ages go for it, if you introduce it in the right manner and keep it light.

My other go to one involves names (to address Adam’s question). This is so simple but engaging.

Each student writes on a slip of paper 1. their name 2. 2 things they like. Then, they walk around the class introducing each other. When they introduce themselves, they “pass” the slip of paper to the other person. That person then has a new piece of paper – they go and introduce themselves AND the person on the piece of paper, pointing across the room and saying, “And this is Peter. He likes…. and ….”. The teacher models by doing this with students a few times before the mingle. Simple but effective.

5 07 2010

Anyone else really bad at remembering names? I’ve worked on my techniques but would also like to read any suggestions you have.

5 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

On remembering names – one way might be to make a whole lesson out of names. Here’s an idea from ‘Teaching Unplugged’:

Write everyone’s first name on the board.
Ask someone about their name, prompting them with questions like these:
● ‘Does your name have a meaning?’
● ‘Does anyone else in your family have that name?’
● ‘Is it a popular name in your country/region?’
Tell this person to ask you the same questions, and answer them naturally.

Tell the class to mingle, and to have a conversation like this with at least three other people. Join in, prompting with vocabulary as required.

When they have finished, ask each person to tell the whole class about how a classmate got their name, until the story behind everyone’s name has been told.

5 07 2010
Dave Dodgson

I simply explain to my students that in the first couple of weeks I will repeatedly ask them to say their names when involved in a student-teacher or student-class interaction. As I work with somewhat hyper-active kids, I also make a point of using the names of the most well-behaved and studious kids first, deliberately depriving the attention seekers of what they crave. 😉

25 07 2017

One of the things I do on the first day to help me deal with learning students’ names and do many other things, is to have students make a “business card”. I ask for a volunteer to come to the board and help me demonstrate this. I tell them to draw a big rectangle on the board and then guide them through the process of making the card line by line. The rest of the class uses this as an example to fill out the index cards that I have given every one. The volunteer also has an example card at the front of the room to refer to while I monitor the rest of the students.

The content includes:
1. Name: Written in Korean and then in English
2. Please call me ___________.
3. Student #
4. E-mail address
5. Major:
6. Hobbies: (I like ____ing and ____ing.)
7. English is___________(This is so I can get a feel for their attitude about English. Most write “hard” or “difficult”. Other answers have included “important for success”, “fun/funny”, “my life”, “a cupcake”, etc.

I use the cards to randomly call on students, make sure that throughout the course of the activity or lesson that I call on everyone equally, form pairs or groups, etc.

Also, during the 2nd lesson, I give the students their cards back and ask them to write how much they understand me on the top, right-hand corner of the card. The range is usually about 30-100% in the class, with most students indicating about 70-80%. When I randomly call on students, I can use the number to make sure I don’t ask low students questions that are too difficult.

Finally, this summer I started a Phone Zone. I simply, take the students’ cards and photocopy a few to a sheet. Then I put the sheets on some tables by the door and students have their own little parking spot for their phones. And I don’t have to deal with students’ playing with their phones. We started this on day one of a three-week intensive session, and I rarely had to mention the Phone Zone again. Students just complied and some even left their phones there during the break.

I didn’t mean to write so much! Cheers.

5 07 2010
Dave Dodgson

When first entering new classes, I use something similar to the 5-pointed star, except I use an 8-legged spider which contains short answers to questions about me. The students then ask questions they think will lead to one of the answers. Of course, many of their questions do not correspond to my answers but they end up asking me several questions which often lead to interesting discussions thorugh which we get to know each other. The task is then repeated with the students in groups preparing their own spiders (or other shapes they wish to use).

However, in my current job teaching English at a primary school, I often go into classes where the students already know each other well having been classmates for 3 or 4 years. In these cases, I present them with information about me, some of which is not true, and ask them to speculate about what the false information is. I adapt the presentation to the level, sometimes showing a Powerpoint slide, sometimes a Photo Story or sometimes a dictogloss activity. I then ask the class or groups (depending on the class size) to prepare information for me about the class and students in it and it then becomes my turn to speculate on what is true and what is not. It’s always good to turn the tables and let the students produce something!

7 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

The 5 (6, 8, 10) things about me, some of which are true and some of whcih are false, is a real winner. And provides them with a useful model to challenge one another. (And it’s also a neat way to ’embed’ a grammar review, e.g. of tenses). Thanks Dave!

5 07 2010
Janet Bianchini

Hi all

What a fabulous collection of ideas here!

Scott, I did the 5-pointed star activity and that was great fun. Definitely synchronicity. Many thanks for your link to my Wallwisher.

Eva, I did your lovely alphabet tip – I introduced myself as Jolly Janet, a journalist from Johanesberg and then got the students to do the same for themselves. That went down a treat.

Dave and David, I like the sound of the spider and snowball fight activities very much and will have to give them a go!

I am very bad at remembering names and for bigger groups, I often ask students to write them on a sticky label for the first lesson. I then discreetly make a few notes to help me remember the names for the next time.

6 07 2010
Jessica Mackay

Many years ago, in another life, I put together a compilation of first-day activities imaginatively (ahem!) called the ‘First Day Pack Pack’.

There were four sections:
Warmers and Mixers, Learner Training, Needs Analysis and Refresh and Review

Warmers and mixers, corresponding to Scott’s ‘Interpersonal’ category above, included many activities already mentioned and the classic ‘Find someone who…’ related to students’ lives outside class such as

Find someone who..
…has never been skiing
…prefers winter to summer etc.

There’s also the cocktail party..
Give students a plastic cup of water and ask them to imagine it’s a cocktail and they’re at a fabulous party. Pre-teach some chunked phrases.

Nice to meet you.
Haven’t we met before?

and at higher levels for a bit of fun…

How fabulous to see you again, darling! etc.

Explain the concept of ‘mingle’ and set them off. Spanish students are a sociable bunch and are sometimes hard to stop.

Probably my favourite and the one that I’ve definitely used the most over the years is from the ‘Learner training’ section. It was one I learnt on the DELTA course, but I don’t know whether to credit Scott or Neil!

On a handout or visual I have a list of sentences

The good language learner…
…is an extrovert.
…has a visual learning style.
…never makes mistakes.
…is female
…doesn’t need a teacher

Ss in pairs/groups discuss whether these are T/F in their opinion and this can open up into a class discussion. there’s room for language focus post-discussion here such as comparatives, agreeing & disagreeing.

The last line leads on to eliciting ideas for what Ss can do both inside and outside class in order to make their language learning more efficient e.g. Always talk to each other in English, ask questions, conversation exchange, watch TV with subtitles, graded readers etc.

These are listed on the board and I ask ss to mark them
+ I already do this regularly
– I would never do this
? I could do this if I made a little more effort.

Then I ask students if they would be prepared to make that little extra effort for this course. Naturally, they say yes and that’s when I produce the photocopies of the Student Contract, ready for them to write down these promises and sign.

The element of surprise is key here as students often laugh when this appears, but there is a serious side. I keep a copy of the ‘Contract’ and we refer to it a couple of times during the course to ask ss to adjust their expectations and to feedback on how much they’ve kept to their original commitments.

It can be quite revealing and a timely reminder that ss have equal responsibilty in the learning process.

7 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Jessica – a rich seam of ideas, especially those that focus on learning preferences. I love the idea of the ‘Student Contract’ too. How are they ‘punished’ if they break the rules of the contract, I wonder?

6 07 2010
Alastair Grant

Sounds simplistic, but the amount of times I’ve noticed that you’re half way through the year and someone says, “as I was saying to…what’s your name?” to a classmate of 6 month’s standing… they really need to get to know each other!

To help with this, I write up 4-5 sentences about myself, e.g.

1. What do I love about where I live?
2. If I could change anything about the world, it would be…,
3. Who do I talk to most, my family or friends?
4. etc…

And I tell them about my answers to these.

Then the SS are arranged into the classic “onion” speaking activity and do the same as I’ve just done, until everyone has spoken to everyone about each subject (2 min time limit).

I monitor and note down some points that each person has said for a quiz at the end. Note, this is NOT delayed correction.

As the end, I have the class in two/more teams and have a quiz re. “who said that they hated watching football…?” – this encourages them to use each others’ names, it’s competitive and makes the class instantly feel like a group.

6 07 2010

I recently contributed a short piece on ‘first lessons’ to IATEFL’s special interest group on teacher development. It has activities that would fit in the interpersonal and diagnostic categories mentioned by Scott.

For many years now I have been using Jill Hadfield’s excellent book ‘Classroom Dynamics’ (OUP, 1999) and have found it extremely useful in preparing my first class with a new group. My favourite activity from that book for that very first lesson has to be “Forfeits”. It’s a great warm-up activity to get your students interacting and finding out information about each other. It always succeeds in creating a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere in that all so important first encounter with your learners.
The game ‘What’s the truth’ is another ice-breaker favourite. The teacher writes three sentences about herself on the board, two sentences are true and one is false. The students have to guess which sentence is a lie. The teacher then counts the votes and writes the numbers next to the statements. After this the teacher reveals the statements that are true and asks the class which one they would like to know about and spends a few minutes talking about herself. It’s then the learners’ turn to do the same and to be as creative and free as possible. One by one, students introduce themselves and say their three sentences. The rest of the class including the teacher have to guess which one is a lie. After the true sentences have been revealed, the students, too must choose one sentence to discuss further.

With young learners I do an activity called ‘Getting To Know Me’. Write your name in the middle of the board and around it write some information about yourself, for example your favourite food, drink, colour, holiday, day or anything else you would like to share with your learners. The students then guess and form the question ‘What’s your favourite….?’ and the teacher confirms their guesses. In pairs students then interview each other about their favourite food, drink etc keeping brief notes of their partner’s answers. The students then present their partner to the whole class.
Hadfield’s book also includes excellent activities on obtaining insight into the learners individual learning styles, attitudes to language learning as well as their expectations of the course they have just begun (What kind of language learner are you?, Experience and Expectations are ‘old-favourites’).

A nice homework task that you can give your students is to ask them to write a mini essay entitled ‘A Dummy’s Guide to Learning English’ or it could be ‘A Dummy’s Guide to the FCE’ or any other exam they have successfully taken. Apart from giving you more insight into what has been helpful for them in learning English, it can also show you their strengths and weaknesses in expressing themselves in written English.

7 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Liz, for going to the trouble I’ve resurrecting these great ideas. It’s interesting that they fall into certain generic types: the ‘spot the lie’ type, and the ‘this is my life’ type – but with imaginative variations. The Dummy’s Guide is a great idea too.

8 07 2010
Vicki Hollett

In business English classes, I think a little bit of preparatory research can go a long way. I generally load everyone’s company’s webpage into the browser ready to pull up on the screen. Very few students choose to take the mouse and burrow down into the website, so it’s generally just a backdrop to them sharing whatever they want – which generally bears little relation to what’s on the screen. But I find keep doing it because I think it might demonstrate an interest that might make them more inclined to share.
I want to make sure we all learn one another’s names, and in mixed nationality classes I often use a quite formal activity for that. I write my name on the board and speak for a minute telling them about its origins and my nick name, and then I give the pen to someone else, calling on them to do the same. Then we work our way round the group. Asian students will often recognize common Chinese characters, which will entrance the Europeans and South Americans. And then there are the mysteries of Latin surnames to share, so it’s a nice cross cultural activity.
I’m generally keen to get into the needs analysis pretty fast, so a discussion of why they are here, their goals, their expectations, is the order of the day. I float topic ideas past them to see what makes their eyes light up. But it’s hard to tell them what the options are, so mostly I just take notes while they talk. I forget a lot of stuff otherwise.
Then that night I use the notes to write up a series of objectives and a plan of action. It means a long day for the teacher, but I think it pays off later. We start the next day’s lesson with a print out of the objectives to see if everyone’s on board and if I’ve understood them right. I’ll pull that list up again part way through the course and we’ll review it and see how they think we’re doing.
Ah, and one other thing. I want to finish the first class with them feeling they have come away with something new and tangible that they have learnt. Some sort of language point that has arisen is called for – introducing them to the notion of collocations is often a good one – using examples from things they have said.

8 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Vicki! Great ideas (I feel a Handbook coming on!) I like the idea of the ‘formal’ presentation on names – this sets a good precedent while flattering the learners’ ‘professional’ identities. And the point you make about the students coming away with something ‘new’ under their belts is extremely well made: fun and games are all well and good but there’s a serious purpose involved too (not to mention a large investment of time and money).

8 07 2010
Klaus Beutelspacher

Very interesting and thought-provoking, as always.

Like I mentioned on the “Identity” entry, I teach using PDL or “language psychodramaturgy” in Germany. Reading through Scott’s blog especially on methodology issues, it seems to me that “we” PDL-people are pretty extremist concerning the degree or unpluggedness of our teaching practice.

I won’t attempt to explain PDL. Just this much: PDL courses are usually intensive (meaning several days in a row with several hours per day), with a well-structured sequence of exercises. Both course structure and exercises should follow certain principles. Groups are usually quite heterogeneous in most aspects conceivable, including level of English.

Many of the exercises Scott and others introduced could be made PDL-compatible and used during a course. I like the fact that they are textbook-free, they work with what students want to say, they foster group dynamics. We are not far apart really. Yet I wouldn’t use any of them for a first lesson or even on a first day. Maybe by explaining why, I can give you an idea of how we think and work. And remember, it’s a sort of radical POV.

1. Each exercise seems to require students to talk about something, with the teacher, with others, or even in front of the “class”. One PDL principle could be phrased as: “To each his rhythm, to each his pace”. Hence we never make people speak English. Since in an ordinary open group of eight, two or three will see speaking as their weak point, I would never risk exposing them in front of strangers. Once they have developed trust and self-confidence in the setting and with the group, they will always emerge with their speech, at their own pace. (This can be quick in a more homogeneous group of intermediates)

Maybe I should define “speak” a little better, like: uttering my own, spontaneously created phrases that are intended to convey meaning to another person. Of course people may speak in that sense if they wish, but it’s too much to ASK for on day 1. We do have ways of working with English from minute 1 (or say minute 15), but they are not “speaking” in that sense.

2. We try to do nothing that reminds people of school. First of all it’s hard to think of anything useful in traditional language teaching. Except maybe for the residues of countless hours of rote learning that now can be salvaged and made use of. Then the associations triggered by schoolish conditions (books, blackboards, teacher’s attitudes, certain types of exercise etc.) are likely to reinforce barriers we’d like to lower. Hence we don’t have a “class”, we have a group (even though I may carelessly talk about a classroom sometimes. In our case it’s usually sth like a Yoga-room though). Nothing goes on a blackboard, there is none. No one “reports”, but subgroups (rather than a single person) may perform what they have created to the rest of the group. That’s at a much later stage though.

The issue is a shift in attitude by both teachers and learners. In PDL, I never find myself in front of a class, I’m much more (as one participant once put it) “teaching from within the group”. Ideally, I don’t teach at all: I guide a group process, I conduct exercises, I provide language and support – that’s it. People pick that up: When they start becoming agents on their behalf rather than students in a classroom, the shift is taking place.

3. It’s too “written”. In most of those exercises, people write something. Now in PDL, we start with spoken language, with an emphasis on hearing with an emphasis on prosody (rather than comprehension). For true beginners, we may introduce some written language on day two, for refreshers we may wait until day three or four.

Why? Simple, really. People have done enough writing already. Our whole learning culture is reading / writing oriented, especially in foreign languages. Some have developed a veritable obsession (“I can’t remember anything if I don’t write it down”), there’s a lot of confusion with learner types (“I’m visual, I need to read everything”). In fact, many or even most people have forgotten that their prime resource, their fundamental access to language (first or other) is hearing. They don’t trust it and they don’t use it. So it’s hearing that needs to be trained, and that’s what we work on. If you like, we keep people listening in order not to let them slip back into their writing habit so soon. Writing’s for later, when everyone’s had a good chance to rediscover hearing.

Enough, I’ll stop here. Now it occurs to me that some people may wonder what we do do during first lessons. There are some things of course… maybe I’ll say more in some other post.

10 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Klaus – I think “interesting and thought-provoking” pertains to your post more than it does mine! I’m fascinated to know exactly what you DO do on the first lesson – and to what extent your students have “bought into” your methodology in advance. Presumably they have some idea of what to expect – or is that the purpose of the first lesson?

12 07 2010
Klaus Beutelspacher

Thank you Scott for your feedback! I will post a description on some typical starting techniques.

You are raising another interesting question. Some participants of our open courses have visited a trial lesson, which doesn’t convey much more information than the demo that Nick is talking about. Some have done some research on the web. No, by and large people have but a faint idea of what they have bought into.

On the other hand, people know very well that they don’t want the conventional training they have experienced before. This ranges from cautious abstinence “I had some English at school, but that was 40 years ago, I know nothing, I need a very respectful, considerate approach” to utter frustration “I’ve spent years and years trying everything I could find, there are no results, it’s all been a waste of time, money and energy”.

When they come to us, they are curious, with a sort of open minded scepticism, prepared for an experience of something that’s very hard to explain. In the process, we get attitudes from enthusiasm to permanent incredulous self-observation and reflection, which is great to witness.

But what strikes me as odd is that people still buy into something that they know won’t work – your local English course. One hypothesis is that this style of teaching/learning is hard-wired in people’s minds to an extend that makes it virtually impossible to even imagine something different. Our participants share this attitude, but they are ready to challenge it. I wish I knew more about the others, but I never meet them!

11 07 2010
Nick Bilbrough

We were lucky enough to have a workshop demonstrating PDL led by Eugene Schaefer at the drama symposium at IATEFL Harrogate. What sticks out in my mind from the session was an activity where the teacher said a series of highly descriptive statements in German with accompanying actions, which we then repeated whilst mimicking the actions.

This was then developed with a volunteer (me!) saying some of the words and phrases I could remember, and then the teacher developing a kind of story out of this. I sat in front of the teacher and was invited to repeat each line after it was spoken.

Though this was a demo lesson rather than a first lesson as such, as a complete beginner in German I found the fact that there was no explicit focus on meaning, and the fact that I knew I wasn’t going to be corrected for any errors I made, strangely liberating.

Although I wasn’t sure exactly what I was saying, I did feel like I was somehow speaking German , and that I was getting my head round the music of the language.

I wonder if there is something to be said for incorporating elements of first lessons which have this kind of aesthetic focus, rather than focussing purely on meaning driven activities?


11 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

I wonder if there is something to be said for incorporating elements of first lessons which have this kind of aesthetic focus, rather than focussing purely on meaning driven activities?

Nice point Nick. I remember taking classes in Maori in New Zealand, where each lesson began with the recital of a ‘karakia’ or prayer, the meaning of which was often fairly opaque, but not only were we uttering ‘real’ Maori, the recital had a pleasing ritual effect.

12 07 2010
Klaus Beutelspacher

Great, we have a PDL witness! Nick, I’m glad that you enjoyed your experience with Eugene Schaefer.

The initial activity you are describing is called “group mirror”, which could indeed be the very first warm-up exercise in a course. It’s followed by an instance of “doubling”, a “main exercise” that usually dominates day 1. It’s a very complex endeavor for the trainer, and usually a pleasant and intense experience for the participant. Maybe I’ll say more about it in another post.

And hey you’re so right about the aesthetic side. I’ve never thought of it this way, in spite of all the educational philosophy I once studied. But, on the bottom line, that’s what it’s all about. To quote the title of a (truly ground-breaking) essay by Johann Friedrich Herbart, of 1804: The aesthetic depiction/presentation of the world (Die ästhetische Darstellung der Welt) is the main business of all education. Any effort that focuses “purely on meaning driven activities” is inappropriate.

12 07 2010
Alastair Grant

Perhaps I’m a bit late with this and I see the topic’s changed again, but I still wanted to mention a similar learning experience to those described by Klaus and Nick.

When I was 6 years old at my primary school, we statrted classes in ancient Greek. The prosody of the language is very euphonic, and for the first week of classes (an hour every day), we recited what we thought was a prayer but turned out to be the paradigm of the verb “to go”.

We didn’t find this a strange thing to be doing: we had learnt quite a lot of Sanskirt in a similar way (a language which has some phonemes that are quite distinct from British English). This resulted in the fact that we could (I still can!) read Sanskrit and ancient Greek.

Despite this, it still didn’t mean anything to me – relatively few words were unblocked for us by our teachers. The sounds I was making didn’t connect to anything in my world, and I found that frustrating.

But I left this school at the age of 11 and perhaps things would have been different if I’d stayed. I will say that there was a great intrinsic motivation in getting the sounds right through hearing and chanting – and, ultimately – I was speaking Sanskrit! That felt great!

13 07 2010
Klaus Beutelspacher

Finally some first lesson ideas from PDL: A day, including the very first day of a course, starts with a relaxation exercise. This means that everybody lies on a mat or sits on a chair while the trainer conducts them into a very light trance. Preferably it’s something that connects body and language, like Jacobson’s PMS, autogenic training, some breathing or meditation technique you feel comfortable with. People literally don’t DO anything for about 15 minutes.

There are many advantages to that: people get a chance to arrive in a space that’s clearly different: It’s not work, not home, not school, it’s something else, it’s English. The learning process they are in for is both mental and physical, and it is relaxed. Nobody’s forced to DO anything, you are allowed to just BE. There’s a promise implicit in this first “action”, and we keep it throughout the course: This physical and mental process cares about the state you are in, it makes an effort to put you in a good state, to associate English with a good state, which is completely new for most people.

But then again, it’s not really PDL-specific, anyone can offer relaxation in their courses.

The dominant first day exercise for groups without prior PDL-experience is called doubling. It’s been developed from doubling in psychodrama (see wikipedia) by Bernard Dufeu, and it’s not explained easily. BTW, see Nick Bilbrough’s account of being a protagonist in a PDL-demo that included doubling, just above.
The idea borrowed from psychodrama is: The protagonist (learner) wishes to express herself, but she does not have the means to do so in an adequate manner. The trainer fills in that gap: He supplies the language she lacks precisely when she needs it. She can then use it as her own. This often creates an intense experience of closeness: The FL is no longer as foreign as it was ten minutes before.

This sounds like magic, but it isn’t. It involves a number of techniques native to PDL (all described by Bernard Dufeu again), esp. the spontaneous creation of a spiral sequence based on an impulse (verbal or non-verbal) by the protagonist. In order to perceive that impulse and other signals communicated by the participant during the exercise, the trainer needs a great deal of empathy, but doesn’t every teacher?

Exercises like doubling are always preceded by warm-ups (like the “group mirror” described by Nick above), to get the group ready for them. Here’s another one I use in most courses during day 1, sometimes even before names are exchanged (which we don’t do before the first break). It’s an “intermediate exercise”, a lively phase between two phases of doubling. But you could use it anywhere. It’s called “magic cards”, and it’s by Bernard Dufeu.

Everyone gets a card, like a blank flashcard, something neutral. I explain that these are magic cards, and there’s a word written on them in magic ink. You can read it if you look properly (cards are blank, mine are coloured, it’s nicer). With everyone’s attention, I approach someone and say: “There’s an octopus on my card, what’s on yours?” It doesn’t have to be an octopus, anything will do, but I start with something concrete. Again it’s spontaneous, maybe it was Paul the psychic squid that just popped up from my unconscious, the one that predicted all of Germany’s world cup matches and the final – correctly.

Now she may reply: I have sunshine. Then I say: “Can I have your sunshine, I’ll give you my octopus.” We swap. I explain to everyone: “Now I have sunshine, and she has an octopus. We can now both walk around and swap cards with everyone else.” I approach someone else, and so does she. The room starts buzzing.

After half a minute I explain that if you don’t like the word you got or if you can’t “read” it any more, you can turn the card around, there’s a different word on the back. Now many different words appear. After a few minutes, variations start. I may introduce more abstract terms “anthropology, the blues, space” or phrases “a brilliant idea, a jolly nice day..” or difficult words for those looking for challenges. Some develop conversations during the swaps, others don’t – that’s fine, as long as they keep moving. If someone’s lost, I approach that person. If someone’s really weak and timid, I give them words they can handle (like mouse, hat, dog). It’s ok if they walk up to someone, just offer the card and say “mouse”. Others get challenged with emotion, or I start bargaining with them, whatever seems right.

It takes about 15 minutes for the energy to subside. Then the cards are collected and we get back on the floor (there are no tables or chairs) to do some serious work.

14 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for generously sharing those ideas, Klaus – and for providing the rationale underpinning them. I especially like the sound of the “magic cards” activity. I’m assuming that this is all conducted in the target language,though. What happens when learners run up against words they’re not familiar with? Is the assumption that these are mutually ‘taught’ during the milling activity?

14 07 2010
Klaus Beutelspacher

Hey Scott, apologies for the long post, I didn’t have time for a shorter one! (Sorry again, stole that from Goethe of course). But seriously, I just wanted to show how you can do this without the symbols of the old classroom, the blackboard, the exercise book, the desk etc.

“Magic Cards” is a small and modest exercise, but a lot of things happen concurrently. We like these tricks. People think that they are just learning new words, and they don’t notice that they are interacting, bonding, jumping barriers and more all at the same time. Of course they teach each other, several times a minute, and it comes naturally. So this is both interpersonal and diagnostic and lots more, and it’s meant to be. Of course it’s target language, and lots of gestures and intonation, so that everyone understands everything.

18 07 2010
Scott Thornbury

Klaus, I tried ‘Magic Cards’ with a group of trainees the other day and it worked a treat. What was interesting was how often people forgot what they’d just been traded, and had to chase after their previous partner in order to check. And these were native speakers.

20 07 2010
Klaus Beutelspacher

It’s great to hear that you tried it, Scott!

I know that feeling. It happens to me all the time. It’s just the way our mind works, an aspect some people have illustrated with the rather simplistic metaphor of “short term memory”.

Anyway, the whole exercise works on various levels. Linguistically people get comprehensible input, which is what makes sense. There’s no syllabus to complete, no target to meet, no pressure to knock it all down or remember everything. On other levels it’s fun, it gets you connected with the others, you get to pronounce words without really “speaking”, you can very spontaneously try ways and means of communication.

Plus it teaches you something about your mind. Many people expect their mind and memory to work like a computer hard disc, and the bad news is: No, that’s probably not it. The good news however is that this mind, even with its often frustrating ways, is perfectly capable of language acquisition, while a computer is not.

13 10 2010
cathy neave

Hi Scott,
I tried out one of your ideas from “teaching unplugged” for a first lesson this week (“how I got my name”). As I am doing the DELTA I want to experiment as try new ideas out as much as possible and I thought it would be a very meaningful activity for the students to share something of their “identity”. The activity didn’t really work that well which could attribute to my teaching although I think it might have had something to do with the students not wanting to share personal “identity” information when they don’t know each other well or have a sense of feeling secure with their teacher and classmates. I plan to try the activity again with another class after they have spent more time together and have established a rapport with each other in the class.

25 02 2013

Hi Scott, I’m teaching a first lesson tomorrow and I will definitely be trying out some of these. I really like the five pointed star idea.

26 05 2014
Martin Sketchley

Just come across this blog post Scott as I am writing up about first lessons myself. Thank you for keeping your website up, it is a great resource.

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