Telling in the first class

I know this English teacher. Let’s call him Caesar. He self-identifies as a CLT person, maybe even a strong version one. He talks about the importance of tasks for deeper learning. He has flirted with learning styles. He has been known to rail against the evils of the dreaded teacher talking time.  In pubs and staff-rooms he articulates his belief that English classes should be learner (or learning) centered. He is a firm believer in inductive learning.

Yet, in the first class of the term all bets are off and there he is at the front of the room telling. So much telling. Telling students about all the info on the syllabus and more. Telling students about assignments. Telling students about his expectations. Telling students classroom rules (though he might refer to them as norms they still sound pretty much sound like rules to my ears). He tells students about the weekly schedule. He tells students about his views on his class. He tells them how the course relates to the latest theories in SLA. He tells students how student-centered the class will be and how this might be different than their previous experiences. He stands at the front of the room and goes on about the grading schemes and how this is a good way to do things and will help students chart their progress. He tells students about the appropriate behaviors and attitudes required to succeed in this class. He tells students how valuable the class will be for his students. He also gives suggestions for students to maximize their learning outside of class.

I come here not to bury Caesar, nor to praise him. I want to understand him. Are the logistics of the course something that need to be covered and told about? Are these things somehow different wholly other? Do they thus require different treatment? Is he unaware of other ways for getting students to walk away with a clearer idea about his course and how it will be run? Does telling provide a clearer understanding or convey a better sense of professionalism and knowledge from the teacher? What am I missing? If I am not missing anything, what is he missing? Are there other ways of familiarizing students with key course information? What have you done and had success with? In a future post I’d like to share some of my ideas and experiences related to avoiding telling in the first class but I wanted to tell this story first.


  1. Rose Bard

    It made me dizzy just reading the story, I wonder what it would be like to have this happening in a fast foward speed in the first day of class. Anyway, I do look forward to your next post.

      • Rose Bard

        Maybe! but you brought an interesting point for reflection. I’m always thinking how much I should say in the first class about everything, nowadays, I try to be as objective as possible or not say much really. In my context, young adults are eager to get to work, but I still find it useful to have a moment where each one talk about their expectations, including me; what and why learning English is important. And I try to get a feel of what they do outside the class in English. The sharing is usually very positive because they seem to learn from each other and about each other. The course syllabus is the least of my concerns at this point.
        I look forward to your next post and see what ideas you have of your own. 🙂

        Warm hugs from Brazil!

      • mikecorea

        Thanks for the extended comments here Rosey.

        One thing that has come up for me in recent years is students’ and training course participants’ desire to get some questions on logistics out of the way before starting the learning or group building or whatever. At previous times in different situations I have assured people all such questions will be answered later and pleaded with them to do whatever crazy thing I was doing to start things off (one time this included a trainer doing a short Capoeira lesson that we later talked about as a group).

        A few terms back I told students there were a few things I wanted to do in the first class and asked them which they’d prefer to do first. Almost everyone chose the course details thing and one student said she couldn’t concentrate on anything else without this out of the way.

        I like your point/idea about students being eager to get right into things. That is great.

        I am also looking forward to my next post as I am not completely sure what i will say. 😉

        abração de Seul!

  2. Hana Tichá

    Hi Mike. As I’m a person who rarely reads manuals (I need to try things out first), I guess this telling type of lesson would be totally useless for me. And I imagine it’s the same for many students. However, there are people who like to hear about what it’s all going to be like – they need some kind of introduction. This makes them feel safe and gives them some time to adjust to the new surroundings. Maybe, it also helps the teacher to adjust and breathe in before he starts real teaching. I’m just trying to understand Caesar…. 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Hello Hana!
      Thanks for the perspective. Much appreciated. Maybe these days I am toooo worried about the students who can’t focus on other stuff without knowing what the heck the class is about and how it will run.
      (Maybe this is a fault of my own or my unis or other based on students not reading/understanding/having access to the syllabus at the start)

      You wrote,” However, there are people who like to hear about what it’s all going to be like – they need some kind of introduction. This makes them feel safe and gives them some time to adjust to the new surroundings.” For me, I think ti is sort of unbalanced to tell people about all the communicative stuff they are going to be doing. I mean, why not just dive in and give an example so students can feel it?
      (I am talking to Caesar now and not you!)

      I also appreciate you trying to understand Caesar.
      From my view, the issue (if there really is one!) is more about the telling…and not about the focus on class details. I think you made a nice case for why some students would appreciate it.

      Well lots to think about and your comments were extremely helpful for me as I crystallize my thoughts.

  3. anthonyteacher

    Ceasar is the standard model. Nothing special. This model assumes the first day of class is not a class but an info session. On my first days of class, I am half Ceasar. I do some “community building” (ice breakers, because we build a classroom community until the last day of class or beyond) and then I let them know what the rough plan is, grading scheme, apps to download, Blackboard. etc.

    So, Mike, how much of Ceasar are you on tje first day?

    • mikecorea

      Great comments here Anthony. Got me thinking.
      I probably agree something like what I described is the “Standard model” (but I also expect I described toooo much telling?). I think your point about the assumption of what the first class is for is spot on. Yet, I am still troubled by telling and students sitting there and listening. If the info session aspect if paramount I still think there are ways of conveying/engaging in this info without the teacher at the front telling and telling.

      As for your question (which cuts right to the core!!!) of how much of a Caesar am I on the first day of class…. well I think it depends on the course and how prepared I am. I have been thinking about a post on how to tell less on the first day for years now but I still found myself doing more telling the other day than I’d like. So, there is some Caesar there but not because I think this is the best way to convey or deal with the info but just because I didn’t do as great of a job finding ways to limiting the teacher telling time.

      Thanks again for the comments!

  4. ljiljana havran

    Hi Mike,
    I enjoyed your post and it struck me first that Ceasar was a really suitable name for such a strong version of a CLT person..:))

    The first class of the term is really important because of the first impressions students get of the teacher. Students like the teachers who are self-confident, consistent and have a good sense of humour. So much telling about the syllabus/assignments/grading scale/methodology in the first class is not only uninteresting, but completely ineffective.

    The main aim of the first class is for students to learn more about one another and for the teacher to assess each student’s ability level. So Ts should make Ss feel at ease by creating a positive classroom atmosphere conducive to open communication.

    A few ideas for the first class I found useful (I hope you like them):
    1. Ask the teacher whatever you want about the course (and this is the only time you can ask your teacher some personal questions)
    2. T writes a few things/phrases about himself/herself on the board, Ss ask questions in order to find out what they are about..
    3. Interview your partner about her/his expectations of the course. Tell the class what your partner’s expectations of the course are.
    4. Flash fiction: look through the window/choose a photo in your mobile phone, etc. and write whatever comes first to your mind (up to 150 words)

    I’m looking forward to your next post and your ideas 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Great comments and ideas here!
      Thanks very much. I like your ideas a lot. I will try my best NOT to copy them for my upcoming post. I will also encourage you to write up a post on this on your own blog! 😉

      I was especially interested in the flash fiction idea as this is something far away from what I’d ever tried!

      I think your point about assessment is really important and that is one of my issues with the teacher telling too much. We can’t hear anything from students and we are not even sure if they get anything. If the class info is crucially important I think we need to find out ways to see that students really got it.

      Thanks for the great comments. Much appreciated.

  5. laurasoracco

    If I had a chance to have a beer or two with Caesar, and he asked me what I did on my 1st day of class, I would tell him that something I really like to do to keep my teacher talk to a minimum is NOT introduce a whole lot about the course rules on day 1. I think most students are overwhelmed and not paying much attention on day one, so I break up all that content into different days over the 1st and 1nd week. On day 1, what I have done is I break up the syllabus in different sections, give it to Ss in small groups, and ask them to summarize it and come up with questions they might have. I answer their questions and then, they present their part to the class. I’ve also done an activity to set expectations (theirs and mine) where I draw 2 columns on the board with the following labels “class from hell” “favorite class”. I ask everyone to talk among themselves and then share their answers with everyone in class. At the end, I add my take on those two categories. Hope I’m not rambling here, but those are my two cents for Caesar 😉

    • mikecorea

      Hey Laura,
      I didn’t think your great comments were rambling at all. I think there are some really great ideas that I think are worth sharing and trying out.

      I am still honestly torn between this idea of students being overwhelmed by too much info and blocked by not knowing what the heck they have gotten themselves into and thus worried. So, last week (my first week of the term) I tried to assuage the worries of those who might be wondering how things will go while also not doing too much telling.

      My other concern is about giving a roughly accurate portrayal about how classes will run so that students can be sure they want to take the course and not disappointed by unmet expectations as the course goes along.

      Thanks again for the ideas and comments!

  6. EBEFL

    You make an interesting point here. How many teachers who buy into ‘student centred’ and ‘discovery’ notions forget about all that stuff when there’s ‘real’ knowledge to passed on. Suddenly then the transfer model seems adequate, doesn’t it?

    • mikecorea

      Yes, Russ! Great point (which I suppose I might have sort of hinted at from a different angle). My issue here would be that if more discovery stuff is the choice with English language knowledge (or skills or whatever) it would also be the choice for the course details. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. We could take this to mean there could be more room for more telling in the day to day workings of the class or that less telling is also appropriate on such details. Thanks for the poignant comment.

  7. Pieces of 8

    I work in an organisation where I have a ‘first day of class’ every four weeks, and an entire change of course every three months. If I spent the first class setting the ground rules, we’d lose a significant percentage of course time. I make sure the students get to know each other well and dedicate the first 30 minutes to ice-breakers. After that, I set whatever ground rules are needed for each class / activity as it arises. Then it’s more focused and useful info, too.
    It’s obviously a very different context, but even when teaching in schools I kept the telling to a minimum.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for this comment. I think your point about the context is a very powerful one. I also like your point about % of course time spent on setting things up and delivering rules and expectations and all. My thought is that students can get a lot more out of how things will run in the course by actually running the first class the way things will be run. Then students can actually get a feel for it rather than just hear about it. Honestly, I felt like I did more telling this last week than I’d like to but I do tend to try to keep it to a minimum.

  8. careymicaela

    Hi Mike,
    I thought I’d chime in here too with a couple of ideas. I really like what Laura mentioned- giving students the syllabus to analyze and having them come up with course expectations. Along those lines, I would say instead of ‘telling’ students the information maybe you could hand it out in text format and have them work with it. Maybe a jigsaw reading? Or even a gap fill? That way they’re getting the information but in a way that’s more student-centered and possibly more interesting than just listening to the teacher.
    Another suggestion would be role-playing. Instead of telling them about the type of activities you’ll be doing with them, have them try the activities out. Maybe get their feedback about what they liked/didn’t like in the process.
    Just throwing some ideas out there in case they’re useful. 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Great ideas here, Micaela! I wish I’d written the follow up post prior to seeing these great ideas. 🙂
      In any case, I really appreciate you reading and commenting.

      I really like your point and idea about actually trying out activities rather than telling students about them. I think just getting in there and doing stuff shows how class will be more than any amount of telling. I also think this sort of thing brings up questions that can be answered when students are ready to listen because they know what questions they have. I think it is hard to listen to long explanations about a newly started course because we are not sure about our expectations. I hope and believe this makes sense!

      Your comments also helped me think of another idea for a blog post. One thing I often hear/read teachers complain about is students asking questions that are in the syllabus. Perhaps if students were forced to see what is on the syllabus through a tasks they wouldn’t ask those questions later on because they’d know what is on the syllabus.

      Thanks again for commenting!

  9. Pingback: Maybe it being in the syllabus is not enough? | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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