Effective Activity Delivery
(Written by Mike Griffin and Manpal Sahota for KOTESOL’s “The English Connection” a while back.)
Through reflecting on our own teaching practices and observing talented teachers we have come to be aware of what techniques make or break a classroom activity. From our own experiences we both remember the frustration we would feel after taking the time to plan and prepare what seemed like a great activity only to see it fail miserably in class. More often than not we did what we think most teachers do – we blamed the students for lacking motivation or focus during class. We now realise the main reason to why some activities would fall flat was primarily due to the way they were presented. Planning and preparing activities are important, but nothing is more essential to the success of an activity than the delivery. In this, our first article for The English Connection we hope to share some suggestions for how to present activities more effectively.
Michael felt for a while that giving instructions was the weakest part of his teaching. He decided he needed to take action to improve this area and started including his instructions in his lesson plans. At first he would write exactly what he wanted to say during class in his lesson plans and would compare this to what he actually said. Over time, he began to feel much more comfortable with instructions and now encourages his in-service teacher-trainees to include instructions in their lessons plans.
While planning instructions ahead is certainly important we feel that modeling is the most important part to delivering an activity well. Students need to see what is expected of them and proper modeling of activities allows students to physically see what the activity entails. Many times we as teachers give detailed verbal instructions and expect our students to understand complex language that is more often than not more difficult than the specific vocabulary or language structures that the lesson/activity is focused on. If you have a large class with a wide range of ability levels – as many teachers do – complex teacher talk and excessive verbal instructions will confuse students and force you to re-explain the activity to individual groups/pairs, thus shortening the time students have to participate in the activity and reducing your ability to monitor other groups. Modeling the activity will help all students – especially lower level students – to physically see what is expected of them.
You can model the activity with your co-teacher, one of your higher level students, or if you are going to do a group activity use an entire group to show the rest of the class what steps are involved. Some activities are quite involved and require many steps. It is not necessary to model the entire activity at once, as this can lead to information overload. Instead, model one half or a part of the activity and let the students get started. Later get the students attention again and model the next part of the activity. It’s important to reduce the amount of unnecessary teacher talk and increase the amount of visual demonstration.
Last month Manpal had a chance to observe an elementary school teacher who spoke no more than 20 words when he modeled his activity with his class. He simply had five volunteers come to the front of the class and he guided them as they went through each step of the activity. The rest of the class watched intently and after about three minutes all the students understood what they needed to do and when the teacher told the rest of the class to begin the activity it went off flawlessly.
While modeling is essential to the success of an activity another important element is checking comprehension. Once you finish modeling the activity for/with students it is vital that you ask comprehension check questions (CCQs) to ensure that you know the students understand what to do. There are various types of CCQs that you can use, from simple yes/no questions to asking them to tell you each step of the activity. The common question, “Do you understand?” (often coupled with vigorous head nodding) is best avoided because it does not accurately reveal whether or not the students truly understand the instructions. Likewise, “Any questions?” (coupled with aggressive shaking of the head) is not likely to cause students to admit that they didn’t follow the instructions. Much more effective are questions like, “Are you going to stand up and walk around?” or “How many people should you talk to?” By using CCQs you can gauge how much the students understand and whether or not you need to model the activity again with more clear and simple language.
Another useful way to help students understand what is expected of them in an activity is to provide written instructions. This can be done on the board, on a handout or on a PowerPoint slide. One benefit of this technique is that students can check the instructions at any time during the activity. Another positive is that the level of language can be slightly higher than the oral instructions.
Before you can model activities and ask CCQs you must make sure you have the attention of your students. Insisting that students pay attention when you are giving instructions is an essential step. While this might sound like a hard-line approach, it can actually be a time saver over the long run. You want avoid talking over your students and competing with other voices in the class. Instead you should employ a mixture of verbal and non-verbal cues in order to get your students’ attention. The most effective verbal cues that Manpal has seen elementary school teachers use are ones where the teacher says one or two words and the students must repeat a phrase back (e.g. teacher says “Listen…” → students say: “Up!” or teacher says “1, 2, 3, eyes on me!” → students say: “1, 2, 3, eyes on teacher!”).
Examples of non-verbal cues include you putting your hands on your head (or putting your hand in the air) and students must do the same and stop talking, ringing a small bell on your desk, flicking the lights on and off, or clapping some pattern that students must repeat. The final technique is very popular among Korean public school teachers. It is ideal to use a mixture of 2~3 verbal and non-verbal cues so that students don’t get bored with the overuse of one cue, thus losing the effectiveness of the cue. It is vital that you teach these cues to your students at the beginning of the term so that they become ingrained into the classroom culture. One suggestion is to create a game where students are expected to respond to the clues as rapidly as possible. This will help make responding to the clues a habit.
It is also important not to hand out any materials or papers before you model the activity. If you give students something that they can touch or play with they will most likely not pay attention to you when you are modeling the activity. It is only natural that they will focus on the new thing in their hands. It’s important to give the materials to students after you have modeled and asked CCQs so that they are not distracted when they should be focused on you. If you model and ask CCQs before students actually get started the chances of the activity being successful dramatically increase.
There are quite a few ways to help ensure that you deliver your activities in an efficient and effective way and we hope that we have shared some useful ideas in this article. We recommend writing your instructions before the class, modeling, using CCQ’s, and being sure to have your students’ attention. While some of these ideas might seem like a big investment of time, we feel that they are investments that will pay off. We feel that spending time to make sure that students know what is expected of them in the activities is an important step in making the activities more successful.