Little tips from CELTA training that go a long way

When you undertake a 1-month intensive CELTA course it’s near impossible to absorb all the information you’re given. You have to prioritise, and that means getting the basics right. Staging a lesson, introducing new language effectively, anticipating problems, that type of thing. Even learning English grammar rules, that’s hard enough for a native speaker!

However, if you get chance, take a bit of time to consider how your CELTA tutors model good classroom practice during input sessions. Our tutors used a lot of activities and techniques on us which we could in turn apply in the classroom. They didn’t always tell us this, so it’s worth making a note of little things you observe. You never know when a little tip or idea might be beneficial, so you might as well jot it down just in case!

In my first job after the CELTA I made sure my course notes didn’t go to waste. I picked out various little ideas from the input sessions and tried to work them into my practice. Here’s some things the tutors either told me or I picked up on… little tips that go a long way!

‘That Visual Spatial thingy’visual spatial

In my notes it said ‘young learners have better visual spatial memory than older ones/adults’. I remember my tutor said that we shouldn’t neglect this type of memory training. Here’s an activity he mentioned:

Arrange flashcards for target vocabulary on the board or floor. Point at random to each flashcard a few times and elicit the word. Then take one of the pictures away. Continue pointing, eventually point at the empty space. Students will remember the picture that was there. Remove another picture, and so on, until you are pointing at an empty board and the students are saying all the words. A good sneaky drilling activity.

Once, one of my managers walked in when I was in the final stages of this activity and said ‘whatever they we’re doing, they were having fun’. As it turns out, adults seem a bit better at this than kids. One class memorised 15 pictures!

Negotiating activity length

‘You’ve 5 minutes to finish the activity’. Who says? There’s no point in chucking an arbitrary number out to define the length or each task or activity. Ask the students – they’ll know how long they need, or at least have a rough idea. You’ve just given them a vocab/meaning matching task that’s a bit above their level, so barter with the time:

Teacher: you’ve 2 minutes

Students: teacher no way!

Teacher: well how long do you want?

Student: 10 minutes

Teacher: hmm, there’s 10 words to match, 10 minutes is too long

Student A: five!

Student B: seven…

Etc..

Why bother? Well, firstly you can learn a bit about your tasks – how do the students rate their difficulty? Also, you learn about the students’ confidence – which students feel more confident with certain tasks? Plus, you provide them with a pressured element to the task which they feel is still a challenge but within their capability. And you can lower the time limit next time! Above all, the whole banter of the negotiation process builds rapport.

Oh yeah, counting down the time is good too.

Question techniques

These tips might sound intuitive, but it’s worth thinking about ways to optimise student interaction and help discussions develop in class.

When preparing questions

  • If you are making your own detail questions, make sure some require the students to give a personal response (i.e. what they think about something). This will hopefully prompt some discussion.
  • Making answers to True or False statements deliberately ambiguous is another way to get students reading between the lines and discussing the text.

When doing feedback from pair/group discussions

  • Ask students to comment on what their partner thought, no what they thought themselves. Warn them before you start an activity that you might do this. This encourages active listening. You could even ask their partner afterwards ‘is that roughly what you said?’, to check that they were listening to the feedback.

 Jazzing up gap fills

grass skirtsGrass skirts was an activity we used during grammar input sessions. It’s just a way to ‘lift the course book off the page’, as they say.

I have made it look very complicated (left), but its actually very simple. Write out your gap fill sentences on a piece of paper, then cut a line under each one, leaving a centimetre or two so the slip of paper doesn’t detach. You’ll be left with a dangly piece of paper looking like a hula skirt. Pin one up around the room for each pair/group. Instruct one student in each pair/group to run to the paper, rip the bottom piece off, bring it to their group, fill in the gap, then show you. If they are right then they can get the next piece.

This activity was a pretty common feature of our training, with its many versions. You can do plenty of other things to make gap fills more exciting, but this one always sticks in my mind. It turns things like controlled practice stages (which can be dull) into little competitions. When I get students from Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic, who seem a bit grammar gap-filled out, an injection of movement and competition always gets them going. Ten minutes preparation, about 10 mins enjoyment – well worth it.

Consistent gestures

It’s good to develop a clear set of verbal/visual signals to help with classroom management. I remember my CELTA tutors modelling this well, and I adopted many of their techniques. For example, I remember that when one tutor wanted us to have a discussion in pairs, he would always lean in from his chair as if he was about to tell us a secret or something, and then say – ‘Question’, and then tell us the discussion topic.

I know this sounds simple, but the way he did it was so clear – the leaning in, the tone of his voice, etc. And he did it in the same way every time. I adopted little things like this in the classroom straight away, and it really helps with things like transitions between lesson stages. When I want an activity to end, I always say ‘OK’ firmly, in the same tone, and sit down. There’s no need for more instruction, my students quickly learn that I expect them to wrap up their discussions or activity when I give that signal.

Pairs, pairs, pairs

Last thing. My tutors had an obsession with pair work. Every time we did a task, we had to check the answers in pairs before class feedback. ‘Check your answers with your partner’ was probably the most used phrase during the course. Consequently, I am now a pair work obsessive. And in every observation I’ve had since my CELTA, management or trainers have mentioned how I try to maximise student communication. Don’t get into bad habits, keep the pair work going!

So there are some random tips for you. What did you notice in your input sessions?

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17 comments

  1. My tutors were always telling us to do a pyramid activity for class feedback. You start off with pairs of students checking their answers, then small groups and then eventually the whole class with the teacher taking the lead. They mentioned that it was related to loss of face and if you went straight into checking the answers with the students, they could lose face should they get the answer incorrect – much like your advice about “Pairs, pairs, pairs”.

    Another thing that my CELTA tutors told us to do was to focus on teacher talking time while giving instructions: “Keep it simple and keep it sweet” was something that I heard each day. In a way I took their advice on board and am now working on minimising my TTT when giving instructions. I have always attempted to improve my instructions and when I was doing my Diploma, my tutor told me, the first time he heard my instructions, that he wished he had a camera in the room as it was perfect. This was the best complement that I received about my instructions and since then I have always tried to keep it simple by demonstrating activities or using a couple of words rather than sentences.

    The students get to know your style and adjust to your way of teaching. They also learn what you mean when you want to give very short, possibly one word instructions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. One of the things that stayed with me was modelling the activity you want them to produce themselves as a comprehension activity first with a personalised version from the teacher. The students get curious about the teacher and that builds rapport, they have a clear example to model from using natural phrases from a native speaker which they can absorb and reuse and it provides a good model for English being useful to find out about people. Especially at lower levels when it doesn’t take much prep time to make your own example.

      Secondly was timing discussion questions 1 min each to help fluency. Done as a warm up activity it really raises the energy and sets a communicative tone so much better than not using a timer.

      I remembered last week about regrouping just by numbering the students to repair up with their same number. Much livelier discussions. I think they had got bored of the people they were sitting next to.

      Film trailers as mini video comprehensions or prediction tasks too eg what happens next. (So many and it livens up a syllabus that was otherwise made a few years ago usually).

      Those are the ones that stand out. I enjoyed your post and look forward to trying out some of the tips and pinching more from the comments I hope 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. some great ideas Mike, it’s nice to hear that you took so many things from the input sessions and watching your tutors too. I haven’t used too many film trailers actually, I might plan something around them soon, cheers for the idea.

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    2. I remember an a development session you gave on instructions. I’ve tried hard on them too. I did my development record on them for the diploma. For some reason they are still bad though – will I ever learn?!

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  2. This is a really great post, and has reminded me to revisit my CELTA notes over the weekend now I am into Week 5 of post-CELTA teaching.
    I kept a running note through my course of things my two excellent tutors did which I liked, which I think I shall also turn into a blog post 🙂 Thanks for the reminder – and the reminisce 😉

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  3. The thing I remember most from my CELTA was an observation task. One of the other trainees was asked to choose a student in my class and imagine that he was her. He was to write a log of the class activities as he imagined the student saw them and note how she felt at each stage.
    He really got into the part and the result was quite a long ‘stream of consciousness’ style passage detailing the goings on in the class. It started out something like ‘I like this teacher. He’s really lively and energetic though sometimes I don’t catch what he says. He seems to ask everybody questions. At least we’re not sitting here doing gapfills. I wonder why he hasn’t asked me yet. Maybe he thinks I won’t know the answer. Oh, he asked me to repeat the instructions for the game we are going to play. It makes me nervous to speak in front of everybody but at least I had understood what he had been saying and I got it right. So I spoke with Joao and…blah, blah, blah.’ You get the picture.
    I now often use this observation task when observing other teachers. When I’m teaching, it helps me keep the students in mind and ensure that I am spreading my attention evenly, looking out for signs of confusion etc.
    It’s the one activity from my CELTA that really sticks out in my memory years later. I guess it helped that the other trainee had done such a good job of the task that he brought it to life.

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    1. Cheers Aidan, that’s a really interesting technique. I will definitely try that out in my next peer observation. I remember doing the final assignment, a reflective piece where you had to imagine 3 things your students liked about your class, 3 things they didn’t, something like that anyway. But I like the long stream of consciousness idea and you can pick up on smaller things that way I reckon.

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