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The Lesson From Hell

Even when you love your job, ugly lessons rear their respective heads every now and again. What do you do about that lesson that bombs every time, all the ways you’ve tried it?

I can’t answer for you, but here’s what I do:

I try to identify why I don’t like it and then address that specifically – does the grammar point seem useless, or do I just not really understand it myself? Does the book just present it poorly, or in a way that students don’t really get? Do students tend to find it difficult, or needlessly complicated?
Certainly there are steps I can take to address each of these – making sure I understand the point, giving students a short explanation of why it is actually useful after all, or adapting the exercises so students get the practice without the de-motivation of struggling with every answer.

I sometimes have a guilt trip because the way I interpreted my training – everything should be communicative, you should guide students to discover for themselves and not just tell them, in a communicative EFL setting the teacher should only speak a fraction of the time, etc.

I think these are good principles and I don’t in fact believe I should just give up the moment things don’t go easily, but what I see now that I didn’t before is this: sometimes textbooks do needlessly complicate exercises or grammar points; sometimes a particular point is largely irrelevant to the situations my students will find themselves in.

A concrete example:
I absolutely hate teaching adverbs such as however, although, despite, nevertheless, and so on, especially when the particular lesson comes up in Cutting Edge Upper Intermediate.

Why? These are hard for most learners, and the book expects a lot, as does the test. The exercises are not particularly communicative, and other practice is hard to find because the point is to distinguish between that particular set of adverbs. In my experience, without a great deal of guiding along, students tend to find it hard, perform poorly in their own eyes, and then feel down about it.

What I do: I realized that my students often got sidetracked focusing on the words as vocabulary, and sometimes trying to find translations, which wouldn’t help them use those words correctly in English.

I’ve developed a little spiel about “what does “but” mean? I know how you translate it, but what does it mean?” The point is that the meaning is more the function of the word than the word itself, you “explain” the word “but” by giving examples of how it is used, or explaining what it is used for (to show contrast).

Similarly they shouldn’t be agonizing over shades of meaning between “however” and “although”. They should be thinking about how we use these words (which is illustrated by a number of examples).

I designed a basic guided discovery worksheet, using clear examples followed by simple either/or questions about those examples, and then a summary of some of the rules with a few gaps for students to fill in. [In spite of + ______ (noun/gerund should go there), for example.]

Given how hard it had seemed before, this did make it go comparatively more smoothly. Students didn’t get all demoralized by getting every answer wrong. And they had a handout on which they’d filled in the rules.

In the future, I might do some kind of simple oral practice with finishing sentences. “In spite of the rain, I …” “He is very handsome. However…” Students work in teams and have five seconds or whatever to finish each sentence in a grammatically correct way that makes sense. Associate this with points somehow, and you are good to go. Let them look at their example sentences and rules; once it gets going, they are thinking about the meaning of the sentence and just using the grammar.

Like with the guided discovery, these don’t take rocket science skills. I don’t think everything for Upper Intermediate should be easy – what’s the point of the class if you only study things they already know? – but I wasn’t happy with how the lesson went when I followed the book, and this was the result.

Do stay tuned for some graphic details of a couple of my own cringe-worthy lessons from hell – would anyone like to help me start that discussion by sharing their own story??