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Helping learners get started

Cambridge English | Teaching Your Subject in English | Video | Teachers talking about the language they use to help learners get started
If I have an activity that I want to do in class, I wouldn’t simply walk in and say, hello, everybody. Look at this. We’re going to do this. Dadada. I would try to engage them in the activity in some way to start with. If my activity is to help my learners understand once again, the water cycle, then I may start by chatting to them about a local lake where they like to go for relaxation, to do water sports, or something similar. Or, I might chat to them about the weather and just get their opinions and their feelings. In some ways, it’s a hook to drag them in to the main text or the main activity that you’re going to do.
And it’s sometimes - people call it activation of schemata. That is, getting them thinking about the topic before you actually focus on the aspect of the topic that you’re dealing with, getting them thinking about the topic in general. What this may do, they may do it in pairs, they may brainstorm a topic onto a board. But what this will do will bring out how much they already understand, how much knowledge they already have about the topic. And you can use that to modify your lesson, if necessary, to think to yourself, I need to do a bit more work on this rather than that because they seem to not know much about that.
It would also throw up key vocabulary that may be required for the subject. Organising who is doing what in a group work, giving them roles, and making sure that one learner may be responsible for gathering the geography materials, the maps, compasses, rulers. Another learner might be responsible for time-keeping and keeping the group in English. Another group member might be writing down any use of L1 so they can check it at the end. And someone else might be just praising them and saying come on, guys. We can do this better, or we’re doing quite well. Coach on the side trying to get … Yeah, or also noting what they find difficult. So again, they give feedback.
The students will then be much more naturally engaged, and have these routines and habits to use in their lesson. They will know with the roles, for example, if somebody is told they are going to be the coach, or the observer, or whatever, they will know precisely what those mean. They’ll just get straight on with it. And then they can focus that much more on the language side of things as well. And it makes everything around much easier both for them and for the teacher. And then getting them interested, I may say, OK. So we are going to talk about the water cycle. I’m going to show you a diagram.
I want you to predict two things that you might see in that diagram. And in this way I give them a focus, a reason for doing the task that I want them to do. And so there’s quite a lot of work to be done, I think, before you actually begin working with the material, the task, or activity. Rather like an athlete, or a footballer, whoever, warming up before playing the game or running a race. The warm-up is vital. They have to do that. And I think of this as a kind of mental warm-up. But every now and then we kind of have a bit of a break. We say, OK. How are we thinking? How can we solve this problem?
What sort of approaches can we - I mean how can we approach - can we use different perspectives to solve that problem? And also, I think every now and then we must stop and think about the best way, for example, to compare, contrast something. For example, when it comes to climate, sometimes we would say, OK. Can we compare these two climates? But which is the best way to compare? Maybe we should pay attention to things that these two planets have in common. Maybe we should pay attention to differences. So before getting to any sort of conclusion, we very much think about, pay attention to the process to get to a conclusion.
So I think not only thinking, but thinking about thinking is a very important process.
Watch John, Paul, Kay and Roberto talking about ways of getting learners ready to do an activity in a subject lesson in English.
For example: How are you going to work out this calculation?
Which of the words in the box below do they use to talk about these three themes: activating schemata, starting group work and planning learning?
Activating schemataStarting group workPlanning learning
Click on the image to expand it.
think, use of L1, give roles, brainstorm, approach, process, vocabulary, give instructions, predict, ask questions, solve a problem, engage, hook, observer
Check your answers in the downloads section below. You can also check by reading the transcript of the video.
Now, imagine your learners have settled into their groups and have started to think about their activity. What would you do next? Would you ask your learners questions to encourage them to think about how they’ll do the activity? For example, you could say: How are you going to work out this calculation?
How do you help learners get started with their work during your lessons? Share your ideas with us in the comments section.
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Teaching Your Subject in English

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