How to Make Sure Students Get What They Need from Lesson One

Activities to give students vital language and practice from the very first class.

Although making sure students get something vital for their own communication from day one is especially important for ESP intensive courses such as summer courses, the tips below are at least as important for classes studying more general textbook-based classes who otherwise might dive straight into something they hardly need at all.

Ways of making sure students get something useful straightaway include:

  • Needs analysis before the first lesson
  • Guessing what students are likely to need
  • A big review of language, following up on what they find difficult
  • Flexible tasks

Needs analysis before the first lesson

Even if you still plan to do needs analysis during and/or after the first class, that shouldn’t stop you from finding out as much as you can about the students before they arrive in your classroom. Possibilities include:

  • Having a system of handing over from teacher to teacher
  • Having a system of collecting information during the level check and registration process
  • Talking to or emailing a previous teacher
  • Contacting whoever is paying for the course, e.g. the HR department of the students’ company
  • Emailing the students directly with a questionnaire

If you feel like the last of those might be too pushy in some way, you could ask a member of customer services who might contact the students for other reasons anyway to send the questionnaires out for you. As you won’t be there to explain what the questions mean, it makes sense to also send the questionnaires in the students’ own language.

Guessing what students are likely to need

This can be done by thinking about:

  • First language
  • Things usually taught badly (e.g. in their school system)
  • Area of work or studies
  • Other common needs (perhaps partly based on age)

Examples of the last two include people in finance always being able to learn something useful about how to pronounce numbers and the language of trends, and knowing that most students of a certain age are most interested in English for holidays abroad.

Things that all students have problems with include determiners, dependent prepositions, phrasal verbs and formality/politeness – but I’d probably not deal with any but the last of those in a first lesson in case it scared them off coming back for a second class! For the same reason I’d probably not do a big review of typical mistakes such as false friends or Franglais etc in the first class in case they become too scared to open their mouths from then on!

Language reviews

This might sound even worse than a first lesson on a/an/the, but in fact as long as you set the level so that it is mainly revision with one or two new points this can be a much more manageable way of making sure they get some language they need. Some EFL textbooks such as Headway Upper Intermediate have started doing this with a tense review in Unit 1, but you can also do the same with a review of the phonemic chart, an introduction to genre differences in writing, or a review of polite and casual forms of different functions (apologising, inviting, etc). You can then follow up on whatever they have most problems with later in the lesson and/or in future lessons. You can combine this with the approach above by guessing which of the tenses, functions etc students are likely to have most problems with and so being most ready to follow up those points.

Flexible tasks

This takes a lot of setting up but has become my preferred approach recently, especially with students who are likely to have real (and differing) needs for English.

Usually straight after talking about their general needs for English in a pairwork needs analysis interview stage, students explain one typical situation in which they are likely to need English (preferably one they need some help with), then roleplay that exchange with their partner taking the role of the person they are really likely to have to communicate with. For example, they highlight “complaining to hotel staff” as a likely tricky future situation, and so practise doing that as a face-to-face or telephone conversation. They can then ask their partner and/or teacher for how they could get through the exchange in a more suitable way. This even works with emailing (likely to be one of the most common everyday uses of English for your students), with students orally roleplaying the email and response exchange.

The last time I did this in class was with a high-level Business English class who had a textbook but also plenty of class time to do things more specific to their needs. They interviewed each other in pairs with a pairwork interview form then a list of likely needs (“teleconferencing”, “thanking”, “giving speeches”, “small talk”, etc) in case they forgot to mention something. They then explained one particular situation to the same partner and roleplayed it with that person, with the worksheets and my comments making it clear that the roleplays could also include the common situations of telephoning, teleconferencing and emailing. After a chance to ask first their partner and then me for input on how they should deal with such situations, they did a worksheet on specific language for telephoning, emailing and face-to-face communication. I also had a roleplay game set up for them in which they select from a list of similar roleplays and then select the mode of communication that they think would be most suitable to quit their job, tell their waiting colleagues that they actually weren’t going to be able to make it for drinks, etc. As there was no time for this in the first class, we did a version of it in the second class with the final roleplay linking to the first use of the textbook. Their first homework was to write up one of the exchanges for me to correct and give other feedback on.

Written by Alex Case for July 2013
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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