Melissa Martin's article offers tips on how to approach teaching a first lesson with a new group.

Hello everybody. Can you perhaps help me with some good ideas on how to start a new group, what to do in the first lesson to create a lively atmosphere and if you have any good ideas for 'getting to know you' exercises. This is actually a pre-intermediate group I’m talking about.

I’ve been teaching for a while now, but first lessons are still a little nerve-wracking. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to receive needs analyses in advance. Occasionally they are accurate. What type of people will I meet? How well can they use English? Can they actually speak English? Will there be any difficult characters in the group? What are the students expecting from me? What can I reasonably expect from my students? The students will also have similar questions about you.

My first lesson with a new group always has the following aims:

  • Break the ice. You will be working with these students for a length of time. This is your chance to put them at ease and get to know them a bit. Remember, they may not know their classmates yet either.
  • Language analysis. Student A may have achieved 100% on his written needs analysis, but how much can he actually use? Conversely, does Student B’s mark of 40% mean that he’s a weak student, or did he just panic at the test?
  • Needs analysis. This is especially important for ESP lessons. I specialize in Business English, where the first questions are always: ‘What do the students actually need English for?’ and ‘What are they having to (try to) do already?’

Breaking the ice

The students are usually curious about their teacher, especially if you are a native speaker and a 'foreigner'. My first activity is usually a guessing game about me. I write my name in the centre of the board and then surround this with about six or seven names, places, numbers and words connected to me. By asking closed questions, the students have to guess how these words are connected to me, e.g. “Were you born in Durham?” The students are motivated by trying to find out more about their teacher and with the challenge of guessing the relevance of all the terms. I try to make some of the terms slightly ambiguous, e.g. ’40’ is my German shoe size, not my age, and ’Queen’ has nothing to do with Elizabeth II but it is my favourite band.

Informal language analysis

Once they’ve solved my puzzle, I give the students a few minutes to write their own, then put them into small groups to do the same exercise again. This is a good opportunity for the students to get to know each other, which promotes a good working atmosphere. I monitor the groups at this stage, intervening occasionally, but mostly listening to the language being used. This activity tests nearly every tense structure. I initially focus on finding out if the students can actually do the task and then on how accurately they can do it. Whilst engrossed in the task, the students will be using English naturally and this is a far more accurate measure of their ability than a staged ’speaking test’. I also look at the group dynamics: are certain groups working particularly well together? Is one person over-dominant in a group? Is this because of level differences or personality?

Once the students have completed the exercise, I get them to report back to the rest of the class, telling their classmates one interesting fact about someone in their group. I will have collected a few language errors whilst monitoring the groups, which I write on the board and get the class to try and correct together. I try to pick common errors so that several people can benefit from the corrections. I am also interested as to whether the students realize they have made an error – often students have a passive knowledge of grammatical structures which isn’t fully activated yet. The errors are kept anonymous and the students generally appreciate this feedback.

This activity allows the students to get to know you and each other, which creates a good working atmosphere for the course. It can also be used at nearly every level and gives the students lots of scope to show how well they can really communicate.

Needs analysis

The next stage of the lesson is a needs analysis. I give the students a framework with various questions they need to consider about their English language needs. Questions I have found particularly useful are:

  • What do I need to do in English now?

I have found this far more effective than asking for specific language areas. If the student needs to give presentations in English, I know to include fluency and persuasive language in the course. If the student needs to telephone colleagues in English, I know to include role-plays, listening activities and survival strategies.

  • What might I need to do in English in the future?

Some students already know how their jobs and duties are likely to change in the future. This is also a useful question for students considering a particular career.

  • What do I find difficult in English?

This question tends to introduce the language areas the students feel they struggle with and can reveal which of the four main skills you will need to concentrate on during the course.

  • What don’t I want to do in this course and why?

This is actually a remarkably revealing question. Some students who haven’t had English lessons since their school days have bad memories of dictations, being called in front of the class and humiliated, or completing endless gap-fill exercises with no practical implications. It is useful for a teacher to know about these experiences and to be able to assure the students that your lessons will be different. It also indicates whether a student has a fear of grammar, which leads on to a useful discussion on the importance of accuracy versus fluency (an essay in itself) and how much the teacher should correct.

  • What do I find interesting about learning English?

It is always useful to know what your students enjoy about learning English! Maybe you can incorporate some of the ideas in future classes.

  • What can I do to teach myself outside the class?

This is a natural opportunity to talk about the importance of homework, share vocabulary learning tips and introduce the students to the wealth of English language resources available locally and via the Internet.

The students complete the framework alone, then share the answers in pairs or small groups. This helps them clarify vocabulary and finalize ideas before we all share together. I also ensure that they are in different groupings to the previous activity to experiment with the group dynamics a little.

Finally, the students feedback the results of these frameworks to the whole group. I clarify any unclear areas and use the information to write up course aims on the flipchart. This gives the rest of the course a structure as well as allowing the students to see what their colleagues want and where their own wishes fit in with the course requirements. If the students know what to expect from their course, they will be more comfortable in lessons. This also avoids potential situations later in the course where you may have to explain to a dissatisfied student that you can’t do more sales role-plays in class because the other students are all engineers and don’t need sales training.

All that remains is to give the students their first homework activity, a mini essay entitled ‘My job for dummies’, where they have to explain their day-to-day activities in simple terms. This is a really useful exercise. Firstly, in Business English, students need to be able to explain their job on multiple occasions, so it helps them practise the vocabulary for this. Secondly, it means that I actually know what their business needs are and can equate these with the needs expressed in class. It also exposes any grammar and vocabulary weaknesses, so it’s an informal written needs analysis. The title can of course be adapted to the needs of the group, e.g. my university students write ‘A dummy’s guide to my degree’.

This lesson plan has evolved to create maximum opportunities for speaking practice for the students, informal written and spoken language analysis, the opportunity for the students to get to know you and their classmates, and a chance to clarify needs and expectations for the course. Due to the framework style of the lesson plan, there is flexibility depending on the students' ability, if the photocopier breaks down or more students turn up than expected, and you don’t have to worry about running out of copies!