Ask Elaine: Just Started out Teaching? What to Do First

Ask Elaine: Just Started out Teaching? What to Do First

Work/Life English's founder, Elaine Kirn-Rubin, has over 40 years of experience teaching, developing, and publishing effective English language learning and teaching tools. Send us an email below if you want your question covered in the next "Ask Elaine" post! 

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So you’ve just gotten a teaching job and are meeting a class for the first time? Or you’re suddenly expected to substitute for another instructor, present a last-minute teacher-training workshop, or direct an eager conversation group. What do you do first?

 Starting to teach English

The Old "Traditional Instruction" Produces Mailaise

As a student, helper, presenter, or teacher, have you ever approached a new educational situation with high expectations and excitement—and been turned off by the way the first session was (required to be) conducted? Typically, in “olden days,” a professor/administrator introduced the program in a monotone, took role, handed out a syllabus, listed what to buy, answered a few questions about term papers or credits, and dismissed class early because there was “nothing else to do.” Even a presentation or workshop that began that way could change the tone from anticipatory to lethargic, sedating attendees before the content even had a chance to shine or incite interest. That’s because most people prefer involvement and/or doing something to being talked at without emotion. 

In a curriculum of longer duration, perhaps the Course Title + NumberLocationMeeting Times, Subject Matter or Proposed Goal, or other data has to come first—just to ensure that newcomers are where they’re meant to be. But this information can appear on a large sign or board, onscsreen, on phones, or somewhere else that's visible to all. The “trick” is to engage people immediately, without subjecting them to the usual oral “yada yada yada” accompanied by intimidating amounts of text that make little sense.  

Remember—for anxious language learners, especially those with less than perfect hearing, it’s most often listening comprehension that’s the hardest skill to master. Being confronted with long streams of language produces tension from the start. For this reason, it’s important to use tools that involve participants right away—long before any negative expectations have a chance to set in. One of the most popular of these is called “Information Bingo,” an activity that has worked well with Basic– to Advanced-Level English or foreign-language students in classrooms, attendees drawn to sessions at Teachers of English conventions, networking organizations, and even informal conversation groups at (Senior) Community Centers who have come together to interact, learn, and advance their abilities. Procedures + Variations of this generic concept are detailed in Idea H of Doing Without the Photocopier, pp. 25-27.  Of course, it could be renamed “Getting Going from the Get Go,” “Getting to Know You,” “It’s All About Doing,” “A First Technique That Always Works,” or something else that attracts people’s immediate attention and inspires interest.    

Demonstrate (Don't Talk About) What to Do

Set-up comes first, obviously. With lines or by folding a piece of blank paper, each participant creates a Bingo Board that consists of the same number of rectangles vertically as horizontally. The number of boxes should reflect the size of the group.  For instance, for fewer than ten participants, each board should contain nine rectangles; for eleven to twenty, sixteen would be best. In larger groups, each Bingo Board can contain 25—or even 36—separate rectangles. Before they are filled in, this is how Boards on 8.5 x 11” sheets of paper might look, turned horizontally:  

To create their Bingo Boards, all players circulate around the room at the same time. They ask each person they meet these two questions: 

  • What’s your name? How do you spell it?

If there’s time, if learners are more advanced in their oral language skills, and/or if participants already know one another somewhat, they can add one or more “getting acquainted” questions, such as:

  • Where are you from?Tell me one interesting thing about your home town, state, or country.
  • What do you do for a living? Why did you choose that job? What do you like or dislike most about it?
  • Tell me one unique or special thing about yourself that will help us remember you.

In one of the boxes of his/her Bingo Board, each participant writes notes on the answers received from one person. He/She continues meeting people as fast or as comfortably as possible. A partially filled-in B might look like this:

In groups in which participants already know one another—or in workshops for specific purposes, all that needs to be changed is the content of the Bingo Boards. For example, participants can ask about and reveal why they are therewhat their greatest challenge iswhat they have to offer otherswhat they need most, or the like. 

Now Play “The Game”

The group reconvenes. The instructor or leader introduces one participant, probably with a phrase like “I’d like to introduce . . . . ” or “I want you to meet . . . . ” If Bingo Boards contain more information than just names, he/she summarizes that data, too. Players mark the space with that person’s name (and info) on their Bingo Boards. The player just presented then introduces (and tells about) someone whose name is on his/her Board, and listeners mark that person’s space if they have it. The second participant introduced then names and tells about someone else, and so on. Soon, players will catch on to “game strategy.” When it is their turn to introduce someone, they will choose a name that gives them or gets them closer to Bingo

The first person to mark all the boxes of a Bingo line (across, down, or diagonally) is the winner if he/she can pronounce all the marked names, identify those people, and tell at least one relevant fact about each person. Of course, there are many possible and enjoyable follow-up activities for this game—during the same session and/or in subsequent meetings of the same group. 

So how’s that for an immediate first activity to set the tone of a class, group, workshop, or learning experience by staving off disinterest, yawns, boredom, inertia, indifference, gloom, stupor, and failure?  Simply replace it with innovative, motivating, engaging fun!

Variations of “Introduction Bingo” appear in Greetings & Names Mini-AcquaintedBook, which also contains a variety of other “Getting  Games,” such as Name Chains, Name Rhythm, Self-Intro Circles, and nine other creative ideas.  And of course, there are many, many ideas for “Icebreakers” in language and other classes or groups. . 



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Work/Life English is an experienced provider of fun, effective English language improvement content that advances the lives of native English and English as a Second Language (ESL) speakers by improving their English competence, comprehension, and communication skills.  For more information, visit:

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