Monday, 16 September 2013



I once knew a retired lawyer from a small, provincial town. Over a few whiskies he would me regale me with fascinating stories from his fifty years in the legal profession.  Some of the weird cases he’d handled, some of the mid-trial upsets he’d experienced, some of the inexplicable verdicts he’d seen. I’ll never forget one little story he told me. “If the defence attorney is making his closing speech, and he’s got you out-boxed, out-manoevered, and outsmarted, there’s always one last little trick you can pull out of the hat. Just as he reaches his final impassioned argument, the clinching point sure to swing the verdict in his favor, knock your glass of water over. There’s no need to make a sound, just frown and mop it up. You’ll have every eye in the courtroom fixed on you. The other guy’s beautifully honed argument is lost to the four winds. He may try backtracking and saying it again, but the moment has gone. You’ve taken the wind out of his sails completely and irrevocably.”

A lovely tale, and one that set me thinking about my own lessons. I’m about to wind up my brilliant explanation of tense-changes in reported speech, then Mr Han drops his notebook on the floor. The class’s attention immediately switches from me to Mr Han’s little predicament. I may as well be talking to a herd of cattle for all the good it’s doing me. Or I’m explaining the rules of a little warm-up activity that I’m about to launch, then a huffing and puffing Robert arrives late for class. Forget the warm up, just look at poor Robert!

Your average class’s attention-span is tenuous to say the least; one little distraction will have it evaporating before your very eyes. So, how to ensure you hold the students’ riveted attention, and keep them on-track  for a full two hours? Good question. Here’s a few suggestions.
Variety. Alternate challenging language with language already learnt. Present them with little surprises. Don’t always follow the same old routine. Change the seating configuration mid-class. When doing repetition drills, have them saying it normally, then shouting it, then whispering or singing it. Keep up a brisk pace. Toss in a tongue-twister. Inject little bits of silliness into the lesson. There’s nothing students like more. “OK, Group A bark like a dog, Group B miaow like a cat. Award a lollipop to the best barker and the best miaower. And another idea – oh shit, I’ve just spilt my glass of water, goddam it, and I’ll have to go and mop it up.


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