Considering Time


During a recent class, I volunteered to convert a Works Cited page from circa 2010 to MLA 8. To me it was clearly something I should do as assistant teacher, freeing up the lead teacher to do more “teacherly” things. My idea was that I’d complete this task while the students were on their break.

The Task

Five citations (two websites, a book, and a magazine). 10 minutes.

Citation generator or the Purdue OWL guides by hand? With so little time, I went with Purdue rather than trusting the first citation-maker I tried to work.

Probably a bad choice.

One tiny screen. Three windows to juggle, plus tabs. I swear I spent more time trying to find the right window with the right information than actually updating the citations. At no point was I able to fully concentrate. It was unpleasant.

I got it done in about 15 rushed minutes. And by “done,” I mean that I improved them all but made many small errors in the process.

On Screwing Up

We went over it in class, the students pointed out my errors and the teacher updated the document further.

It was fine. The students got value out of correcting my work and we ended up with a correct document to reference.


  • It was embarrassing. I’m one of the instructors and I got their exercise wrong.
  • I tell my students all the time that their mistakes are valuable and encourage them to move past being embarrassed.
  • This would have all been avoided if I hadn’t been rushing.
  • When I’m lead teaching, I rush my students through in-class assignments all the time. Often on clunky school computers, often on software they’re not familiar with, always in a distracting classroom, always in their L2.

So I now have some more empathy for my students when they dislike screwing up in class.

And I have more empathy for my students when they’re trying to produce zero-error work in an impossible amount of time.


A New York Times cooking article referred to heat as The Invisible Ingredient in Every Kitchen.

I’m now wondering if time is the invisible element in every lesson plan.

The parallels are there: each is something we inherently rely on, that we don’t necessarily plan around and sometimes fudge, and in a way only notice when it’s not available.

Rushing is just not conducive to the detail work required in accuracy practice. Rushing creates stress, and stress is a great way to activate your affective filter / lizard brain.

And while I do consider time to some extent in my lesson planning, it’s been sort of an arbitrary measure on the side.

What would change if I upgraded it to a primary lens when I’m planning?

How could this be compatible with working with a syllabus?

What do you think?


Photo Credit: Jean L on Flickr

You’re reading Considering Time, originally posted at




Chain Drill, Then What?

824790108_cfa46756ed_nOne super fun grammar activity to use in class is called the Chain Drill. Basically, students take turns in order asking and responding to the same formulaic prompt. Each student’s turn connects to the next, like links in a chain. Read more about chain drills here.

I love chain drills. I love how they get students up out of their seats, and how they are accuracy practice that also engage students’ speaking and listening.

After a chain drill, we’re all smiling, we’re all energized, we’re usually all feeling a step closer to mastery… and then I sometimes lose that momentum.

So… here are three ideas for how to follow a chain drill in class.

1. Another Chain Drill

…but let the students construct it! This might be a good choice if the class is accustomed to chain drills already. It also might fit well in a session that had several grammar points, such as a review day. Have the students decide what point to practice, what the structured piece of grammar is (i.e. were/was, is/am/are, forming Present Continuous, etc.), what the context is (i.e. “How old _______?”), etc.

2. Structured Dialogs

Have some related scenarios ready. Have students pair off and practice some dialogs that are closely related to the point you practiced in the chain drill. It’s similar, but with more opportunities to speak.

3. Fluency Practice

If it went well, why not let the students build upon their high energy and success and practice using the grammar in a less structured way?

This is a fairly general idea, and the details depend heavily on what you’re studying. For example, if you’re in a jobs unit and practicing questions like, “What do you do?,” you can have students interview each other about their own jobs. Perhaps record short answers in a grid?


A chain drill is a great activity, and I recommend seeing it as one step toward additional communicative practice.


Photo Credit: rachaelvoorhees on Flickr

You’re reading Chain Drill, Then What?, originally posted at

Journal: Hello, Metacognition!

Metacognition just means “thinking about thinking.”  Or in the case of my class yesterday, learning a bit more about how they learn.

It was time to revisit our revised learning schedule (longish computer time twice a week, and a longer lesson twice a week ending in conversation) after a one-week trial.  The students were telling me what they liked, what was so-so, and what was terrible about this new schedule.

We did decide to stick with it for another four weeks and then revisit it again.  But along the way, one of the students said that she thought conversation time was terrible because during it, they speak broken English instead of correct English.

At this point, I took a risk.  I reminded them that I’m a student, studying to get my Master’s in teaching ESL.  People study students and how they learn.  I taught them something I learned.

There are two different speaking skills: speaking correctly, and speaking fluently.  It was easy for them to understand the former; I demonstrated the latter and explained that fluent meant smooth, easy, and with not much thinking.

I drew a line between the two on the board.  I told them that you can’t practice both at the same time.  They are different.  They can do both in Spanish and Korean and Chinese because they’ve known them for a long time.  But when you’re learning, you can’t be correct and fluent together.

I told them that if we only study speaking correctly, after five years they’ll sound like this: “Excuse me……………..where………… no are………………..the………………………pants.”  (It sounded even more awkward than it looks!)  It’s correct, but it’s not comfortable and it’s not fluent.

So it’s actually important to make some mistakes in conversation time, because that means you can practice being more fluent.  I explained that in every lesson, I tried to give them time to practice being correct and time to practice being fluent. 

I know my class pretty well, and I wasn’t seeing baffled bewilderment on their faces, nor was I hearing distracted side conversations.  I should have checked for understanding better than I did, but I have reason to believe that they were with me.  Very cool.

Later, when we moved from an accuracy activity to a fluency activity, I pointed it out.  I used my hands to show them that in the first activity, I wanted high accuracy and low fluency, but in the next activity I wanted more fluency so they could worry about accuracy a bit less (not zero though!).

Maybe this was the key to overcoming my natural hesitance to use a lot of fluency activities: the class now knows some learning theory too, so I have to be sure I don’t lean too heavily toward accuracy!

Activity Corner: Chain Drill

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. UpdateSee all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

The purpose of a chain drill is for students to practice accuracy with a very targeted language point through speaking and listening.  It is usually interactive in a very prescriptive way.  It also usually involves sitting or standing in a circle, which means that it changes students’ locations a bit, which is always good.

The title “Chain Drill” sounds extremely serious and perhaps a little sinister, but it usually feels more like a game.

On Tuesday 10/26 we used a chain drill to practice asking and answering the question, “How old ___ _____ _____?” or for example, “How old are your parents?”

We sat in our chairs in a circle.  I told them that we would be practicing asking “How old is “  someone in their family and answering, “(s)he is 40.”

I turned to the student to my right.  I asked, “How old is your mother?”  She answered, “She’s 70.”  Great!  Now the student who answered me asked the student to her right, “How old is your [father]?”.  The questions and answers continued around the whole circle.

Then we changed the task a little.  This time, we asked and answered using “How old are” questions about multiple people in the family.  For example, “How old are your siblings?”

That’s it!

This is a great activity for practicing verb tenses and verb declinations, simple scripted questions and answers (Hi, how are you?  Fine, and you?), and simple genuine questions and answers (What was your major in college?  Biology.)

One modification is to also use a “random relevant word generator”, A.K.A. a hat that you’ve put some appropriate words into.

For example, when I wanted my summer Intermediate class to practice asking questions in Present Continuous, I used a hat full of verbs.  On a student’s turn, he picked a verb from the hat and asked the student to his right a question using it in Present Continuous.

Related Article: Chain Drill, Then What?

Related Article: Activity Corner Round-Up


You’re reading Activity Corner: Chain Drill, originally posted at