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Teaching Tips 193

Short of time
Life on Mars
To prepare or not...


Short of time

For a couple of relaxing, uplifting moments in these times of austerity you might like to check out the following video from the Austerity AllStars:


It's Burns Night on the 25th, the anniversary of the poet Robert Burns' birthday, so you can find lesson material at:


A couple of weeks ago we briefly looked at the advantages & disadvantages of exam classes. I'm currently helping out on a 72 hour First Certificate exam course using the coursebook 'Spotlight on FCE' by Jon Naughton & John Hughes (Heinle). It's a good book for both preparing for the exam as well as maintaining interest through topics & materials.

The 72 hours are spread over two terms which, with 16 units in the book, means a unit every three classes, an awful lot of material to get through quite quickly, as the institution does expect the coursebook to be finished by the end of the course.
So how to approach this type of course that asks you to cover quite a lot in a limited time? Although there are no real answers to this, here are a few ideas to help:

- talk to the students about the nature of the course, the limited time & how you're going to approach it & what you expect of them. Discuss the amount of time they are going to have to spend working outside of the class & how they might best organise themselves. Have pep talks along the away about progress & strategies.

- assign lots of the coursebook tasks for homework. It is, after all, up to the students how much they study outside class & overall preparation for the exam.

- help the students discover their weak areas with regard to the exam so they devote more time to them. The Use of English & the Listening papers tend to need more attention that the others. Take these weak areas into account in the lessons as well.

- make sure all know how the book is organised so they can get the most from it. For example how the grammar reference is organised, where the writing guide is, the tape scripts etc..

- make a point of keeping things snappy & using time effectively, ie. not wasting time.

- carefully discriminate what is going to be covered in class so that there is still time for extra fun & extra oral practice tasks.

- give the students the answers so they can self-monitor their answers.

- set up & assign a writing assignment each week, get it back to them at the beginning of the next lesson with time for them to ask any questions about it.

- encourage the students to get hold of the audio cds so they can do some of these at home, & also re-listen to those done in class.

- set up study buddies - students partner with another & help each other out in the first place before going to the teacher.

- constantly review what is in each paper of the exam. If dealing with a listening task, elicit & clarify what is involved in this section, what's the task, & how best to go about completing it.

- set up an online support, for example the Moodle framework to provide exam info, links & extra material. If you interested in having you own Moodle, running as many courses as you want, go to:

There is an Exam Booster, the workbook to accompany the coursebook, but the students are not buying this as they have difficulty finding time for the work from the coursebook, let alone an extra book.

- be careful not to leave the weaker students behind - keep an eye out for those struggling & take appropriate action.

Having to get through material, as opposed to going at the students' own pace & according to their needs, can be very frustrating but with a little thought the course can try to become a more effective preparation for the exam.

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Mars Onerocket

Life on Mars

Mars Settlement

You may have heard the announcement of the Mars One project, a mission to send people to Mars in 2023. On the website there is a lot of information about the project including the application process for budding astronauts. They do say that it is probably a one-way trip!

'While it is possible that within the lifetime of the early settlers on Mars there will be opportunity to bring one or more back to Earth, it cannot be anticipated nor expected.'

Any nationality can apply & English is a prerequisite. Unfortunately the application procedure looks as if it's going to be tacky as, reading between the lines, it's already being mooted as an international reality show.

The website provides lots of interesting material to use in class. Here is a brief lesson plan for using the page 'What are the qualifications to apply?'

It makes the usual job application lessons a little more interesting.
Pdf copy of the lesson materials to distribute.

Although not noted, there are clearly opportunites for language work in the stages below - exploit to suit.

1. An interesting intro to the lesson would be to use Bowie's 'Life On Mars'. He has been in the news lately with the release of a new track. However 'Life On Mars' is quite old now so your students may not have heard it. You could simply play the first section once with the task - do you like the song & what's the title? I would not get too much into the lyrics as they are fairly obscure.

2. Introduce the idea of Mars One - some visuals would help focus everyone - a quick Google for images of Mars/Mars One > anyone heard about it? Tell them the bare bones of the project - see 'Humankind on Mars':

Ask them if they would like to join the team.

3. If you have time, you might now want to choose some of the text on the website for a reading before continuing with the application side of things. This would sink them even more into the topic.

4. Tell them they are going to read about 'Five Key Characteristics of an Astronaut', the profile of successful applicants. Ask them in pairs to storm ideas on what characteristics will be needed.

5. Get some feedback on their ideas & then give them the 5 characteristics on the board & ask them to discuss the practical applications of each - you may need to elicit the meanings of 'resiliency' & 'adaptability'. Pdf copy of the lesson materials to distribute.


1. Resiliency
2. Adaptability
3. Curiosity
4. Ability to Trust
5. Creativity / Resourcefulness

6. Get some feedback on their ideas & then ask them to match up the characteristics with the practical applications:

Practical Applications

You are flexible in how an issue / problem / situation is approached.
You are not constrained by the way you were initially taught when seeking solutions.
Your humor is a creative resource, used appropriately as an emerging contextual response.
You have a good sense of play and spirit of playfulness.
You are aware of different forms of creativity.

You trust in yourself and maintain trust in others.
Your trust is built upon good judgment.
You have self-informed trust.
Your reflection on previous experiences helps to inform the exchange of trust.

You adapt to situations and individuals, while taking into account the context of the situation.
You know your boundaries, and how/when to extend them.
You are open and tolerant of ideas and approaches different from your own.
You draw from the unique nature of individual cultural backgrounds.

You ask questions to understand, not to simply get answers.
You are transferring knowledge to others, not simply showcasing what you know or what others do not.

Your thought processes are persistent.
You persevere and remain productive.
You see the connection between your internal and external self.
You are at your best when things are at their worst.
You have indomitable spirit.
You understand the purpose of actions may not be clear in the moment, but there is good reason—you trust those who guide you.
You have a "Can do!" attitude.

7. Feedback on the answers - 1 - e, 2 - c, 3 - d, 4 - b, 5 - a.


8. Ask them to think how well they are suited to the criteria - personalisation - they discuss this in pairs/small groups.

9. Feedback & set up the writing - why they should be accepted as an astronaut on the project. Tell them that it does not matter that they really do not want to go! It is for the purpose of practising writing skills & for the speaking afterwards. Discuss how they might set it out - intro > relevant past experience > strengths (with reference to the characteristics above) > conclusion.

10. Stds write, go round helping out & correcting.

11. Stick the texts on the walls for all to wander round & read & then the class votes on the best three candidates for the mission.

12. Set up the interviews - using the writings the students take turns interviewing each other. You could have them sitting in two lines facing each other & then swap students round every few minutes. Monitor & take notes on +/not so well expressed language

13. Feedback on the interviews & the language used in the interviews, pats on the back & corrections.

14. Homework - you could set some reading homework - students look at specific pages & report back. This could be a jigsaw task with each student reading a different page & when they report back they explain the main/interesting points to each other to build up the whole picture. The FAQs would be good for this:

Also get the students to go along to 'Mars One Astronaut Application Updates' & fill in their details to receive new in English about the project.


The NASA game would fit in nicely here:

You have landed 80km off-course & need to get back to base. You have the following equipment:

Life raft - a self-inflatable floatation device
Two 45.5-kilogram (100-pound) tanks of oxygen -pressurized tanks of oxygen
Space blanket - a thin sheet of plastic material that is coated with a metallic reflecting layer
Lights with solar-powered rechargeable batteries - portable lights powered by solar batteries
Signal mirror - a handheld mirror
38 liters (10 gallons) of water - a container of water
First aid kit - a basic first aid kit with pain medication and medicine for infection
Food concentrate - dehydrated food to which water is added
Magnetic compass - a tool that uses a magnetic field to determine direction
Solar-powered radio receiver-transmitter - a communication tool powered by the sun
Map of the Moon's surface- a map showing the Moon's terrain
15 meters (about 50 feet) of nylon rope - manufactured rope
Parachute - a large piece of silk cloth
Space suit repair kit - materials to repair tiny holes in fabric
Box of matches - wooden sticks with sulfur-treated heads

The students need to rank the equipment in order of usefulness, 1>15. They can do this individually first, then pair up & come to an agreement on the top 10, then form 4s & re-negotiate on the top 8, then in 8s for the top 5. This task is called 'pyramiding' - lots of speaking & negotiating to come to agreements.

An 'expert's ranking & reasons:

1) Two 45.5-kilogram - (100-pound tanks of oxygen "With basically no atmosphere on the Moon, oxygen (O2) to breathe is the most pressing survival need. The average person needs about 0.84 kilograms (a little less than 2 pounds) of O2 per day."

2) 38 liters (10 gallons) of water -"Though we believe there is some water in the form of ice on the Moon, there is no liquid water. Water is essential to all life. Currently, each astronaut aboard the International Space Station (ISS) uses about 11 liters (3 gallons) of water daily."

3) Food concentrate - "Food concentrate is a good source of food and an efficient way to carry it."

4) Solar-powered radio receiver transmitter - "Hopefully people from the lunar outpost are looking for you while you are trying to reach them. A solar powered radio receiver-transmitter is important to maintain this communication."

5) First aid kit - "No matter where you are, a first aid kit is a good idea. Be sure you carry pain medication and medicine for infections."

6) Map of the Moon's surface - "A map of the Moon's surface is your primary way to identify your location and to help you navigate."

7) Space suit repair kit - "You cannot afford to have any tears in your space suit. Your suit protects you from harsh conditions while you make your way to the lunar outpost. The soil of the Moon (regolith) 'sticks' to space suits and equipment. It is very sharp, like tiny fragments of glass or coral, and can cut holes that put your life at risk."

8) 15 meters (about 50 feet) of nylon – rope "The nylon rope is useful in scaling cliffs or craters you may have to cross. To prevent injury or in case you cannot walk, rope is helpful for tying you to others."

9) Space blanket - "The space blanket helps reduce heat loss from a person's body. The reflective material reflects about 80 percent of the wearer's body heat back to the body. The reflected side is also used to prevent absorption of sunlight."

10) Signal mirror - "The signal mirror is an important way to communicate during the daylight. The Moon's daylight is brighter and harsher than Earth's. There is virtually no atmosphere to scatter the light, no clouds to shade it, and no ozone layer to block the sun burning ultraviolet light."

11) Lights with solar-powered - rechargeable batteries "These lights allow for night time travel. The nights on the Moon are brighter than nights on Earth, at least on the side of the Moon that is facing Earth. With its clouds and oceans, Earth reflects more light than the dark Moon rocks. Earthlight on the Moon is much brighter than moonlight on Earth."

12) Life raft - "A life raft is of little use for survival on the Moon. Although it could be used to drag heavy items, the sharp regolith would quickly puncture the raft."

13) Parachute silk - "Compared to other items, this item is of little use."

14) Magnetic compass - "The Moon has no global magnetic field, which makes a magnetic compass virtually useless."

15) Box of matches - "Matches are virtually useless on the Moon because there is little oxygen.

Taken from:

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To prepare or not...

You might be wondering if a public exam might be suitable for a particular group you are teaching. Students that you have been with you for a while, younger learners (& parents) who need to see the next step or those that seem to be 'stuck' at a level are ideal candidates for the exam that may add interest & motivation to the lessons & their learning.

Here are a few advantages to taking up an exam:

- the exam provides a common purpose to the group, all are working together towards the same outcome, healthy for the group dynamics.

- the exam usually provides a clear syllabus to follow - good for the advanced course where it is more difficult to design a clearly defined course to include all of the students.

- a good exam will prepare students for the outside world. Exams are much better designed these days to fit into what happens in the classroom & what the students are expected to do in the real world.

- autonomy & independence are part & parcel of the process as homework needs to be completed & exam practice carried out regularly. It is clear to all that the students themselves will be ultimately responsible for passing the exam.

- an exam at more advanced levels helps students overcome 'fossilisation'. This is when they have become stuck at a level, able to cope well enough, & exam work focusses them on accuracy & taking on board new language, increasing motivation & pushing the language level forward.

- the exam may have a good effect on the teaching, what is known as the 'washback effect'.

- success at an exam can be very motivating, especially at lower levels. Students studying for three years from complete beginner level then take the Cambridge PET exam have something to show for their effort. Motivation gets a kick-start towards the next exam further on.

And here are a few problems you may come up against:

- you may find yourself with a group that is really enthusiastic about the exam as a whole but one or two students who have no interest in the exam. Tricky, as you may have to persuade them of the usefulness of the exam-based lessons.

- you may find only one or two interested in the exam. You could give them extra work to do outside the classroom but this would mean more work for you as exam marking can be time-consuming.

- you may be unsure as to whether the majority will actually pass the exam you have in mind. Get someone with experience of the exam to assess the students before you make any decision. For some exams, the lower level ones, there should be no doubt as to whether
they will pass or not as it would be very demotivating for a low level student to fail an initial exam. For higher levels you need the balance of challenge & success.

- some students genuinely do not have time to study outside of class time.

- the students & the teacher may feel the fun & creativity has gone from the lessons. The negative connotations of an exam; boredom, silence, struggle - come to play. Of course it does not have to be this way - exam preparation can be lots of fun.

Whether you are teaching younger learners, the general adult course or business English students, there is a suitable exam for them but be careful you don't rush into a hasty decision that you might regret half way through the course.

If looking for an exam, I strongly recommend the Cambridge suite of exams:

You can be sure that they have worldwide recognition, reflect real-life language use, are available to sit in many places, accurately reflect proficiency levels & there are a lot of support materials available for teachers & learners.

An ideas book on teaching exam classes:

Exam Classes - Peter May (OUP)

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