“If you think your behaviour isn’t controlled by norms, think again”
(Oyster, 2000, in Dörnyei and Murphey, 2003:35)
Welcome to a new academic year, new courses, new groups and new rules! There are certain essentials we are always keen to establish in my first few lessons – rapport, group cohesion, expectations, typical roles and routines, and so on. Overt discussion of these rules / norms is a crucial early course task: as Dörnyei and Murphey (2003:35) note these can be “social” (about how the students and teacher relate to each other) or “procedural” (about how things get done in the classroom). This task is based on an opinion-gap (via an “Opinion Dictation”): students evaluate and negotiate the rules or norms they value. It is designed to be flexible in terms of content – an extensive list of possible rules is provided (see Worksheet 2), including ones that make general sense, and ones that are controversial or not applicable to all contexts. Select from these as seem most appropriate for your different contexts, depending on age, level, cultural considerations, whether you are teaching offline or online, and if online, synchronously or asynchronously. But select at least some that may challenge your students, and that they may not all agree with, in order to stimulate the discussion and gently create the opinion-gap the task needs.
- Ask the students some questions to establish the topic. These could be questions such as: should a teacher be strict or not strict? Why? Who should make the rules for a course – the teacher, students or both? What are some important areas for rules? If you have time, this could be done in rooms, but can function as a brief open class activity.
- See if the students know what a class contract is – I suggest googling “sample class contract” to find a context-appropriate / clear image to share with the group in order to show them. You could ask them if they agree with all the rules in the contract (though don’t jump the gun – there will plenty of this in the main task!). Let the students know you plan to collaboratively discuss / write up a contract for the group in this lesson and then write it up for homework. This will then be reviewed in the next lesson (see Variations and Extension below for a different approach to staging this).
- Tell the students you will be reading out a few sentences connected to rules for the classroom; each sentence will be read twice. The first time, they should decide how much they agree or disagree with the sentence (see Worksheet 1, Opinion Dictation Grid). The second time they should listen and write 2 or 3 key words from the sentence. These should be placed somewhere along the row indicating their level of agreement (see the example, where the 3 key words teacher makes rules are placed to the far left, indicating strong disagreement). These key words are there to help them reconstruct the sentences later (before they debate them).
- Do the example on the worksheet to demonstrate e.g. the teacher should make all the rules. Ask them where they would put this: box 1 for strongly disagree, 5 for strongly agree, or somewhere in between. Share the grid on your screen to show them where you put it (as noted above, I’ve selected box 1 for strongly disagree here, as the spirit of this task is that norms are to be negotiated by everyone in the group). When ready, share the Opinion Dictation Worksheet document with the students (e.g. through the chat function).
- Now read out a number of “rules” to the students (see Worksheet 2, Sample Rules Lists); there are four lists reflecting level and current situation (online / face-to-face) so select one or more from each topic relevant to your context. How many you select in total will depend on the time you have, but I would suggest between 5 and 10 (any more than this is likely too many); also, consider including those that focus on both teacher and student behaviour. With adult GE classes, topics such as homework, punctuality, correction, use of L1 are popular areas of debate; since moving online, establishing norms regarding use of cameras and mics are very important (e.g. as a rule I prefer cameras to be on at all times, but not all students do, so I will negotiate phases of lessons when they are can be switched off). If you are teaching face-to-face, you may find it useful to include ones about appropriate distancing, masks and so on. Hopefully the lists will inspire some relevant ideas.
- Put the students in rooms / groups to reconstruct and debate the sentences (if it is easier to manage, you can stage this so that the rules are reconstructed from the key words first, then checked by you, and then the discussion happens). Their goal in the discussion is to share opinions and reasons for these, and to agree on around five “new rules” with their partners that they would like to establish for the course (e.g. both the teacher and the students should make rules for the classroom). They should also make a note of sentences where they disagree, as these can be further discussed as a whole group in step 5. Allow a good amount of time here. Monitor the rooms / groups and help with any language or other queries, as well as noting points of general agreement and disagreement to help you focus the feedback slot.
- In feedback, either go through the sentences one by one or start with ones where there was broad agreement, and then move on to ones where there was less agreement. Ask students to justify their ideas, especially where you perhaps do not fully agree e.g. why do you believe the teacher should correct you all the time? How will you feel if I correct every mistake while you are speaking? (I’d avoid being too leading here – share your views honestly while still making it clear the rules are being established collaboratively).
- By the end of feedback, each student / group should have an idea of at least five rules they want to establish, and possibly more. For homework, ask the students to use the template to write these up (see Worksheet 3, New Rules Template – alter this to reflect how many rules you want them to write). Remind students to make rules for both the teacher and for students. You will do the same, and then come back to these next lesson (see New Rules: part 2 – https://fluencyfirstelt.blog/2020/09/08/13-new-rules-part-2-the-one-with-google-docs/).
Modals and semi-modals, grammatical and lexical, and imperatives, for expressing rules and norms: the teacher has to correct all the mistakes; we should do homework only once a week; let’s play a game once a lesson.
Language for giving reasons / justifying: it’s important for the teacher to be prepared because / as / since….; students should arrive on time so we can check homework together.
Agreeing, disagreeing and negotiating: great idea; yes, let’s choose this; I don’t think it’s so important; I’m not sure about that; maybe if we change this to once per week?
Language for comparison: I think it’s more important to be on time; correcting only sometimes is better than correcting all the time.
Lexis related to the classroom and learning: to make / write / establish rules / a class contract / norms; to correct students; to do the homework (regularly / on time / thoroughly); to be on time / punctual / late; to use L1 / your mother tongue; to be respectful, cooperative, professional, (not too) strict; to show interest (in each other).
Lexis related to online learning: to turn on / off microphones, cameras; the chat function / box; to share documents / links.
Lexis related to learning in person during the pandemic: social distancing / to be socially distanced; to wear / use a mask (properly); to wash your hands; to bring / use hand sanitiser; protective equipment.
Variations and Extension:
- The contract writing is staged: the idea here is that the rules are established orally in the lesson, and that students then go on to write up their own draft contracts for homework, as does the teacher, before using these to collaboratively write the final contract in the next lesson (see part 2, coming soon). But if you have time and are ready to, then you can of course simply write up the contract together in this lesson.
- You could simplify the whole lesson by removing the opinion dictation. Instead, ask the students to look at the Sample Rules List and choose e.g. the 5 or 6 most important. Then have them agree in pairs / groups on 8-10 that they want to keep (these can of course be modified too).
- When students have selected their top rules in groups, listen to them, and tell them the ones you are not 100% sure you agree with. Ask students to explore why you as a teacher might not agree with them.
Dörnyei, Z. and Murphey, T., 2003. Group Dynamics in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.