White shirt overload: choosing appropriate practice activities

Published on 16th September, 2010 in Teaching Tips by Frances Watkins

When planning your lesson, you may find it hard to differentiate between practice activities for a language-focused lesson. The coursebook and/or workbook may offer a selection, and you may also want to use an old favourite, perhaps self-designed, or one from a different coursebook, resource or supplementary book.

There is a natural tendency to grab everything related to the area willy-nilly, rather like snatching a particular clothes item you like in the frenzy of a clothes sale. The problem is that you are likely to end up with items that you do not really need; perhaps items that actually serve the same purpose. Pursuing the clothes metaphor, in my case I might end up with too many white ‘work’ shirts, only to realise later that I actually need a casual shirt, or even a pair of trousers!

The message here is to choose practice activities with care and with principles. As a trainer, I often observe a lesson full of practice activities which are essentially the same, serving the same purpose. The following points might help to identify valid activities:

• Is there a sense of progress between activities? Generally speaking, it is logical that the follow-on practice activities should be progressively more demanding of learners.

• Is there a feeling of continuity? Though not essential, this helps to create the sense of a whole, integrated lesson. This sense of continuity is usually gained by keeping to the same or a related topic. Working with the same language area per se is usually insufficient to give a sense of continuity.

• Is there a sense of balance and a diversity of focus? Whilst striving for continuity, one should ideally also aim to cover the topic from different angles: either by selecting different activity types or different skills, eg one could be spoken and one written.