Last year, for the first time ever I was given the opportunity to teach C1 level students. This year half of my students are of this level, which gives me a lot of chances of developing my way of teaching and revising advanced grammar.
Even though teaching advanced students comes with many challenges, it feels quite rewarding and allows me to “spread my wings” and let my imagination run wild when it comes to lead-ins and storytelling. One of my C1 level groups follows the newest edition of Open World by Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Assessment (2020). One of the first topics is the use of past tenses in anecdotes. Initially, I enjoyed the lead-in suggested in the teacher’s book, but after some thinking, I decided to put a personal spin on it.
I’m a huge believer in sharing my personal stories and life events to enhance the teaching experience. I think that it builds a stronger bond between the teacher and students and helps the students open up. I try to create a safe space and let everyone know that they can feel comfortable talking to me about anything.
So here goes nothing! Let me share my anecdote with you, how I used it on this particular occasion and my post-class reflection. In the end, I came up with three additional ways in which this anecdote could be improved to make my next class more engaging and educational.
I started by eliciting one obvious thing about me – I wear glasses every day. My students know about it as they’ve never seen me without them. Then I proceeded by telling them that it wasn’t always the case…
What you need to know about me before I start, is that a few years ago I didn’t use to wear glasses because I was afraid that it would make me look unattractive. Let me tell you a story about the time I went on a date and…spoilers alert – it didn’t go well.
I had met this guy a week prior when one of my friends had called me and asked if he could come over with a friend for a drink. I had been living in a house with a big terrace – a perfect location to meet up for a casual drink. They had come over, we had had some drinks. It was late in the evening so I couldn’t see them well, but the conversation had been flowing and I’d clicked with this new guy. We had exchanged phone numbers and decided to meet up again later.
I was getting ready for the date and talking to my flatmate. “I haven’t been on a date in forever! I’m so nervous.” She gave me a pep talk and reassured me that it was going to be just fine. I asked her one more time if I should wear my glasses and she told me that it was going to ruin the whole outfit. I agreed and left the house.
As I was approaching the cinema, I squinted and saw a blurry figure holding flowers in a distance. I hadn’t expected any romantic gestures, but sure, people are different. I waved at him and he waved back at me – it must have been him. As I was getting closer and the image was getting clearer, I realized that this wasn’t the face that I remembered. This guy was missing a tooth in the front! I thought to myself, “Was I that intoxicated when I met him?”. I was sure that I would have remembered this small detail.
I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to do nothing. “Just go with it and then ghost him”, I thought to myself. To my surprise, he smiled at me and said, “I’ve been waiting for you!” He gave me the bouquet and went in for a hug. As we were hugging, I heard someone behind me clearing the throat and then felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and saw the guy I had met at my house. To my relief, he had all his teeth and it was just one big misunderstanding.
Regardless, the date went poorly. We met up one more time and stopped talking to each other altogether. Maybe the date with the toothless guy would have been more successful. Ever since then, I’ve been wearing glasses religiously.
Unfortunately, it is a true story that I enhanced just a little bit to make it more engaging and valuable for my students. First of all, I used all the language that I wanted to revise. Since it is a story for advanced students, I want to focus on the use of past tenses. The story includes Past Simple, Past Continuous, Past Perfect Simple, Past Perfect Continuous, used to (contrasted with Present Simple to talk about past and present habits), Present Perfect Simple and Present Perfect Continuous. I used the last two tenses in a direct speech to keep their original form. Additionally, I wanted to include some extra vocabulary such as pep talk, to ghost or to do something religiously, as well as the language used to emphasise the disability caused by the lack of glasses (e.g. squinted).
My story was followed by the drawing as seen above. My classes were online, so I used a digital whiteboard to draw the events on a timeline. I’m more skilled at drawing on paper than on a touchpad. After some post-class thinking, I redid it with some pictures to make the anecdote stand out a little bit more.
After the class came the reflection time. I had some immediate thoughts in class but decided to proceed with the original plan. In total, I came up with four different ways in which this story could be used to introduce and teach past tenses.
Just start the class by telling the story and letting your students immerse themselves in it. It’s beneficial as it feels more like a friendly talk and not a part of the class. One of my students was so into the story that she kept interjecting short phrases (Oh my God! No way?! Really?! What did you do?!), and we ended up having a follow-up questions session. Once you finish the story, ask your students to help you retell it and plot it on a timeline. Make sure that you put them in the correct order and write short sentences proving their order. That was the approach I took, and even though it worked well, in hindsight, I think next time I get to tell the story, I will use a different method – more grammar centred with a clear follow-up task.
Hand out the timeline with events already written down or with pictures instead of words. Ask your students to work in pairs and discuss what happened. Students can tell the story using different tenses. Then you can tell the complete story and see if your students got it right.
Give main events from the story in the infinitive or past form and ask to put them in order. Tell the story and check if they were able to predict the order of events. Draw the timeline and emphasize the order and the use of past tenses. Here are examples of sentences that could be used in this activity:
- go on a date
- get ready
- meet a boy through a mutual friend
- see a blurry figure of a person
- get a phone call from a friend
- hug a man
- feel a tap on a shoulder
- not wearing glasses
- receive flowers
- exchange phone numbers
- approach the cinema
Either give a written version of the story or tell it like before. Students listen and put the events in the correct order on a timeline. I think that this is my favourite method, which I’ll gladly try out next time I have a chance. In my opinion, it tests the understanding of tenses and will let you check the knowledge gaps that you need to address and focus on in your class.
We ended this part of the class with some grammar practice exercises and oral practice. I gave a few minutes of thinking time for the students to prepare their anecdotes and share them with the rest of the group. This activity could be expanded again by listening and timeline plotting. In bigger groups, you can try telling the story to one student and play Chinese whisper to see how the story changes.
How would you improve this activity? How do you introduce and teach past tenses? Let me know!