Every teacher has had that class.
The one that just will not be quiet. The one where you turn back from writing three letters on the board, only to discover that total anarchy reigns and it takes fifteen minutes to wrestle the students back into their chairs. So the question is, why fight it? Students want to be active, they have a lot of energy, they don’t have any motivation to learn English, and they may not be getting a lot of free time to run around and blow off steam. There is no reason they can’t learn English while doing those things. In fact, pairing the two can lead to a whole lot of happy kids who now have a reason to speak English.
Now, before we dive into the how, it should be pointed out that this approach is not for every teacher or every class. If you don’t like sports this is probably not the best lesson approach for you. Chances are the students will know that you’re not interested and your attitude will affect how they approach the lesson. If your class is made up of students who have shown no interest in sports, you are just going to make your behaviour problem worse instead of better. If it’s the dead of winter in a cold country and you want to play soccer, you need to rethink what you hope to gain.
Combine Language with Sport for Excellent Results
Choosing Your Sport
This may well seem like a simple task but there is a lot to be considered when deciding what sport to build your ESL class or unit around. First, be sure to pick something that you like. Teaching a sport you hate playing and watching will be frustrating and you will not be able to do as great a job as you might have if you were teaching something for which you have a passion. Also, having to learn and teach a sport is not usually a recipe for success. It is hard to teach your students English when you are trying to figure out how the heck a specific rule is applied. Second, what is realistic given the available space and equipment? Does your school need some lead time to purchase some of the necessities? Third, don’t try to teach them American football. Just don’t. There are way too many rules and in every version that is worth playing there is at least some contact. Combine that with an effort to remember new English phrases and it’s a recipe for frayed tempers, injuries, and general chaos. Fourth, don’t try to teach soccer to a bunch of kids you see playing soccer every day. If you are teaching a sport they already know inside and out, they have no reason to listen to your explanations or learn the terms and phrases to play the game. Sports like ultimate frisbee are great because there is a lot of on-field communication, the equipment is relatively cheap, and the game can be as complicated or simple as you want it to be.
Secure Your Play Area and Equipment
This is relatively self-explanatory, but still an essential step. Before you get your students wound up over the prospect of playing a sport in English class, be sure that you have the place, equipment, and go-ahead to actually deliver.
Create a Framework
Everything hinges on this. Your framework does not have to be detailed, but it does need to be realistic. If your students are incredibly low level, trying to teach them the intricacies of special formation will likely be a waste of time. Lay out what basic concepts you want to teach and ensure that they all build on one another. Start with the basic rules and build through positions, strategy, formations, etc. to whatever level you feel your students can achieve. Planning everything in advance ensures that you don’t skip something and create total confusion. You can’t start teaching students a zone defense when they don’t know the term end-zone.
Identify the Language Learning Points
Never lose sight of the fact that this is still English class (it’s easy to get caught up being a coach instead of an English teacher). Each lesson has to either present new language, practice old language, or both. Look at your framework and jot down the main vocabulary and phrases they will need for each step. This will form the basis of your language learning points. Of course the basic rules of the game come first. Simplify them as much as possible and teach the necessary vocabulary before you lay out the rules. Low level classes may also require partial translations of the rules to get the whole thing started. Rather than trying to explain all of the rules at once, select those that are essential to playing the game and focus on making sure those are understood. Next, identify what language they are going to need while playing. This is what they will be most interested in learning as it has an immediate application that they can see. Much of what they are going to learn early in the process will be vocabulary. As an example, a class about ultimate would start with the basic equipment, field size, end-zone, disc, foul, travel, and out of bounds as the basic vocabulary that will allow students to learn the bare bones of the rules.
Create the Theory Section for Each Segment – Make It Fun
Every new element of this project needs a ‘theory’ section. This has two purposes. First, this is where the students soak up the vocabulary and phrases that they need to communicate on the field and to understand what you are saying as you coach them. Second, it is where they learn how to actually play the game. Therefore, a later theory lesson might include the vocabulary and phrases to learn a zone defense, a brief explanation of how that defense works, and a drill that emphasises both the language and the skills. It is best to avoid keeping them glued to their desks during the theory session. Start them there and then get them up and moving once they have had the initial lesson and practice. If you are teaching the parts of the field, take them out there and walk them around. Start them in the middle, yell “sideline,” and have them race for it. Keep them moving if at all possible. Contrary to popular belief, theory does not have to be boring.
Build it Up
A little anticipation can buy you some good behaviour even before you actually start English through sport. A week or two before the start date, tell the students that this project is coming and show them some highlight video clips from your sport of choice. Explain that you must first finish the current unit and good behaviour will make it go that much faster.
This is essential. Steps 1-5 happened without your students knowing anything about it and they happen well before you start actually teaching the unit. This class will have only a little bit of play time. Depending on your class level you may want to give them a vocabulary worksheet a few days before and have them study it. The first half of class is basic rules and vocabulary. Then take the students to where they will play and, either using students or acting it out yourself, give them a number of scenarios and ask them if it is allowed or not allowed and what vocabulary to use. Then warm them up and play.
Even if it is only for ten minutes the students must have a chance to play the sport in the first class. Otherwise you will start to lose them.
Play the Game!
This seems pretty self-explanatory, but while your goal is to teach them English, they just want to play. You are being sneaky and making them speak English to do it. They should play at least part of every class when you are running this unit. Often an entire class will be spent on the field teaching strategy or formations. Students will pick up the necessary vocabulary very quickly as they are forced to use it. On that note, when the students are playing, use a card system for speaking English. First time they speak their native language on the field they get a yellow card and the other team gets a point. Second time they get a red card and are out of the game for the rest of the class. After the first few classes there will be a marked drop in the number of violations as everyone learns the vocabulary out of necessity.
Putting together an English through sports class or unit is actually a lot more work than it seems and most of that effort is up front.
The vast majority of the planning and preparation are done before the students have an inkling of what they may be in for. Once the actual class starts the workload drops and the fun commences. Creating an English through sport class is a great way to let the students blow off some steam while not only teaching them English, but providing them with an opportunity and incentive to use the language. It can give low level students confidence and help draw them out of their shells. Positive fallout can last well beyond the end of the unit and into the remainder of your class time. The best part? You can play to! Fun for all!