Old Chestnuts …some tough nuts to crack by Lisa Phillips


An “old chestnut” is a subject or joke that has been repeated so many times that it is no longer funny or interesting.  This is what I learnt from my Director (being from Australia, I’m lucky to even know what a chestnut is!), who wanted to discuss recurring issues that seem to plague even some of the most experienced teachers.  Looking back through past observation reports, we came to realize that we were seeing the same old problems again and again.  Essentially classroom management issues, we believe these “chestnuts” are fundamental to a good learning environment and are the foundations for good teaching practice.  How to change the “old chestnuts” into fresh, tasty treats was the challenge.  The slogans that follow are the result of a brainstorming session with the teachers of International House Buenos Aires (Recoleta), with the aim of making these points memorable for everyone involved.

  1. Voice, your choice!

Much is said about the need to simplify your language for lower level learners and this is no doubt true.  But what about those who are more advanced?  The primary source of input for students is often the language in the classroom, so this needs to be of high quality. It may require us to simplify or increase the complexity of the language we would ordinarily use. 

The way the voice is used is also important.  The voice is just another tool and needs to be trained to be effective.  For example, a slightly longer pause allows the learner value processing time.  Use a confident, clear voice – if you don’t sound sure, how can your students be?

While the idea that “students need to get used to natural speech” has its place, the place for authentic listening in the classroom is within the framework of a controlled listening lesson with proper support.  Not being conscious of the effect of your voice is just laziness.

  1. The lesson is not over until the homework is done.

Homework is not additional part of the lesson but an integral part of it.  How much is set is up to the individual institute, but is should be varied, relevant, meaningful, doable and as enjoyable as possible.  It should also be written clearly on the whiteboard so that students know exactly what they are supposed to do and can copy it down, and checked using a variety of methods. The homework may even provide the subject matter or material for the following class.

  1. All a-board!

The teacher’s number one visual tool is the whiteboard.  It is from here that students copy down a record of the class to take away for self-study, so it is vital that this be legible, logical and carefully planned.  A vocabulary column down one side and use of different colours consistently are healthy routines which allow work to stay on the board and be revisited during the class.  This can then also cross over into your learners’ notes, so scrappy, odd vocabulary scattered around willy-nilly is not allowed.

  1. What day is it?  It’s ti-day!

This one is self explanatory.  Cleaning your whiteboard, putting chairs back into place and returning any other resources to the appropriate places in the teachers’ room or library just makes everyone’s lives easier.

  1. Mind the gap!

Class dynamics are affected by the way in which the space is used.  There is a tendency for students to put their chairs in a line against the wall in a “judging panel” formation.  Instead, get them into a tight semi-circle with no gaps between them (bags and jumpers can go elsewhere) and if space allows, move away from the wall.  This lets all members of the group make eye contact, and also gives the teacher a good monitoring position behind the students.  Encourage students to fill out the seats from the middle, leaving a seat or two near the door free for latecomers.  This helps to avoid disruption. 

  1. Oi, you!

Ever been into a class halfway through the year and heard, “You know…… her”?  Obviously, the teacher needs to know and start using the students’ names as soon as possible, but it is also important to spend some time getting the students to learn them too.  This is extremely important for class dynamics, bonding and rapport.  And don’t forget those who join a little later on.  Repeat these ‘getting to know you’ activities after one week, one month, whatever is necessary to build a community of learners, and give your classes that personal touch by using their names or nicknames as much as possible.

  1. Instructions or ructions?

Give clear instructions in stages and concept check the learners’ understanding.  This is given a lot of attention on CELTA courses, and it often those teachers who are fresh out of one who do it best.  Old lazy habits can set in quickly, so we can make sure even the slowest students understand by doing an example across class, writing instructions on the board, showing the page and asking for repetition by a class member.  Pause, and think before you speak.  Keep instructions clear, short and to the point.  Check understanding by asking closed concept questions, followed by open ended ones.  And remember – ‘Is that clear?’ and ‘Does everyone understand?’ do not count!

  1. A little a day keeps the ADoS away.

Unfortunately, administrative paperwork can’t be avoided but keeping it up-to-date should stop it getting out of hand.  Whether this is absences, homework records, exam scores or your students’ frequently occurring errors, this data not only is a requisite of the job but makes you appear more professional.  Regular liaisons with the office also help to provide clear channels of communication and in turn, smoother operation of an institute from the front desk to the classroom.

  1. Cas-te-lla-no – don’t let it go.

Of course we want our students to speak as much English as possible in classes, however, there is sometimes a place for the learner’s L1 (in this case, Castellano).  If someone is upset or doesn’t know how to say something, it makes sense to use this resource if you have it at your disposal.  Make sure you give your students the classroom language they need to communicate in English during the lesson, and establish your expectations of when it is acceptable to use the L1.

  1. On your bike, again?

Finally, this cryptic crossword style clue refers to recycling.  Nation (2001) says that it’s necessary to encounter a lexical item in different contexts between 8 – 12 times to know it, and that spaced repetition with insertion into previously learnt language over time is more effective than massed into 1 or 2 exposures.  Varying your techniques to appeal to different learning styles and keeping and using vocabulary bags are a couple of principles that the teachers here have taken on board. Games, too, have a valid place and collocation work becomes increasingly important at higher levels.  Learner training also falls into this category, and it is essential to give students at all levels the tools they need to become successful language learners e.g. ways of recording vocabulary.

Since coining these slogans, the frequency of these problems in observations has reduced.  I have heard some teachers in conversation about their feedback commenting on the number of “chestnuts” they had broken, and being determined to improve upon this next time.  There is a poster on the back wall of every classroom in the institute to remind us of these good teaching practices.  Some of them are specific to our teaching context here at IH Buenos Aires (Recoleta), but the essence can be transferred to almost any situation.

When we have these basic principles in place, we have more opportunities to experiment and develop our teaching practices and methodologies.  As some wise bloke once said, “You have to know the rules before you can break them”.


Hedge, T.  (2000)  Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom.

Oxford University Press.

Nation, P.  (2001)  Learning Vocabulary in Another Language.

Cambridge University Press.

Scrivener, J.    (1998)  Learning Teaching.



About International House Buenos Aires Teacher Training

At International House Buenos Aires Teacher Training we teach languages and train teachers. As part of the International House World Organisation (IHWO), one of the leading language providers worldwide, our goal is to promote excellence in language education. We provide high quality English & Spanish language instruction and internationally recognised teacher training courses, which aim to increase standards in teaching and learning in wider contexts.
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