So, let’s set the scene. You’re caught up in an activity with your students, and you look at the clock and there’s only FIVE MINUTES LEFT. A lot of the time, teachers will panic, rush through a production activity (with or without time for feedback), or maybe set homework.

We put so much thought into the first stage of lessons – warmers, introducing context for target language – why don’t we match that in the final stage? If we quickly wrap up a class without considering the impact it has on students, they can feel unsatisfied and lost.

Below are some concepts and activities that I trialled on different days in a week. They aim to take the focus off what the teacher wants learners to do, and gives the power to the learners, making them feel more empowered, engaged and included.

Monday – Independent study tips

Whatever course – General English, Cambridge exam prep, EAP – memory retention is a huge issue. Independent study is essential, but we can’t assume that all learners have these skills. If we tell an ill-equipped student to ‘go and study’, their time is wasted and the learner could feel unmotivated and helpless, cementing a poor relationship with learning. This is the opposite of the desired effect. Naiman et al (1978) credits being ‘proactive’ and ‘motivated’ as two prominent features of a ‘good language learner’. It is vital that learners know how to direct their learning.

Goal setting and vocabulary memorisation

Monday’s final few minutes are spent setting SMART (Specific Measurable Attainable Relevant Time-specific) goals. In the same way that needs analyses look at past and present strengths and weaknesses, goal setting looks to future outcomes and how students can get there. Having teachers and classmates there in the classroom assists with setting expectations and answering the elusive question, ‘How do I improve this?’.

Another Monday focus is memorising vocabulary or grammar rules. After a lesson on word transformation, my students are given one A3 paper and 5–10 minutes to record as many variations of one stem word as they can in a creative way. They thoroughly enjoy bringing some colour, life and personality to a fast-paced and focused course. Not only this, but when they make their own notes, they consider three questions:

  • What is important?
  • What do I need to remember?
  • How can I do that?

They answer these questions, so they are in control. Encouraging students to cull their notes and transform them into memorable works of art means they are more likely to recall the information later.

Tuesday – Self-assessment

Memory retention is such an imperative issue that it earns an extra day. I found myself adapting quizzes on Sunday night, simplifying them so students would get a confidence boost, putting in effort that the students weren’t matching. They were doing the work of the current week, but they weren’t revisiting last week, let alone the beginning of the course. However, it shouldn’t always be up to the teacher to assess the students, they can do it themselves! Tuesday’s final minutes look at meta-cognitive strategies, which include the ability to self-assess.

Make your own quizzes

This phrasal verbs quiz follows a reading lesson on crime. Throughout the lesson, students find phrasal verbs in the text, which are added to the board, clarifying meaning as we go. Because we put them on the board, students know that a quiz is coming, so they take extra care to memorise missing particles and meaning. A board race is set up, so if we say ‘to hide a bad thing’, the student runs to the board and selects ‘cover up’. Once we demonstrate it as a class, students create exercises like this to test either their partner or themselves. They could write a synonym match, or a gap fill – anything that teachers already do. If students take 5 minutes to write 5 questions a day, by Friday, they’ll have 25 questions.

Research shows the benefits of repeated testing over repeated non-directed studying over a long period of time. This is due to critically thinking about how to apply language (Butler, 2010). By getting students to make their own material, they’re proactive (Littlewood, 1999) – they’re considering what makes questions easy or difficult, and what they’re comfortable with or needs improvement.

Wednesday – Warmer selection

Wednesday’s final minutes address the issue of students not seeing connections, not only from Wednesday’s class to Thursday’s class, but also from week 1 to week 5 or 10. Students also may not have had enough chances to get to know each other in a packed course like the C1 Advanced.

Choose your own activity

In my class, a learner is elected who can either suggest their own activity, or choose from a list of warmers and contribute some element. One of my favourites is ‘order yourselves’, in which students are in small teams and get into the appropriate order based on a given category. Learners are expected to give categories, such as ‘how many languages you speak’, ‘alphabetical order by surname’.

This picture is from a selfie competition in which my class had to ‘prove they were studying’.

The point was to let them take the reins. The few minutes in class is allowed for students to think of questions, examples, themes, whatever the activity requires! When they come to class the next day, they know what to expect and that it will connect to the previous day. Activities aren’t separate anymore, the days fit like a puzzle, and the weeks blend into one adventure.

Another activity my students enjoy is a combination of listening and language work. A list of letters is dictated. Students work in pairs to make as many words as they can of any length, but there are bonus points for deciphering the phrase that includes all the letters. And remember, it’s on theme.

R Y N O N M L A T E R O A E U.

Did you get the longest word? Did it matter? You were no doubt thinking ‘what have we been talking about?’ and trying to access information from the past few minutes, and this is the point – students need to see and make connections for themselves (Reinders, 2010). To prepare for this activity, my students do everything that I do; in class, choose a word related to the topic and jumble the letters. The next morning, that student dictates the letters and makes it as fast and challenging as they wish. (The answer was ‘learner autonomy’.)

Thursday – Reflection and revision

Being in Australia is hard for students. Full-time study is exhausting, and sometimes teachers and students forget that. That’s why Thursday’s final minutes are for reflection and revision. This particular focus was inspired by Helen Chapman’s (2019) guest post on Sandy Millin’s blog and there’s over 15 suggestions for activities under 5 different categories, but these are some that I want to add.

Language in real life

Brainstorm ways that you can use this week’s language in everyday life. My students got really creative with this! Using conditionals for threats ‘If you eat my chocolate, I will kill you’, or adjectives to describe a criminal if you witness a crime. Again, it’s bridging the gap between classroom theory, and the real world, making it relevant.

Write it out

Find or write a quote or song lyric that reflects how you’re feeling. A nostalgic lyric if they’re feeling homesick, or a motivating quote if they’re feeling uninspired. It also gives the teacher some clue about what’s going on in the students’ lives.

A major component of this activity is the element of choice. Chapman (2019) points out that choice promotes interest, engagement and curiosity, and there’s an added ownership of what they’re producing.

Friday – Student to teacher feedback

Finally, and arguably most importantly, the ‘final’ final minutes. We don’t hear enough from the students’ perspectives. Schools may conduct a departing evaluation, but by then they can’t fix simple problems like ‘I hate group work’. These exit slips open dialogues between students and teacher, and you can adapt them to suit any level, anonymous or otherwise.

My advanced class of mature-aged students liked using technology, so I made an online survey with Google Forms: ‘Write one thing you learned this week’, ‘something you’d like to address next week’, ‘the most effective or enjoyable lesson or activity?’ The second question is a bit strange, but you’ll see why.

Intermediate class – ‘Write one thing you learned this week’, ‘something you did/did not enjoy’, ‘something you’d like to do next week’, ‘anything you want your teacher to know’. This was hard copy and filled out in class. The third question has since been changed because what I meant to ask was ‘something you’d like to learn’, and when they read ‘something you’d like to do’, five students wrote ‘go to the beach’. Not what I meant!

My colleague’s beginner class was simply asked ‘What do you want in class?’ and worked in groups. These groups had very different demands. The first group wanted two teachers, to listen to English songs, and more discussion time and opportunities. The second group, however, wanted massage chairs, translating machines, classes that combined English and exercise – this is them politely swearing in Australian English – and they only wanted students who are very beautiful girls.

This activity allows learners to feel heard and like they have power, regardless of language proficiency, and they do! We should be using this feedback as formative assessment to evaluate what worked and what didn’t work. Classroom learning can be shaped and reshaped by teachers as a result of self-observation, self-analysis and self-evaluation (Kumaravadivelu, 2001), but the students should be listened to and used to better our teaching. It includes students in decisions in the classroom, and that increases motivation.

My reflection

I did have some push back when implementing these changes, especially from students who expected information to be handed to them, but the key to success is consistency and making it a part of the week. These are not one-off activities, but involve repeating and developing habits. It’s also important for students to understand why we’re using the time this way. For my students, they needed to grasp that learning doesn’t end when the lesson does – they know their abilities and they need to be able to direct their journey. This is just a part of their learning and if they don’t do it, then they’ll be left behind.

These changes aren’t massive. They’re not big projects that involve considerable planning, as much responsibility falls on the students. However, by being conscious of the impact that the last five minutes can have and harnessing that tool, teachers and learners can see dramatic results. When teachers adapt to their learners’ needs, learners feel more engaged, empowered, in control and motivated, while teachers also benefit from having a more inclusive, interactive classroom.

References

Benson P (2007) Autonomy in Language and Teaching. Language Teaching 40 (1) 21–40.

Butler A (2010) Repeated testing produces superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition 36 (5) 1118–1133.

Chapman H (2019) Adding choice and reflection to teen classes. Retrieved from https://sandymillin.wordpress.com/2019/04/30/adding-choice-and-reflection-to-teen-classes-guest-post/.

Kumaravadivelu B (2001) Beyond Methods: Macrostrategies for Language Teaching. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Littlewood W (1999) Defining and developing autonomy in East Asian contexts. Applied Linguistics 20 (1) 71–94.

Naiman N, Froehlich H, Stern H & Todesco A (1978). The Good Language Learner. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Reinders H (2010) Towards a classroom pedagogy for learner autonomy: a framework of independent language learning skills. Australian Journal of Teacher Education 35 (5) 39–55.


Lauren Angus is an English teacher in Sydney. She has a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Sociology, CELTA with Pass A grade, and is aspiring to attain a DELTA. The majority of her teaching experience has involved various exam preparation courses in Sydney and Tokyo. She is dedicated to professional development with particular focus on student and teacher motivation. Winner of the 2019 Bright Ideas Competition, Lauren presented ‘The final countdown’ at the English Australia conference in Melbourne.