Experiences of an English Language Teacher

Bringing The Surprise Element into Your Lesson: An #ELTChat Summary

Surprise! It’s me!

For teachers of English, we are constantly reviewing approaches and techniques as an alternative to commonly predicted forms of teaching and we sometimes have to incorporate more experimental styles of language education.  With this in mind, ELTChat focused on the incorporation and element of surprise in the classroom, on Wednesday 28 November, at 9pm GMT.  The chat offered participants the opportunity to share tips and techniques to develop for potential future classroom use.

Just a few words to say thank you to Marisa for allowing me the opportunity to write up my very first ELTChat summary on my blog.  It was very interesting to read the transcript and read the progress of the discussion.

Why Use Surprise in the Classroom?

As professionals we must question why surprise should be used during lessons.  This was answered early on in the discussion by some of the following:
  • SueAnnan: I think surprise stops the lessons becoming humdrum.
  • AnnLoseva: Unexpected turns of the lesson keep students wide-awake and it’s fun and refreshing!
  • AntoniaClare: I think surprise keeps students awake, alert, engaged, therefore ready to learn.
  • MarjorieRosenbe: Adding surprise elements wakes everyone up.  Students don’t learn if they are asleep.
  • pjgallantry: I feel novelty and surprise aid memorisation, but students then still to work on consolidation.
Wordle of the latest ELTChat © 2012

Based upon the above reactions from regular ELTChatterers, it was noted that surprise would stop possible lessons becoming boring with improved motivation which would alert and engage learners.  However, theteacherjames tweeted: “I’m struggling to see much benefit to surprising students.  Isn’t there also something to be said for reliability?“.  James has a point with reference to reliability and predictability but many others saw the potential of developing some form unpredictability in the classroom.  Nevertheless, what tips and suggestions were recommended during the discussion?  Read further for some very interesting and engaging ideas to implement surprise in the classroom.

Surprising Tips and Techniques

During the ELTChat discussion, there many ideas and tips exchanged for incorporating some element of surprise in the classroom with Vicky Loras quick off the mark with the first idea shared:
  • VickyLoras: I like scenarios with students.  For example, I come in knocking on the door and pretend I am a colleague/problem – they love it!
It is welcoming to note some exploitation of scenarios being suggested by Vicky and this one area of teaching that is not really developed.  It engages learners and, as Marjorie mentioned above, wakes them up as well.  This idea was followed by lauraahaha.
  • Lauraahaha: Sometimes a nice surprise is to take the students outside the classroom (where possible).
Other ideas included:
  • AntoniaclareI like to use stories or anecdotes with a twist, in fact I think every text / lesson needs a new angle to keep sts (and Ts) interest.
  • MarjorieRosenbeWe draw lines on board and guess whose is longest, etc. Then I pull out tape measure-sts love this.
  • pjgallantrywhich is a more memorable example of past continuous: I was having a bath when the phone rang, or I was talking to my friend when the cat exploded?
  • KerrCarolyn: I love circular writing. Great collective activity. Prepares for real life. Few reports in business are work of just one
  • eltknowledgeHas any1 mentioned the ‘silent conversation’ yet? Walk in2 class and not say a word and write the instructions on the board. Shocks sts!
  • miss_TrikaSometimes I surprise my sts bytaking them to the garden and they love it.
  • LauraahahaI like exploiting things that surprise even ME (e.g. strange laugh from class next door, colleague entering our room by mistake)
Some of the ideas suggested included changing the actual classroom dynamics to enable some element of surprise during lessons.  This was first suggested by KerrCarolyn by an example from a lesson which noticed was ‘dragging’ so she took out all chairs from the classroom.  Others suggested additional ideas such as:
  • SueAnnanI also move the tables around sometimes to make new groupings.
  • leoselivannew seating arrangements certainly break a routine and adds a surprise element.
  • pjgallantryanother way to shake things up is how you make groups – e.g. say apple, banana, orange etc and tell ss to become bunches of fruit!
  • AntoniaclareI like using an empty chair and sts need to introduce me to the ‘character’ they invent, he gets a name, life etc
In reference to Hartle requesting some ideas for teaching an academic writing class who are taught on a Friday evening and lack any form of motivation.  One of the ideas included:
  • AntoniaclareAcademic writing? get sts writing sentences or paragraphs on posters on the walls as they walk around, filling in sections
Additional ideas that prompted surprise which were suggested included the use of teacher silence in the classroom, bringing in food (particularly chocolate) to develop chatter and surprise, the use of jokes and humour, as well as games to develop motivation in various lesson activities.

Surprising Links

Throughout the discussion, there were recommendations to a variety of online and offline resources.  These included:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGnfKnfY6EM]
The sharing of a YouTube video (see the above video embedded) was used to illustrate the key concept of surprising situations that could arise from various activities.  It is a wonderful video with lauraahaha and antoniaclare recommending the using of stories which contained a twist to add elements of surprise within the classroom.

Further Surprising Reading

Additional reading that could be used to develop techniques to improve surprise or spontaneity in the classroom could include the following.


      1. Marjorie Rosenberg

        And we forgot to mention the idea of wearing silly hats when we enter or bringing in props. I used a stuffed animal, the Philly Phanatic, which was the mascot of the Phillies baseball team for years. I included 'Phil' in worksheets I wrote along with Richard, my pet gorilla: The students got so into this, they bought me a stuffed animal gorilla which stil watches over my office and sewed special clothes for Phil as his were getting a bit worn after being thrown around the classroom to get them talking. Will put photo of the two on Twitter.

      2. Ann

        Hi Martin,

        Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and I’ll be making a post about it on today’s TeachingEnglish facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil, if you’d like to check there for comments.


      3. Thank you ever so much for shortlisting my blog post for this month's Teaching English blog award. It is greatly appreciated.

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