Where to Begin? The Art of the Starter

Gary Martin Broughton, Teacher of English

A wiser man than I once said, ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression.’ Research suggests that you have around seven seconds to make that first impression and, in the case of interviews, that is, very often, where the game is won or lost.

As teachers, we have the opportunity to make a mini-first impression up to eight times a day. The first five minutes of any lesson are crucial to its success in a number of ways. Just like strong opening lines in a story help to ‘hook in’ the readers, a good lesson starter is meant to draw in learners by stimulating ‘whole-brain activity’ right at the beginning, immediately plunging the learner into a world where thinking occupies a central position.

Greetings
Research into middle school engagement has revealed that simply greeting each child by name as they enter the classroom can significantly enhance ‘student on-task’ behaviour. Consider this in relation with extensive market research conducted by AT&T, one of America’s leading retailers, which has determined that how quickly a person is greeted is directly proportional to the customer’s willingness to recommend the brand to others. Simply put, being greeted is being seen, being acknowledged and being recognised. Consider your own personal experience. You walk into school and ahead of you in the corridor is Ms Uppal. You walk past Ms Uppal, trying to catch her eye to say hello, but you remain unnoticed. How do you feel? Upset? Invisible? Lessened in some way? If, however, you are greeted with a warm smile and a brief chat about how you have been doing (topped with Ms Uppal’s signature wit), what a different start it will make to your day.

Well, children operate on the same principle, and all of us know that one of the key requisites of being a successful teacher is to build genuinely warm relationships with our students – and that, very often, starts with a greeting. Taking a few moments to say hello to students as they arrive for lessons continues to be one of the easiest but most effective strategies in a teacher’s arsenal, perhaps all the more so in a virtual world where our students can very often hide behind display pictures and emojis. Beginning my lesson with a brief chat with the students – which could usually cover anything from interesting weekend pursuits to my own driving woes in Delhi, to a joke, even – turns out to be the right scene-setter for the lesson to follow, because the interaction builds a sense of belonging that is so important for us humans, social animals as we are.

Amuse-bouche

Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a magical kingdom where people did not wear masks and teachers even had their own classrooms (gasp!), one of my favourite classroom starters involved being in the classroom early, for greetings obviously, but also so that I could provide an entry activity – something on the desk or on slide for students to get on with as soon as they entered the room – a quiz, a crossword or a hidden words worksheet; something fun and stimulating that they might enjoy to start the brain ticking over, an amuse-bouche or a bite-sized hors d’œuvre, as it were, to whet the appetite.

Pre-starter Puzzles
The shift to a blended teaching mode takes nothing away from this home truth: If you can capture the students’ attention at the beginning of the lesson, you have a far higher chance of getting better learning outcomes. To suit the online medium, I like to create a variety of puzzles and even use them as a behaviour management strategy, and starting the puzzles promptly often acts as an added incentive for students to arrive on time for online lessons. These puzzles are not always directly linked to the content being taught but very often, are designed to encourage students to think about words, their patterns, their meanings and their relationships with each other. Essentially, these puzzles become an exercise in metacognition – helping students think about new ways to think about language. This is why I use them as ‘pre-starters’, following these up with content-specific or grammar/spelling related work.

One effective way of integrating puzzle starters into your lessons is to use the puzzles to reinforce central subject-related rules, tenets or formulae. As one key challenge with the English language is how heavily populated it is with confusing homophones, drawing attention to them through puzzles encourages students to develop a sense of the phonics and to get a better grasp over the spellings of these words. For EAL learners, it can be a more entertaining way of learning vocabulary than simply trawling through lists, and this can be adapted for those early on in language acquisition with the use of images. Here are a few types of puzzles that I particularly recommend:

Homophonic Puzzle

This mathematical process sounds like a commercial? Makes beer or tea and sounds like it leaves a nasty mark? A little bit of a dollar sounds like perfume? Sounds like her pens and pencils don’t move? This fellow only jousts after the sun goes down?
Add/ad Brews/bruise Cent/scent Stationery/stationary Knight/night

Homonymic Puzzle

A serious place to be six foot under? A trendy bone, this one? Does a rhino sound this if you are in its way? A sweater for a kangaroo? A healthy place to get your water?
Grave Hip Horn Jumper Well
Add or lose a letter

Exist BE
Wager BET
Greatest BEST
Animal BEAST
Change a letter for a new word

Thinking Organ Brain
Rice and Wheat Grain
Locomotive Train
A sewer Drain

These are only a few of the many types of puzzles that I often use to generate some enthusiasm and excitement at the opening of the lesson. They can be personalised to suit subjects, knowledge domains, classes and levels, and individual needs.

Generating Hashtags, Captioning Memes

Besides giving us cat videos, the world of the internet, social media in particular, has, perhaps inadvertently, given us teachers a perfect starter activity. This is something my colleagues have tried with great success – starting a lesson by asking students to generate hashtags about a specific text or stimulus material, or putting up a meme and asking students to caption it in such a way that it links to the topic of conversation.

Making Connections

A simple example would be to put up four pictures/stimuli side by side and ask students to explain what links them: four cities in geography, four elements in science, four poetic forms for literature, etc. There doesn’t even need to be one right answer here; it is interesting to see what links and connections the students can draw.

As teachers, we have a responsibility to do more than merely impart knowledge, pouring it into the student till their cup overflow’th. I have outlined a few ideas to encourage a different thinking process and to create the right mood for learning at the start of lessons. Half the fun of putting together a lesson starter lies in personalising it for your own group of learners to cater to their needs. From setting the tone to establishing learning expectations, a good starter can go a long way in ensuring more effective student involvement and investment in the learning process. In this case, well begun truly is half done.