How Was Your Weekend?


In defence of a simple four-word question

 I once read a blog post that claimed that asking students about their weekend was the most boring question in language teaching, and one that language teachers must stop using (I can’t find the link again now, unfortunately). It was the equivalent of, the post continued, asking students about their opinions on cupboards – yes, cupboards.

I remember being particularly struck by the boldness of the claim as just that week I’d had one of the most interesting starts to a lesson that I’d ever had, prompted by precisely that question. I was teaching in Madrid at the time and had a Monday afternoon company class with eight intermediate students. I asked, as I always did, how they were and how their weekend was. ‘I stayed at home and relaxed’ or ‘I went to the mountains’ were typical responses, to which I asked a follow-up question or two. Aisha, a woman in her early thirties, told me on that particular Monday afternoon of her trip back home to Santander, a beautiful city on Spain’s north coast. She had gone to the beach with her boyfriend and tried to catch navajas (razor clams). She eagerly explained what these were (I’d never heard of them) and then, with support from the others, who had varying degrees of knowledge on the subject and on the English required to express it, described the exact method for how to catch them (I won’t detail it here; suffice to say it involves a lot of salt). I just listened as the students gradually clarified the procedure. We each improved our knowledge, Aisha took pride in being able to share her story in the foreign language – and it all came from that simple four-word question, without which it surely wouldn’t have come at all.

Text by: Matt Prior

Why does this all come to mind now? Because, as a frequent visitor to classrooms, I’ve recently realised that I don’t hear the question enough; or, if I do hear it, the answers are glossed over so that the ‘lesson’ can start. I’ve also been guilty of this – and who can blame us teachers, what with the enormous quantity of material needed to be covered in today’s courses, a consequence of ever-increasing exam washback.

However, not only is it clearly a valid question, I believe that it’s also a vital question. Daniel Coyle, in another blog post that I once read (I found the link again this time!) wrote about 3 Simple Things Great Teachers Do. I’ve never forgotten number one: ‘They are exceptionally good at small talk.’ He continues: ‘Most master teachers don’t start sessions by teaching. They start by connecting. They want to chat, to engage, to figure out where you are, who you are, and what makes you tick. A few years back, Dr. Mark Lepper of Stanford organized an extensive video-based study on the habits of the most successful math tutors, and discovered a curious fact: the best tutors started each session by engaging in idle chat. They talked about the weather, or school, or family – anything but math. This seems nonsensical, until you consider the role small talk plays in building trust. We do not naturally give our trust to people; small talk is the doorway to trust and learning.’ If you consider that, unlike with maths (or should I say, math), our students have the extra benefit of being able to practise their subject matter at the exact same time as they make small talk, and no doubt learn even more from the new language that emerges, it seems very sensical indeed.

Of course, not all students are as forthcoming as my group of seafood hunters, and certainly not all of the young learners that many of us work with (precisely the students that really benefit from the question in the long term). It might, therefore, require a little twist at first. Why not ask the first student for the most exciting thing that they did over the weekend (or day) and make a play of the next student having to ‘beat’ them with a more exciting thing? Alternatively, ask the students to each think of the most mundane thing that they did over the weekend and to write it on a Post-it note. When they’re done, they pass the Post-it note to the student on their right, who has to add to it by exaggerating it ever so slightly. When they’re done, they again pass the Post-it note to the student on their right, who again makes it bigger. This continues until the papers are back where they started, at which point the teacher leaves the classroom, re-enters and pretends the lesson has just begun: How was your weekend? I guarantee that the next few minutes of class will be far from tedious.

So, when the new academic year kicks off and the icebreaker games are over, let’s ensure that our learners’ lives continue to be at the heart of our lessons – and that simple four-word question is the most natural starting point, and one for which we must make time. It may well be true that cupboards have no place in our classrooms, but our students, and everything that makes them them, must be part of the furniture.


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