Questions for micro-dictations

I’m putting together some activities to help students understand more fluent English speech, ready for a seminar on listening skills I’m running next weekend.  One of the activities is micro-dictations of common questions spoken at as normal a speed as possible. It can be difficult to find things like this ready-prepared, so I’ve recorded some and embedded them here:

What’s your name?
Where are you from?
What do you do?
What are you going to have?
What are you going to do tomorrow?
Did you have a good holiday?

Listening attentivelyI’d be interested to hear how you use them.

Itchy feet

A few days ago I shared a lesson plan which Claire Hart created based on a recording I did about Moving to Sevastopol.

Now Lizzie Pinard has got in on the act, and created another set of materials based on the same recording. You can find the post she wrote about how she will use the materials on her excellent blog, as well as the materials themselves (scroll down to number 3: Itchy Feet).

I hope you find them useful!

Another gratuitous picture of Sevastopol, this time at Chersonesus
Another gratuitous picture of Sevastopol, this time at Chersonesus

What were you doing at 10 last night?

What were you doing?
What were you doing?
What were you doing
At 10 last night?

I was sitting on the sofa.
I was sitting on the sofa.
I was sitting on the sofa
At 10 last night.

What were you doing?
What were you doing?
What were you doing
At 10 last night?

I was watching the TV.
I was watching the TV.
I was watching the TV
At 10 last night.

What were you doing?
What were you doing?
What were you doing
At 10 last night?

I was listening to music.
I was listening to music.
I was listening to music
At 10 last night.

What were you doing?
What were you doing?
What were you doing
At 10 last night?

I was looking at the sea.
I was looking at the sea.
I was looking at the sea
At 10 last night.

The entrance to Balaklava bay

What were you doing?
What were you doing?
What were you doing
At 10 last night?

I was on vkontakte.*
I was on vkontakte.
I was on vkontakte
At 10 last night.

What were you doing?
What were you doing?
What were you doing
At 10 last night?

I wasn’t doing anything.
I wasn’t doing anything.
I wasn’t doing anything
At 10 last night!

I made up this chant, inspired by Jane Harding da Rosa, to help my pre-intermediate students with the concept of past continuous to talk about ongoing events at a fixed point in the past. I had a few ideas for verses and they added more.

We also tried a variant where they asked:

What was she doing?**
What was she doing?
What was she doing
At 10 last night.

The verse was about a particular student, and the others had to choose a possible answer. For example:

She was listening to music.
She was listening to music.
She was listening to music
At 10 last night.

…to which the student who was being discussed had to respond with either:

Yes, I was. Yes, I was.
Yes, I was. You’re right.


No, I wasn’t. No, I wasn’t.
No, I wasn’t. You’re wrong.
(followed by a verse of them saying what they really were doing)

Through the chant, the students had practice with the positive, negative, question, and short forms of the past continuous. It is also designed to help them with the rhythms of English, as they struggle with listening, especially with weak forms (something I identified using this post-listening reflection questionnaire from Mat Smith’s blog). They responded really well, and a week later were chanting it when they came into class. I tried it with my teens too, and they didn’t get it at all!

So, what were YOU doing at 10 last night?

*Vkontakte is a Russian equivalent of facebook, which is very popular among my students.

** Or ‘he’, of course!

Moving to a new country (Sevastopol)

A few days after I arrived in Sevastopol, Lea Sobocan posted this on facebook:

I have a request for my PLN – more specifically for the segment of you who have experienced living in another country/culture.

I’m currently discussing moving to another country/immigration with my students and I’d really appreciate any thoughts, feelings, difficulties and joys to be found in living abroad. Preferably in audio form, but whatever works for you.

Some of the people I’ve spoken with saw immigration to another country as something you just get up and do and they seem to be certain everyone will greet them with open arms. I’d like to offer a more balanced view and a first-hand account of someone who had this experience.

Any help, in form of text, audio clip or similar will be greatly appreciated.

Lea had helped me before by recording a clip about her favourite TV show, so I thought it was only fair I return the favour. I recorded this audioboo about moving to Sevastopol, then promptly forgot about it:

A few days later I was surprised to get a message from Claire Hart telling me that she had created a series of activities around my two-minute recording. I asked her to share the result with you, and I think you’ll agree, it’s a pretty good lesson. Thanks Claire!

How Claire used the recording

Killing a bit of time before the first class of the day, I found myself reading my Twitter feed. One of the tweets that popped up was from Sandy Millin. It was a link to an audio recording she had posted on Audioboo where she talked about her experience of recently relocating to Sevastopol, Ukraine. The class I was about to start teaching was a C1 group who had asked for practice listening to British people speaking because they tend to find their British colleagues difficult to understand. I’d been using excerpts from BBC television series and BBC world service podcasts with them over the previous weeks, but Sandy’s recording seemed to provide a refreshing alternative to that.

I decided to take a chance and improvise an activity around Sandy’s recording with just 2 minutes to go before the class started. This was a bit of a challenge, but I found that having to think on my feet rather than going through a pre-planned, pre-rehearsed routine made me more present and alert. What was striking is how surprised the learners were to learn that Sandy is a real person and she’s talking about experiences that she has really had. I suppose this just goes to show how learners get used to listening to people playing fictional characters having scripted conversations with each other. When I told them that I actually know Sandy, their enthusiasm shot up even more. I’ve used this recording with several groups at a range of levels and, interestingly, all of them seem to have understood more of what Sandy said than they usually understand when we listen to a recording designed for English learning. Even my A2 group could accurately recount the key points that Sandy made and include some of the detail.

The “real-ness” of this activity was particularly palpable when I used the recording with a group of eight, five of whom have moved to Germany from either Turkey, Hungary, Russia, Poland or Romania. When I asked them to consider why people would move to a foreign country, what difficulties you can face when you make that move and how you can overcome them, the non-Germans in the group were able to tap into their real experiences and share those with the others. When I asked them to write short texts evaluating the benefits and difficulties of moving to a foreign country, what I got back from them were honest and touching accounts of how hard moving to a foreign country can be, but how it can help you to find a better quality of life. They put a lot of effort into writing these texts because the topic was important to them. Even the learners who haven’t had the experience of moving to another country themselves, seemed to have a lot of empathy for Sandy and were keenly interested in what is going on in her life.

The lesson skeleton

1. Look at the statement “I’ve just moved to Sevastopol”

  • What have I done?
  • When did I do it?

2. Ask the learners if they know where Sevastopol is. Can they find it on a map of Europe? What do they know about Ukraine? Which countries are its neighbours? What languages do they speak there? What food do they eat? Have they ever visited this part of the world?

Memorial to Heroic Defenders of Sevastopol
Memorial to Heroic Defenders of Sevastopol

3. Show them information about the population of Sevastopol, its climate and its landmarks and ask them to say what questions this information gives you the answers to. You can also use this as an opportunity to practise saying long numbers, comparing temperatures or discussing what sights they enjoy visiting.

Chersonesus, an Ancient Greek town in the suburbs of Sevastopol
Chersonesus, an Ancient Greek town in the suburbs of Sevastopol

4. Ask them if they think Sevastopol would be a good place to go on holiday to. Why/ why not?

5. Ask them to brainstorm reasons why someone would move to Sevastopol. Then ask them to speculate about why Sandy, an English teacher who is originally from England but who’s lived in a few different countries, would move to Sevastopol.

Why would you move to Sevastopol?

6. Listen to the recording and give them level-appropriate questions to answer. A lower-level question could be: What words does Sandy think you should learn first when you move to another country and why? A higher-level question could be: What difficulties did Sandy face when she arrived in Sevastopol and how has she been able to overcome them?

7. As a follow-up or homework task, you can ask the learners to write a text on the benefits and difficulties of living a foreign country.

This presentation has slides connected to each of the steps in the lesson skeleton:

(You can download it by clicking ‘slideshare’ and logging in – it’s free to create an account, and you can link via facebook if you want to.)

What I’ve learned here is that if you make a recording where you honestly describe interesting, unusual or important experiences in your life and share it through sites like Audioboo, you can produce meaningful authentic audio material that learners will respond really well to because it’ll resonate with them and their lives. The response I’ve received to using this recording has been extremely positive and my learners are now keen to know what Sandy does next.

About Claire

Claire Hart

Claire Hart teaches general English, business English and technical English to university students and business people in Southern Germany. She frequently presents on topics such as using authentic materials, mobile learning and teaching technical English at ELT conferences. She’s also a course book and teacher’s book author and an online materials writer, specialising in business English and ESP materials.

Writing bingo

I’ve got a pre-intermediate teenage class at the moment, and I’m finding it a bit difficult to engage them in class, so when this activity worked well with them the other day, I was over the moon!

It started because I was annoyed with them speaking too much Russian, so I asked them to spend five minutes writing about their last holiday to give me time to calm down/think/work out how to get them to speak more English. They couldn’t show the story to anyone else. After a bit of protesting, they did as I asked, with two students seeming to compete over who could write  the shortest story. While they were writing, I did too:

My last holiday was in Germany. I went with my friend Catherine. We visited Munich for three days, then went to the Alps. In the evenings we went to different restaurants, and one night we went to the cinema. In Munich we went sightseeing. In the Alps we visited two beautiful castles, called Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau. We went everyone by train. It was very cold, but the snow was beautiful. I went to my friends’ wedding too.

After five minutes, they turned to page 17 of the New English File Pre-Intermediate Student’s Book and looked at the following questions:

Holiday questions from NEF Pre-Int SB p17


They had to add any information which they had not already included. This is what I added to my story:

We stayed at two hostels. We didn’t have any problems and we had a really good time.

For the next stage I drew a table on the board. It had all of the students’ names, plus mine.

I asked the students to think of three words they thought might be in my story and write them down. For example, ‘friend’, ‘walk’, ‘beach’. I read my story aloud, and they had to cross out any word from their list they heard. They got one point each for the words they had predicted correctly. I also got points for every word the students had correctly predicted. For example: A got 2, S got 1, R got 0, M got 1 and D got 3, so I got 7.

We repeated this around the class. Students with longer stories tended to get more points because there was more chance the predicted words would be in their stories.

Once they realised what was going on, the students were competitive, engaged, and eager to read their stories. Russian disappeared completely for the 40 minutes this activity took. For homework, I gave them the chance to improve their stories before I looked at them. Three of them did this (out of five), including one of the students who had been involved in the ‘can I write the shortest’ competition – he ended up writing over 100 words, and it was excellent.

This is definitely an exercise I will use again in future, and I hope it’s useful to you as well (if you can understand it!). 

To finish off, here’s a gratuitous picture of one of the beautiful castles:


Making (unplanned) major life changes

This post is going to pretty personal, won’t mince words, and doesn’t really have anything to do with teaching, but I wanted to share it to get it out of my system. Feel free to skip it, or to scroll down to ‘The moral of the story’.

(Bear with me – there is a point to this, and a reason I’m telling you in such detail…)

What happened?

In December 2012 I was off work for a month with diarrhoea, which I believed was brought on by exhaustion (a lack of holidays during the year – my own fault because I filled it with London 2012 and Delta) and stress (Delta again). I went to the doctor a few times and they gave me various tests, including a blood test for coeliac, which my mum has, and another for iron – low iron is also a family problem. The coeliac one came back clear, and my iron was low, but not low enough to treat me for it. After 6 weeks of feeling tired and drained, it eventually cleared itself up.

In April 2013, it came back for a couple of days, but I started taking iron tablets and that seemed to sort it.

In mid-August 2013, it came back with a vengeance. I assumed it was stress-related, connected to my move to Sevastopol, and not knowing what was happening with my visa/date of arrival and more, although I didn’t feel particularly stressed. Again I went to the doctor in the UK and they did a stool test, then told me there was nothing wrong. I went back again when I had blood too, they suggested that perhaps it was a urine infection, and contracted the advice of the previous doctor. This was two days before I was to leave the country, and I didn’t have any confidence in the doctor, so I decided not to pursue this theory.

In mid-September I finally arrived in Sevastopol, after three months of paperwork going backwards and forwards to get my visa. Three days later, my first Saturday in the city, I was worse than I’d been at any point so far. I phoned Olga, my new manager, and asked her if we could see a doctor. A couple of hours later I had an appointment for Wednesday and some medication to tide me over.

It has now been 12 days since that appointment, and those days have changed my life forever.

Wednesday: see the gastroenterologist, get more medicine
Saturday: no food or drink for three hours, have blood tests (testing about 20 different things – not an exaggeration), then have an ultrasound – my spleen was a little enlarged. No food for the rest of the day.
Sunday: no food all day, colonoscopy – I have colitis, but they’re not sure what kind
Monday: see the gastroenterologist again, with all of the results. The colitis I have is called ‘ulcerative colitis‘, and the blood I have now had for over a week is a sign that it’s pretty bad right now. It was almost certainly the same thing in December, but went undiagnosed. I have two choices: go back to the UK or stay in Ukraine for treatment. I choose to stay, as I think returning to the UK will be a waste of effort and money, as well as causing Olga more problems, and the treatment I’ve had in Ukraine is faster and more efficient than that in the UK.
Tuesday: appointment with the ‘chief gastroenterologist’ at the state hospital, conveniently located practically next door to school. She keeps reminding me that it is a very serious condition because she hears me laughing and doesn’t think I understand. This is one of those, if you don’t laugh situations though… She writes a detailed explanation of the whole situation to help us try and claim all of this back on my medical insurance. More pills and a prescription for a series of injections.
Thursday: two injections, which I will need to have for ten days, in an attempt to sort everything out.
Friday: repeat
Saturday: repeat

The last ‘meal’ (very small) I had was on Tuesday night, and since then I’ve been on chicken broth to try and give my body a chance to recover. On Friday I had a little mashed potato, and again on Saturday. On Saturday I added a little fruit juice for variety, but it will probably be a while before I can eat normally again. I am finally starting to feel a little better though, which is a huge relief after about 7 weeks of gradually feeling worse and worse.

The moral(s) of the story

I have described this in depth to tell you (if you’ve made it this far), that if you have ANYTHING wrong with you, and are too scared to go to the doctor, stop being scared, get a grip, and go. Your health problems will not go away by magic. If I had avoided going to the doctor, I wouldn’t know about this condition, and I wouldn’t know how to treat it. It is an auto-immune condition, so I will have it for the rest of my life. No-one really knows what triggers it, although genes probably have something to do with it, and there is no known cure. However, because I know about it, I can do my best to avoid flare-ups in the future by looking after myself, controlling my diet, and trying to minimize my stress levels. It is not life-threatening, but has some potential complications which could be, and now I know what to look for, I can make sure I’m treated quickly if I notice any of them.

At the same time, when a doctor tells you there’s nothing wrong, listen to your body. I think that if you know something is wrong, and your body is telling you there is, especially over a long period of time, then you should keep pursuing the doctor until you’ve ruled everything out. I had a six-year process of visiting doctors in two countries before they finally told me that a problem I had with my knee was not just being overweight, but was actually a problem. (Of course, moving cities/countries doesn’t help you to keep a complete medical record…)

The less health-related stuff…

I can honestly say that all of the doctors and nurses I have seen in Ukraine have been quick, efficient, and very understanding of the fact that Olga has had to translate everything for me. The tests they gave me were thorough and got to a diagnosis incredibly quickly – six days from initial consultation to diagnosis.

Olga has been AMAZING – there is no way I could have got through this without her help. She has taken time out from her very busy life to come to every appointment with me, to translate everything I needed, and to make repeated trips to the pharmacy. She spent a day with me at home to keep me busy when I couldn’t eat anything and needed to be near a loo. And this is on top of all the other help she has had to give me to sort out my legal status in Ukraine, including visits to uncountable government offices. She is the kind of person I hope everyone meets when they go abroad – unquestioning help and support, and just being there. I feel guilty that I arrived and dumped all of these problems on her, but she has been so understanding, and I really owe her. I owe her family too, especially her husband, who has helped by driving me to various appointments, and home when I was too exhausted to face getting the bus one evening.

So, my first three weeks in Sevastopol haven’t been quite the ones I was planning, but I have seen aspects of Ukrainian life that your average tourist would never experience (not necessarily ones I would have wanted to!). I have discovered that state hospitals have virtually no resources, so you should take your own sheets and towel to a state hospital. We had to buy everything for the injections too: the medicine, the needles, the bandage to wrap my arm afterwards. And I’ve discovered that even when they’re saying caring things, Russian sounds pretty aggressive!

But in the end, the whole experience has not been anywhere near as traumatic as it could have been, largely thanks to the help and support of Olga. I’m not as tired as I thought I might have been after a week of almost no food, and I feel like I’m finally starting to recover. And I’m still living in Crimea, with a year, and probably more to explore it and make up for lost time.

Online Professional Development

Today I have done an updated version of my Twitter for Professional Development seminar. I have now decided to focus on:

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Webinars

…as the Twitter site has improved a lot, although it can still be difficult to follow chats on it, and I now find that I get a lot out of facebook and webinars in terms of professional development.

You can still find my complete introduction to using Twitter for Professional Development, although the information about Google Reader is now outdated as it no longer exists. I have started using instead.

Here is a complete recorded version of the presentation:

If you do decide to start using online professional development, I’d be interested to hear from you. I am also happy to answer any questions about it which I can.

Good luck!