Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Archive for the ‘Materials, Activities and Ideas’ Category

Three things I’ve done in class this week

As a Director of Studies, I no longer get much time in the classroom or much time to plan for my lessons (!), but when I do, I like to try and experiment a bit. Here are three things I’ve tried this week:

Translation mingle

After introducing a new set of vocab or bit of grammar:
  • Get students to write 2-3 personalised examples of the language, which you check as they write.
  • They choose one sentence to translate into L1, in this case Polish.
  • Students mingle, saying their Polish sentence. Their partner has to translate it back into English.
  • The L1 speaker tells them “Yes, that’s perfect.” or “No, try again.” Once they’ve tried it a few times, the L1 speaker gives them the correct version if they’re struggling.

This worked particularly well with gerunds and infinitives, where patterns differ from Polish. You don’t need to know the L1 to do this activity, as students will correct each other. It’s probably the second or third time I’ve done it, and it definitely won’t be the last.

Mystery words

I learnt this activity years ago, but have never had a chance to try it. Having worked with some easily confused words (e.g. remind/remember, avoid/prevent) in the previous class, it seemed like a good opportunity to try it this week. We revised the words at the beginning of the class. I then gave each student a piece of scrap paper with one pair of words on it. They remembered them, wrote their name on it, and gave it back to me. Throughout the rest of the lesson, they had to use the words as much as possible and notice what words other people used. At the end of the lesson, they said what pair of words they thought other students had.

Unfortunately it didn’t work particularly well, as although I tried to change pairs a couple of times, students didn’t really have the chance to use their words with a lot of others in the class, so they could only guess about two or three pairs. Some of the cunning ones used a whole range of words to confuse the rest of the class, which was a good idea. I asked the group if they liked it, but they weren’t that enthralled, so it’ll be a while before I use it again.

Listening training

Listening attentively

Regular readers will know that I’m quite interested in trying to work out how to train students to become better listeners. A 5-minute audio in our coursebook this week prompted me to find a different way to approach it, as the two tasks in the book seemed like an invitation for boredom (listen once, tick the things the speaker mentions; listen again, make additional notes). Instead, students had to listen and clap when they heard one of the things the speaker mentioned, at which point I paused the audio. They then had to tell their partner/group what they’d heard, and write on a mini whiteboard what they thought would come next. For instance, this could be ‘an example of X’, or some specific phrases they expected to hear. We then listened to check if they were correct. The idea here is to tap into the natural prediction that we do all the time when listening/reading, and show students that they were able to do it in English. We used about half of the audio in this way, then did the original tasks for the second half. It seemed to go down well, and I think the group were generally quite surprised at how well they could do it. I was also very pleased that one of the weaker students in the group was the only person to clap the first time round, as the others were listening for exact words instead of the general message – hopefully this served as a confidence boost.

What did you try in your classroom this week?

IH Bydgoszcz and IH Toruń Cambridge Day 2017

Each year IH Bydgoszcz holds a Cambridge Day to give ideas to teachers in the local area to help them teach Main Suite exams. Recently, our sister school, IH Toruń, has become an exam centre too, so to celebrate, we held events in both cities this year. My session was designed to share some (perhaps) less well-known online resources which can be used by teachers who are preparing students for both exams. These are the sites which I shared:

Cambridge Phrasal Verbs apps

Amusing cartoons and a matching game designed to help students remember 100 phrasal verbs. As far as I know they’re a different hundred in each!

The Phrasal Verbs Machine (cartoons in a historic style)

Phrasalstein (cartoons with a comedy horror inflection)

Alex Case

A one-man activity-writing/worksheet-producing machine, and everything I’ve tried so far has been good quality!

Key word sentence transformations advice and activities (including TEFL Reversi, which you can try by printing this Quizlet set: click ‘more’>’print’>’small’ and ‘double-sided printing’ and you’ll get cards you just need to cut up

All of Alex’s FCE worksheets

My blog

A collection of FCE resources for students and teachers which I recommend, including among other things a link to FCE: The Musical!, a 60-minute webinar by Andy Scott with lots more ideas of ways to make exam preparation interesting.

Various FCE activities I’ve shared on my blog, many of which could be adapted to other exams.

Richer Speaking cover

Richer Speaking is my ebook, which includes a section with activities for extending speaking, aimed at encouraging students to produce longer stretches of language. This is especially useful for the picture tasks in Cambridge exams.

A Hive of Activities

Emma Gore-Lloyd has a range of Cambridge exam activities on her blog.  One of my favourites uses pictures as a prompt to remember pairs of sentence transformations.


One of my all-time favourite resources, which is great for vocabulary learning in general, and which can be exploited for Use of English practice too.

How to use Quizlet, including links to classes/groups organised by CEFR level.

FCE/Upper Intermediate sets

CAE/Advanced sets

A good set to play Quizlet Live with is ‘Making your writing more interesting

Simplified articles chart

Once upon a time, I created many different versions of charts to help students work out whether they needed articles or not. Some of them were very complicated because I tried to include way too much information in them. Then I went to the other extreme. Now I think I’ve found a happy medium:

Articles chart

Here’s the Powerpoint version for you to download.

The 90% figure in the box is obviously a complete guess. I’ve found that most article choices can be covered by the chart, though occasionally you have to be a bit creative about it! The box gives students a set of fixed phrases which they can learn to start them off with the exceptions that aren’t covered.

‘Normal noun’ is something like ‘republic’ or ‘kingdom’. This covers the use of phrases like ‘the Czech Republic’, ‘the United Kingdom’, and also ‘the University of Durham’, but not ‘Durham University’. By the way, does anyone know why the latter two uses operate differently when it comes to articles?

Countable > plural > specific covers ‘plural’ countries like ‘the United States’, but also groups of islands like ‘the Maldives’ or ‘the Canary Islands’.

Uncountable > specific covers deserts like ‘the Sahara’ and bodies of water which aren’t lakes, like ‘the Atlantic’, ‘the Sargasso Sea’. Lakes are an exception as they don’t normally take an article: ‘Lake Tahoe’, ‘Windermere’.

Hopefully this will be my final version of this, although I know I’ve definitely said that before…

Categorising writing mistakes

I’ve just got access to a short video made for the Teaching English British Council facebook page at IATEFL Manchester 2015 which I’d completely forgotten about! In it, I describe a method you can use to encourage students to notice mistakes they make in writing and try to reduce them. Unfortunately I can’t embed the video here, but I can give you the link to watch it. I’m not sure if you need to be logged in to facebook to see it, and I don’t know how to get around it if you don’t have a facebook account – sorry!

You can see examples of how I used this kind of error categorisation in my own Russian learning in the ‘Writing’ section of the post How I’m learning Russian (part 2).

Russian journal

Russian journal

Have you tried anything similar?

Writing ELT materials for primary (guest post)

At this year’s IATEFL Materials Writing SIG pre-conference event, Katherine Bilsborough offered us tips on writing materials for primary-age young learners. These were really useful, so I asked her to put together a blog post summarising them for you.

Writing ELT materials for primary can be great fun but don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s somehow easier than writing materials for an older age group. It isn’t. It has just as many challenges but some might be less obvious at first. Following on from the talk I did at this year’s MaWSIG pre-conference event at IATEFL, here are five things to take into consideration for anyone thinking of writing for primary.

1 What does primary actually mean?

The term primary usually covers six years – a long period in the life of a child. Materials that are suitable for a year 1 or 2 pupil aren’t suitable for a year 5 or 6 pupil – for a number of reasons. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the age group for which you are writing. The best way, of course, is to teach this age group yourself, but this isn’t always possible. The next best thing would be to observe some classes being taught – but fortunately there are a few easier things you can do too.

When you know the age group for which you are writing, check out the kind of things they are doing at school by using the UK’s Key Stage classification. Once you know the key stage, you can go to sites such as BBC Bitesizeand look at what children are doing in terms of subject matter and activity types. Remember this is a site for British school children whose first language is usually English so the language used might be more complex that the language you need to use in an ELT context. A good place to go to get an idea of the kind of vocabulary and grammar your target users need for their age group is the Cambridge English Exams website**. The word lists are very similar to word lists in the syllabus of most course books, especially since more and more course books now include exam preparation materials.

2 Primary appropriateness

The most important starting point for anybody writing materials for primary children is appropriateness. There are lots of ways to interpret this but we all know what it means. Primary materials have all the usual no-no’s and then a few more. Publishers usually provide a list of things they wish to avoid. Many of them are common sense but others might surprise you. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with all of the potential restrictions to your creativity. It’s frustrating having to completely rewrite a story, for example, because you’ve included something that needs to be cut … and the story won’t work without it. This is why it’s also a good idea to run your ideas past your editor before embarking on a writing marathon. I haven’t given any specific examples here … that’s a whole blog post in itself!

3 Illustration

Illustration is important in primary materials and once again the importance of age appropriateness needs to be considered. Look at some storybooks for five-year-olds and then at some others for nine-year-olds. You’ll notice all kinds of differences. Not only obvious things like word count or language used but also themes, genres and art styles. I have heard that more and more photos of real-life people and objects are appearing in materials for ever-younger learners. This might reflect changes in their real worlds where they are watching an increasing number of youtube videos and have much more access to photos.

It’s worth investing in a scanner if you start writing primary materials. Editors, designers and illustrators appreciate getting a scanned sketch of your perception of a page. They also like to see more detailed drawings of story frames or pages where the illustration is key to the understanding of the text. It’s worth pointing out that one of the best things about seeing the final product is seeing the brilliant work of the artists in transforming your roughly sketched ideas into work of true beauty.

4 Instructions/rubrics

When it comes to writing materials for primary I think a good rule of thumb for an instruction is ‘the simpler, the better’. That’s probably the case for all kinds of materials, for all ages and levels, but with primary it’s especially important because in the case of the youngest learners, some might not be able to read yet. Have a look at the instructions in materials for this age group. Note how they change according to the age and how simple icons are used for year 1 pupils to support the learning.

5 Useful websites for a primary materials writer

All professionals have their favourite websites and primary materials writers are no different. Here are 6 of mine. If you have any others, let us know. It’s always great to discover a new one.
Paste a text and get an instant colour-coded version, showing at a glance where each word lies within the CEFR guidelines or the AWL (academic word list) guidelines. Perfect for adapting the level of reading and audio texts.
*BBC Bitesize archives for different UK curriculum key stages.
Easy-to-use, quick and simple recording site. Useful for sending your editor an audio of how you imagine a chant, song etc. sounding.
Age appropriate news stories from around the world (older primary).
Free online puzzle maker where you can create crossword grids and word searches quickly and easily. Other online puzzle makers make anagrams, jumble sentences and create other kinds of puzzles.
** Downloadable pdf wordlists for each level (Starters, Movers, Flyers, KET and PET).


Whether you are writing primary materials for your own classes or to share with others, for a blog, a website or a publisher, don’t forget the most important thing – have fun!

About Katherine

Katherine has worked in ELT since 1986 as a teacher, teacher trainer and author. She has published coursebooks and materials for all ages and contexts. Her primary materials include Dream Box, Ace! Oxford Rooftops, a new course book for OUP and a new online course for BBC English. She develops print and digital materials for the British Council and the BBC and regularly contributes to the LearnEnglish and TeachingEnglish websites. When she isn’t writing, she is gardening. Not having a blog of her own, Katherine enjoys gatecrashing other people’s blogs and was recently named ‘the interloping blogger’ – a title she approves of.

Katherine Bilsborough

If you want to find out more about materials writing, why not get a copy of Katherine’s new e-book How to write primary materials, written for the ELT Teacher2Writer site. (If you decide to buy it through Smashwords with this link, I’ll get a few pennies!)

Images in the classroom (Torun Teacher Training Day 2016)

ELTpics session IH Torun TTD Sandy Millin 23rd April 2016 title slide

This was a slightly shorter version of an online workshop which I ran in January 2015 for International House called Picture This. You can find all of the links to the posts and online tools I mentioned, plus a recording of the one hour webinar, on the Picture This page.

You might also be interested in my recent review of the book Working with Images [affiliate link] by Ben Goldstein.

The talk was part of the Torun Teacher Training Day, which also featured talks by Marjorie Rosenberg, Hugh Dellar, Glenn Standish, and various local teachers from Torun and Bydgoszcz, including some from IH Bydgoszcz.

Richer Speaking – my first book

I’m very excited to announce that I have written and published my very first ebook:

Richer Speaking cover

Cover designed by Luke Meddings at the round

Here’s the blurb:

Are you tired of your students running out of things to say? This book will show you 12 different ways to adapt a wide range of speaking activities to get more out of them in the classroom, divided into four categories:
– Preparing to speak
– Adding repetition
– Extending speech
– Having a reason to listen
There is a full index showing you what kind of activities the techniques work particularly well with, as well as worked examples of each technique in action. All of them are ready to take into the classroom with the minimum of preparation.

Richer Speaking is available to purchase at Smashwords and Amazon [affiliate links] and costs less than 1USD. It’s part of the round minis series, all of which you can spot on their titles page by looking for similar covers to mine, and all available at the same bargain price.

I could never have done this without the help and encouragement of Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings at the round and editor Karen White, as well as the people who helped me come up with some of the ideas included in the book. Thank you so much!

I hope you find Richer Speaking useful, and I would of course appreciate any and all feedback which you have.



I’ll try to collect any reviews that I see here. Thanks to everyone who has said such nice things about the book!

Cambridge Exams: The Writing Paper (IH Bydgoszcz Cambridge methodology day 2016)

Today I had the pleasure of taking parting in the IH Bydgoszcz Cambridge methodology day. I presented a range of activities to help teachers prepare students for the Cambridge First and Cambridge Advanced writing exams.

The slides from the presentation and all of the resources can be found below. You can download everything from slideshare, for which you will need to create a free account. The links in the presentation are clickable. You’ll find full details of all of the activities in the notes which accompany each slide, which you’ll be able to see when you download the presentation.

Potato talks was taken from Thinking in the EFL Class by Tessa Woodward (published by Heibling Languages – affiliate link)

FCE essay to put in order (via Pavla Milerski):

For more on linking words of contrast, please see my Contrast Linkers post.

Telescopic Text is a way to get your students to play with language and experiment with writing longer stretches of text. Here’s the example I shared.

The other links I shared were my Useful FCE websites page, flo-joe, Cambridge Write and Improve and my student’s guide to Quizlet, including the link to my B2/FCE Quizlet group. While the last link may not seem so connected to writing, a) it’s amazing, and b) it’s great for practising spelling as well as expanding the range of vocabulary students know.

Cambridge exam writing IH Bydgoszcz Sandy Millin 13th February 2016 (presentation title slide)

I’d like to thank David Petrie and Pavla Milerski for activities which they allowed me to incorporate into the presentation, and Anna Ermolenko and Tim Julian for other ideas which didn’t make it in in the end. If you’d like more ideas, you can watch David’s webinar on writing skills for exam practice. Being connected to a network of such helpful teachers is so useful. Thank you!

Getting started as a materials writer (MaWSIG guest blog post)

MaWSIG is the Materials Writing Special Interest Group of IATEFL, the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language.

MaWSIG logo

They run a blog which features a new post every month from members of MaWSIG. I think I’m the least experienced writer to feature on there so far 🙂 It’s a real pleasure to be asked to join in with what I have already found to be a very useful blog from a very useful SIG!

My post is called Getting started as a materials writer. I share some of questions I have wanted answers to as I’ve started out with materials writing and tips for my fellow new writers. I’d be interested to see what people add to the list.

Activities for Christmas and New Year (BELTA webinar)

On Sunday December 13th 2015 I did a webinar for the Sundays with BELTA series from the Belgian English Language Teachers’ Association.

Sandy - Sundays with BELTA square poster

Here are the slides from my presentation, including links to all of the activities.

All of the links are below, just in case you can’t see them or click on them on the slides:

Many of the activities should be self-explanatory, but if not, you can watch the recording to find out how to run the activity. If you’re a BELTA member, you can watch recordings of webinars from the past six months. Anyone can watch older webinars from the series. My recording should be freely available to all from July 2016.

I’d be interested to hear how you use the activities in your own classrooms, and what adaptations you needed to make to fit your context.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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