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

Posts tagged ‘grammar’

100 ideas for exploiting activities

On 3rd June 2020, I presented a webinar for IH Bucharest demonstrating how to exploit activities in lots of different ways, with minimal planning required by the teacher. Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to use every activity in the same lesson, but the ideas I shared were designed to demonstrate how you can make a single exercise lead to a much wider range of practice activities, depending on what your learners need help with. The slides are here (though they’re much more useful when presenting than referring to them later! See below the slides for a more useful link!):

All of the ideas in the webinar were originally designed for a face-to-face classroom, but most of them can be used as is or with only minimal adaptations in an online classroom. They were originally shared on my blog in the post One activity, multiple tasks, based on a task from ELT Playbook 1. ELTPB 1 is a book of short tasks for teachers to help them reflect on their teaching.

ELT Playbook 1 cover and topic areas: back to basics, examining language, upgrading skills, being creative, exploring your context, teacher health and wellbeing

ELT Playbook Teacher Training is also available, both at prices designed to fit a teacher’s pocket!

ELT Playbook Teacher Training cover and topic areas: what is training, planning training, observation: written feedback, observation: spoken feedback, workshops and input, other aspects

During the webinar, I mentioned Sarah Mercer’s CAN DO for improving engagement:

Competence (mindsets and self-determination)

Autonomy (give choices, learning strategies)

Network (of relationships: T-S, S-S)

Do (action to beat boredom)

Oh! (grab and keep their attention)

(from Sarah Mercer, IH Barcelona conference, 7th February 2020)

You can find out more by watching her webinar, the foundations of engagement: a positive classroom culture. She has recently published a book with Zoltan Dörnyei called Engaging Language Learners in Contemporary Classrooms (Amazon affiliate link). I haven’t read it yet, but I have no doubt it’s full of useful advice!

If you’d like more ideas to make your planning easier, 101 things to do with a coursebook page (all of which take less than 5 minutes to prepare!) covers a whole range of different ways to adapt coursebook activities. Why should they care? has lost of ideas for helping students engage with the materials or activities you are using.

My ebook, Richer Speaking, costs less than $1, and contains 16 ways to adapt speaking activities to help students get more out of them. You can find four of the ideas for free in this post.

Richer Speaking cover

If you’d like ideas specific to teaching online, particularly using Zoom, then try ideas for adapting group lessons to working on Zoom. Some of these may take a little longer to prepare, but I’m a firm believer in teachers doing less work and students doing more!

Let me know which ideas you’ve tried out and how they go with your classes.

Enjoy 🙂

There’s always a story

The personal stuff

I’m aiming to be more conscious in how I use words right now, as I’m more and more aware of how much impact tiny changes in wording can have (social distancing/physical distancing anyone?) As Terry Pratchett says in A Hatful of Sky:

“There's always a story. It's all stories, really. The sun coming up every day is a story. Everything's got a story in it. Change the story, change the world.”  ― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

Things I’ve stopped saying/writing:

  • In these difficult/challenging times
    They’re as difficult/challenging as you feel they are, this differs for everyone, and nobody needs to be reminded.
  • The new normal 
    Yes, I know I wrote a post called that a few weeks ago. Normal is what you decide it is.
  • As soon as this is over, I’m going to… / I wish I could…
    These phrases frustrates more than help. There is no end date on this thing, but one day we’ll look back and it’ll be in the past. It’s like growing up: there’s no fixed point when you become an adult, but you definitely look back and you’re not a child any more. Why not say ‘Next week, I’m going to…’ and give yourself things that are manageable now to look forward to? And create a jar of post-lockdown plans.

Things that frustrate me when I see/hear them:

  • Now that you have all of this time on your hands…
    An assumption that is not universal. My workload has stayed pretty similar, and I know others who are busier than ever and are not necessarily taking breaks as they would have before. I know we are lucky to still have work and things to do that are similar to pre-coronavirus times, but you are lucky to have a different range of stressors than previously (I’m not going to say to have nothing to stress you out, because I know that’s not true either). Yes, we might not be able to do all the things we would like, but there are so so so many things we can choose to do. 
  • We/I don’t know what’s going to happen.
    We never do. Now is no different. We need to change what we can and accept what we can’t.

I entirely realise you may not agree with this, but that’s why it’s the personal stuff…it’s how I feel, and you’re allowed to feel different. We’re all allowed to deal with this in our own way. 

However, one thing is always true: if you’re finding it difficult to deal with, please don’t do it alone: ask people for help. You are absolutely not alone, and this is more true than ever before. COVID-19 affects the entire human race and, quite literally, none of us are immune to it or the side-effects of restrictions that it brings along with it. Look after yourselves, and don’t bottle up the frustration.

Here’s some fantastic advice from Stephen Fry on dealing with anxiety and stress whilst self-isolating during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s 2 minutes and 39 seconds of time well-spent to listen to him talking. And here’s Phil Longwell’s post on Covid-19 Mental Health and Wellbeing for teachers. 

My Zoom lessons

This week our lessons with elementary teens introduced a story, the longest text they’ve read so far, and worked on adjectives and adverbs.

Are you sitting comfortably?

I decided it was finally time to teach my students how to use annotation themselves – previously only I had used it. We had 10 minutes at the start of the lesson where they could write or draw whatever they wanted on a blank slide. I turned on ‘Show names of annotators‘ so I could check who was doing what. We were going to play a game, but it took so long to figure out the annotation that we didn’t bother!

They’d finished 8 sentences for homework where they wrote about things they and their family were (not) going to do. In breakout rooms, the students compared their plans and helped each other improve the grammar if needed. As a mini writing assessment, they copied the sentences in the chat box. I told them I was testing their writing and I wanted to check their work, and only one student complained slightly 😉 

By this time, it was break time – a prime example of how everything takes so much longer in Zoom!

The story we were using came with pictures to put in order. Before listening, students wrote sentences starting ‘I see…’ (e.g. I see a boat. I see a boy. I see a computer.) then ‘I think…’ (e.g. I think he’s good. I think the computer is important.) in the chat box to engage them with the story.

The first time they just read and listened to it, then showed thumbs up/down/in the middle on their cameras to indicate whether they liked it or not – the first time I’ve included a pure enjoyment reading/listening task in my lessons!

In breakout rooms, students put the pictures in order. They underlined the part of the text which went with each picture. I had to go to the rooms a few times to clarify how to do this as we’d never done this before (the readings we used were never really long/challenging enough in the rest of the book, or were far too hard and we skipped them!)

The final part of the lesson was a reading assessment which we did using a Google Form. There were seven three-option multiple choice questions, with images to support their understanding of the options.

With the first group, we had just enough time to manage this. With the second, we had a few extra minutes but not enough time to do anything else, so I told them their scores and encouraged them to keep resubmitting. This was very quick and easy because the form was self-marking (yay, multiple choice!) and they all submitted it at least three times in the time we had available, some more, focussing on the questions they had problems with. The image below shows only the resubmissions, not the original ones – there are 8 students in the group!

I used conditional formatting to show problem questions (thanks Ruth!) so I could tell the students which ones to retry quickly.

As you can see, question 5 was a particular problem. By the way, this is a rare example of some coursebook reading which provided a good level of challenge – most of the ones I come across are either far too easy or far too hard! 

Making things interesting

The homework from the previous lesson was to write a very short story, around 3-4 sentences. Whenever I’ve set non-workbook homework before, only one or two students have done it. This time, only one or two didn’t in each group 🙂 One girl wrote two 1.5 page stories – I know she used Google Translate to help her, but I don’t really care – I’m so impressed at her motivation!

The lesson started with them in breakout rooms reading their stories to each other. The ones who hadn’t written one were in a separate room and had to write something very short: who went where to do what. The aim was to use the stories at the end of this lesson, but realistically I knew that probably wouldn’t happen, so they’ll be used on Monday instead.

To set the context, students looked at the pictures from Monday’s lesson and retold the story. In both this activity and the one where they told their own stories, I only heard a couple of adjectives and no adverbs, so I knew the lesson would be useful 🙂

We looked at four sentences from the story with and without adjectives. I asked if 1 or 2 is better in a story and why (2, because it’s longer and more interesting. I get a better picture in my head.)

I was pretty sure the students wouldn’t know the names for parts of speech in English, but would in Polish, so I had a list of the translations on my plan. I showed them the ‘2’ sentences with adjectives and nouns highlighted, elicited the parts of speech, told them the English word, then asked them to write down ‘Adjectives talk about nouns.’ and colour it in as on the following slide.

(Adjectives are yellow. The nouns they describe are blue.) Justin Time was in a strange room.   What’s that horrible noise?   Chelsea was there too. She was very sad.   ‘Well done! The world is safe again now,’ said Justin. (The next part is in a box) adjectives   nouns   Adjectives talk about nouns.

This was the beginning of a very staged process to give them a really clear written record. In a physical classroom or with older students, I would probably give them a worksheet to go through and fill in the gaps working at their own speed alone or in pairs, but this was the only way I could think of to keep everyone with me in a Zoom lesson.

We worked through four different adjective sentence structures and they wrote then read out their own versions of the sentence, and colour-coded it. This gave them the chance to personalise the grammar point. Fast finishers could write extra sentences. 					   (in/on/at)   (a/an)   ADJECTIVE     NOUN  Justin Time was   in       a    strange   room.  Justin Time was   __      _   ______   ____.

After break, I showed them three different things from my flat. They had to ask me questions using an adjective and a noun e.g. What’s that brown bear? Who’s that cute baby? I answered with an adjective and a noun too: That brown bear is my favourite teddy bear. That cute baby is my friend’s daughter, Megan.

They then got three things of their own and played the same game in breakout rooms.

We repeated the grammar introduction process with adverbs and different colour-coding, but didn’t have time to practise them in this lesson.

(Adverbs are purple, verbs are orange) She laughed horribly.   I think we can escape easily.   Chelsea took the boat safely back to the harbour. (in a box:) adverbs   verbs   Adverbs talk about verbs.

The students were generally engaged in the grammar introduction process because it was broken down so much. I probably got them personalising the language a lot more than I would have done in a lesson I’d taught in a physical classroom previously. This is definitely something to remember later!

Zoom thoughts and tips

When using the annotate tool, students on phones and tablets only have the ‘pen’ option. They can’t type, stamp, draw boxes, or any of the other fun things those on computers can do.

On Thursday I did a Zoom training session which I’ll be sharing later. Dan, one of the participants, suggested assigning each student a question number from an exercise. They type the answer to only that question in the chat box. Can’t believe I hadn’t thought of this before 😉

My colleague Connor has been playing with the free VoiceMod software with his young learners. This allows you to change how you sound with a huge range of effects. He used it to add some fun to pronunciation drilling, with the kids trying to copy the way his voice sounded. It’s Windows only at the moment, with Mac and Linux versions in development.

I’ve been trying to get my second teenage group to consistently have their cameras on because it makes a huge difference to how the lesson feels. This recent Twitter thread made me frame my thoughts differently (click this tweet to see the whole thread):

It might be worth showing reluctant students that they can use speaker view and pin the teacher’s video. When using full screen they can hide the rest of the students, including their own video. It may just be that they don’t want to see themselves – I get it, I tend to try to minimise my video when I’m just chatting to one or two people on Skype or similar. 

Useful links

Scott Donald has a thought-provoking post about why you shouldn’t necessarily ‘hover’ in breakout rooms when students are doing activities, but instead give them some space to get on with it. 

Jane Maria Harding da Rosa’s blog is back 🙂 In her most recent post, she shares personal anecdotes about chanting and how it helps students remember new language. I’d highly recommend her articles called Creating Chants and Don’t Drawl the Drill if you’re looking for ways to improve your drilling and help students remember new language for longer, both in the online and offline classroom. If you’re teaching asynchronously, you could do this through recordings.

The Virtual Round Table conference happened on 8th and 9th May. I attended Graham Stanley’s session demonstrating how to set up an escape room in your online classroom. The recording is here:

There’s lots of useful information on escape rooms in ELT on this blog, including the definition of an escape room if you’re new to them:

Hana Ticha is teaching asynchronously (i.e. not via a video conferencing tool like Zoom). She talks about the pros and cons of synchronous and asynchronous teaching, and how she aims to overcome the cons of asynchronous teaching in this post.

Kate Martinkevich shares a post from the Learning Scientists blog on six strategies for effective distance learning and notes how it could be applied to ELT.

Jim at Sponge ELT describes how he includes experimental lessons in the teacher development programme at his school, and some things teachers have been experimenting with when teching online.


Each week I’ve summarised what our teachers and I have learnt during the transition to online teaching. Every post includes some tips about using Zoom, activities we’ve tried out (many adapted from the face-to-face classroom), and reflections on how my teaching and management have been affected by working from home. Here are all of the posts so far:

You may also find some other posts on my blog/which I’ve written useful:

What we do

There isn't a way things should be. There is just what happens, and what we do. Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

The personal stuff

Last week would have been Terry Pratchett‘s birthday, hence the quote above. It was also the 30th anniversary of Good Omens, written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. To mark the occasion, and to provide a little light relief, Gaiman and team have put together this conversation between Crowley and Aziraphale:

I’ve been really enjoying all of the culture that we’re now able to access from our homes. Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, National Theatre plays (consistently showcasing the most amazing staging I’ve ever seen!), Royal Opera House performances, and Shakespeare plays from The Globe. That’s why I donated to Acting for Others this week – I’m lucky enough to still have money coming in, but many performers are out of work for who knows how long. If you have a few spare pennies at the moment, consider donating to a charity that means something to you as a lot of charities are struggling right now (and if you don’t have any, don’t worry about it! I hope you do soon!).

The other change that I’ve really enjoyed in the past few weeks is the number of international group conversations I take part in every week, both with old friends and making new ones. Also online quizzes, online games with friends and family, and Crafternoon (genius, Laura!). As somebody who’s lived abroad, moved around and lived alone for most of my adult life, this is a great way of maintaining continuity within different areas of my life and making me feel less lonely (luckily I don’t feel like this very often any more!) Thank you to all those organising these 🙂 I really hope they continue when the world opens up again (not when things go back to normal – normal doesn’t exist).

My Zoom lessons

I’m going to…no, I’m not!

I’m very lucky that it’s taken 7 weeks before internet problems have interrupted a lesson. In my second lesson on Monday it cut out at exactly 18:17 for ten minutes, then at 19:17 for ten minutes – weird! Apparently my provider had problems across Europe. Unfortunately I didn’t notice that when I came back the first time Zoom had reopened my personal meeting room instead of the room for my lesson, so I lost an extra 15 minutes before I realised that I was in one place and my students were in another. That meant a total of 40 minutes of our 90 had been lost (we only managed to get to ‘I’m going to…’ in the lesson described below). Thankfully, this was the first of two lessons on the same language point so we could make up for lost time on Wednesday.

The warmer was really successful with group one: Silent TV from Film, TV and Music [Amazon affiliate link]. Thanks to Jude for spotting it! They had to mime one of the TV genres from last week’s lesson for their classmates to guess. I put them in breakout rooms, and it was very entertaining dropping in and out as they got really into it. With group two (as expected!), they didn’t go for it at all. Instead when I went in the rooms I discovered they’d all come up with their own versions. One groups drew pictures of the genres to show classmates (like pictionary), another were listing examples of programmes from that genre, and the third were describing what you see on that kind of programme. I applauded their creativity 🙂

To test whether these elementary teen students already knew the ‘going to’ structure, we did a drawing dictation. I described my plans for the May Day weekend, and they drew pictures. At each point I showed which part of the grid they should draw in using a mini whiteboard:

These were the results from group one:

They got really into it, showing me their pictures after every couple of sentences. This also helped me to check they’d understood the sentences.

They went into breakout rooms in 3s, working together to remember what I’d said. I dropped in and out to see if any of them were using ‘going to’. One or two were attempting it, with results like ‘I go speaking with my friend.’ ‘I going play game.’ but most of them weren’t (as expected!)

I showed them the whole text so they could check what they’d remembered, and to expose them to the language one more time before presenting it.

We then went through a series of slides (I; he/she/it; we – and by extension you/they; question form), eliciting the structure using the Zoom annotation tool (so I typed ‘____ going ____’ for example)…

I sit on my balcony in the sun. I use my computer.

…then showing the full structure with colour coding to highlight the different parts.

I'm (blue) going to (pink) sit (underlined) on my balcony in the sun.

As a written record after each slide, the students wrote personalised sentences using that form. For example, ‘I’m going to play in the garden.’ ‘My sister isn’t going to watch Netflix’. I was able to correct the form of all of these as the students asked if they could read them out – everybody ended up reading out their sentences to the whole class, which didn’t take that long as they finished at different times.

In hindsight, I should have include the time marker in the sentence e.g. On Saturday. We did this verbally, and I clarified that it was the future repeatedly, but visual support would have helped.

They then drew their own weekends. The final step was to go into breakout rooms and guess what their partner was going to do. If student A got the right answer, student B had to show them the picture. This worked really well and students were attempting to use the form, and seemed to enjoying the guessing game.

And you?

The second lesson started with ‘find the mistakes’ based on form problems both groups had had on Monday. I copied the sentences into the chatbox one by one for them to correct.

I’m going watch Netflix. Marta going to read. You is going to go shopping. They are going to seeing their friends. I’m don’t going to play Minecraft. My mum not going to make lunch. We are no going to see my grandma. We’re going to cinema.

With the second group, I then asked them to copy the following into their notebooks – this was a replacement for the part of the lesson we’d missed on Monday.

You are going to go shopping. (NOT You going) They are going to see their friends. (NOT seeing) I’m not going to play Minecraft. (NOT I don’t going) We’re going to go to the cinema. (NOT going to cinema)

The homework slide used the same colour coding as the previous lesson, and I spent time with the second group to make them check the forms carefully in their workbooks, as we hadn’t been able to go through them on Monday. They had much more intensive correction throughout the lesson, including brief pauses where I clarified aspects of the form that group one had grasped by the end of Monday’s lesson.

(I'm = blue, Are = orange, is = yellow, not = red, infinitive = underlined) 2 I’m not going to miss The Simpsons. 3 Are you going to watch it all? 4 I’m going to watch that. 5 Are you and your brother going to finish your homework? 6 I’m going to record In the House. 7 Dad is going to watch the football. 8 Mum is going to see her programme. 9 Karina isn’t going to miss her reality show. 10 I’m going to do some work.

To introduce a short listening activity, we did a chain drill of ‘Are you going to… on [day]?’ ‘Yes, I am.’ ‘No, I’m not.’ – student A asked student B, student B asked C, C asked D, etc. I drilled them all chorally first so they would be more confident producing them. This allowed them to personalise the topic a little and understand the prepared them to match the phrases they heard to the pictures (taken from Project 2 4th edition).

Are you going to...? Yes, I am. No, I'm not. (images of football, homework, piano, bed, swimming pool, messy room)

The listening answers provided the context for more short answer practice: Is Marco going to go swimming? No, he didn’t. Are Di and Kris going to do their homework? No, they aren’t. By the way, I insisted on ‘going to go’ not just ‘going’ as some of them understandably confused the structure with one of motion, and all of their examples were things like ‘I’m going to my grandma’s.’ ‘I’m going to the video games.’ I think it’s clearer when they include a full verb every time when students first learn this structure, even if it sounds a little odd.

For the final practice I prepared breakout rooms for pairs of students, but didn’t start them yet. Instead, I told them who their partner would be – first they just had to write down their name: ‘Sandy, write Emma.’ ‘Emma, write Sandy.’ Then they had 5 minutes to write as many predictions as they could in their notebooks about their partner’s weekend, including family members, e.g. ‘Sandy isn’t going to go to the cinema.’ ‘Sandy’s mum is going to speak to her.’ When they went to the rooms, they had to ask Yes/No questions to find out if they were right or not and tick/cross the sentences. To round off the activity in the main room, they wrote as many correct sentences as they could in the chatbox in five minutes.

Again, this lesson worked really well and the students were engaged throughout. I feel like both groups now understand the structure of ‘going to’ for future plans and can spot and correct the mistakes they make. Let’s see if they remember it next week!

Thoughts and ideas

Char and I were chatting about why young learner classes are much more tiring for everyone concerned when they’re online than in the classroom. She pointed out that you no longer have all of those little transitions or natural breaks that you would in the physical classroom, for example when they move from sitting on the floor to sitting on the chair, or those routines that always seem to take ages, like putting their coats on and getting their bags at the end of the lesson (5 minutes at least!) These give everyone a mental break in the lesson. We talked about finding activities to replace them that aren’t too cognitively demanding, such as adding in some song routines at the start and end of the lesson, or adding in little dances between activities. Is this something you’ve noticed? How do you deal with it?

When preparing the drawing lesson, I discovered Google AI experiments, some of which I think have a lot of potential for the online classroom.

In AutoDraw, you scribble on a whiteboard and it suggests images you might be drawing. You can click on the one you want. Here’s the first very random picture I produced when experimenting with the features:

Submarine under waves, with a yellow and blue monster holding a red suitcase (yes, it's as disorganised as it sounds!)

In Semantris blocks, you write words which are connected to the ones in the blocks. The AI guesses what you’re talking about and removes that block, plus any of the same colour which are connected to it.

In Semantris arcade, you write words which are connected to the one with an arrow next to it. If it’s classed as highly associated with the target word, it moves below the line and all the words below the line disappear. The game gets faster as you play. (Both of these games make more sense when you play them than from my description!)

Thing Translator works by taking a picture, identifying the object, then telling you the word in one of 10 languages.

Useful links

James Egerton shared ideas for including movement in lessons. I had an idea inspired by James which might work: play some music for everyone to dance to. When it stops, they need to make a shape that represents a recent piece of vocab. Everyone then calls out what they can see: James is an elephant, Sandy is a lion, etc.

Alex Case writes about how to organise drawing games on Zoom and useful language for giving instructions on Zoom.

Kate Martinkevich shared this post from Ditch That Textbook with 10 tips to support students with slow internet.

The TEFL Commute are producing a series of short podcasts called ‘Who’s Zooming Who?’ featuring conversations between Lindsay Clandfield and Shaun Wilden about teaching online. So far they’ve discussed what language to teach students to help them with Zoom, online whiteboards, and Zoom itself.

Reading a letter seems like a lovely idea, and something students could get involved in – that genuine authentic reason for reading aloud that some teachers have been looking for for years 😉

And here’s Caitlin Moran’s contribution to the series with advice to parents who are homeschooling:


Each week I’ve summarised what our teachers and I have learnt during the transition to online teaching. Every post includes some tips about using Zoom, activities we’ve tried out (many adapted from the face-to-face classroom), and reflections on how my teaching and management have been affected by working from home. Here are all of the posts so far:

You may also find some other posts on my blog/which I’ve written useful:

Being creative 3: One activity, multiple tasks – a minimal preparation workshop based on ELT Playbook 1

Way back in December I ran a 45-minute conference session based on a task from ELT Playbook 1, ‘One activity, multiple tasks’, which appears in the ‘Being creative’ section of the book.

ELT Playbook 1 cover

The book features 30 tasks designed particularly to help new teachers to reflect as they start out in ELT, but they are also suitable for managers and trainers who need ideas for professional development sessions. I was also partly inspired by the ideas in The Lazy Teacher Trainer’s Handbook by Magnus Coney [affiliate link], which advocates minimal planning and exploiting the knowledge in the room wherever possible. The final reason I chose this was that I was running out of time to plan my session as I was organising the whole day, and I needed to run two workshops! The other one was about how to learn a language, in case you’re interested.

Before the session, I choose an activity at random from a teacher’s book. The one I ended up with was to revise future forms, taken from page 146 of English File 3rd edition Teacher’s Book Intermediate Plus. It features a page of questions like this:

  1. A   Mum! I’ve dropped my ice cream!
    B   It’s OK, don’t worry – I’ll get / I’m getting you a new one!
  2. A   I’m freezing!
    B   Shall I turn on / Will I turn on the heating?

…and so on. There are 12 mini dialogues like this, each with two options to choose from – students can also tick if both are possible. At the bottom of the page is an ‘activation’ activity, where students write two mini-dialogues, one with will and one with going to. This planning stage took me about 15 minutes – 10 to decide what I was going to do in the session (i.e. which ELT Playbook 1 task I was going to exploit!), and 5 to pick and photocopy the activity.

In the abstract for the session it said that teachers would come away with lots of ideas for how to exploit activities. As the session started, I told them that those ideas would be coming from all of us in the room, not just me!

We started by them completing the original exercise. I demonstrated how to do quick feedback by getting different pairs to write their answers on the board, then just dealing with any questions where there was confusion. We were about 10 minutes into the session at this point.

In the same pairs, teachers worked together to list as many ways as they could think of to set-up, vary or exploit that same activity. They did this on the back of the sheet (minimal materials prep!) I put a few prompts on the board to help, something like: speaking, writing, listening, reading, alone, pairs, groups, class, etc. and elicited one or two examples to start them off. They had 10 minutes to make their lists.

At the same time, and once I’d checked they were all on track, I made my own list* on the back of my paper (minimal prep! Also, I ran out of time to do it before the session and thought it might be useful if at least some of the ideas came from me!)

We put our lists face up on our chairs for the ‘stealing’ stage. We read everybody else’s lists, putting a * next to any activities we didn’t understand. More *** meant that lots of people didn’t understand. This took about 5 minutes, so we were 25 minutes through the session.

Next people added any of the extra activities they liked the sound of to their own lists. 5 more minutes, 15 minutes left.

For the next 10 minutes, different people demonstrated the activities that had stars next to them in front of the whole group. As I expected, most of the ‘different people’ were me – I’d deliberately picked some slightly obscure things to stretch their range of ideas a bit!

In the final 5 minutes, I told them about ELT Playbook 1 and suggested they try this kind of brainstorming with other activities they want to use in class to help them vary their lesson planning. Right at the end, they had to tell their partner one activity they’d thought of or heard about in the session which they planned to try next week. The whole session went pretty well, I think, and I got good feedback afterwards. 🙂

*My list

These are the ideas I came up with in 10 minutes:

  • Remove the options.
  • Mini whiteboards.
  • I say A to the group, they predict B. Then in pairs.
  • Gallery walk (one copy of each question stuck up around the room)
  • Evil memorisation (one of my favourite activities, learnt from Olga Stolbova – the third activity in this blogpost)
  • Say all the sentences as quickly as possible (AQAP on my lesson plans!)
  • Banana sentences (replace the key words with ‘banana’ for partner to guess)
  • Extend the conversations (what was said before/after)
  • Decide who/where/when/why it was said (by)
  • Take the ‘wrong’ answer and create a context where it would be right
  • Translation mingle (students translate one conversation into L1 on a slip of paper, copying the English onto the other side. They then walk around showing other students the L1 to be translated.)
  • One group does 1-6/odd sentences. The other does 7-12/even sentences. Give them the answers for the other half. They check with each other.
  • Say them with different intonation/voices to create different meanings/situations.
  • Remember as many conversations as you can with your partner. Lots of variations for this: freestyle (no prompts), with A/B as a prompt, with (own/sketched/teacher-generated) pictures as prompts…
  • Hot seat/Backs to the board with a picture prompt for student looking at the board to say sentence A, person with back to the board says sentence B in response
  • Board race. Again, lots of variations: list as many sentences/conversations as possible on the whiteboard; teacher/a student says A, teams run and write B; combine with ideas above like banana sentences…
  • Teacher says first half of the sentence, pausing at a convenient point. Students say second half. Then in pairs. e.g. “Shall I…” “…turn on the heating?”
  • Students have A sentences. They write their own Bs on separate pieces of scrap paper, then mix them up. Another pair tries to match the As and Bs together.
  • Change A to the opposite/a slightly different phrase. What’s an appropriate B? e.g. “I’m boiling!”

Thanks to all of the people I’ve stolen those ideas from over the years 🙂

Let me know if you try out the brainstorming activity, the session, or any of the other tasks from ELT Playbook 1. I’d love to know how they work for you!

Disaster movies – a lesson plan (or two!)

This year I’m teaching a Proficiency group, with free choice of the materials I use and topics we cover. In the first lesson, we brainstormed a list of key words that could act as possible topics and each time I exhaust a topic I ask the students to choose the next thing they’d do from the list. This seemed like a really good idea at the time 😉 Then they chose…


I was completely stuck for inspiration, as the only thing in my head was Brexit and having only met them a couple of lessons before, this wasn’t a route I wanted to go down yet. Instead, I headed to the TD Lab Staffroom facebook group and asked them to help me out. If you’ve never come across the group before, Shaun Sweeney set it up as a way for teachers to ask for audio recordings on particular topics. And it was Shaun who rescued me, with a one-minute recording talking about what he thinks of disaster movies which he has agreed to me sharing here. That was the spark I needed, and it prompted two complete 90-minute lessons 🙂 Here they are…

Lesson 1: Intensive listening and spoken grammar

I started by displaying the collage of disaster movie posters from this website. Students discussed the following questions:

  • Do you like films like this?
  • Are there any you’ve seen? What did you think of them?
  • Are there any you’d like to watch? Why?

Next, I showed them a picture of Shaun. They had to predict whether he likes disaster movies or not, then listen and check. Here’s the recording (confusingly with a picture of me!):

Those were the easy stages!

The next part was the real challenge: listen what Shaun said and transcribe it word for word. Before the lesson I’d uploaded the recording to our Edmodo group, which all of the students had joined during our first lesson. Now they divided into groups based on how many people could easily access the recording via their smartphones, with one phone per group. They had as long as they needed to transcribe it, and could go back and forth as much as they wanted. To transcribe one minute of audio it took them around 30-40 minutes. If they didn’t know what something said, I encouraged them to play it repeatedly and make a guess. When one group finished, I skimmed what they had written and underlined sections for them to listen to again.

Once all of the groups had something, I switched on the projector and took dictation, replaying the audio section by section as we went along. Anything that they didn’t have exactly as it was in the recording was underlined in my transcript, and we went back and listened again. It took us 10-15 minutes to get the full transcript onto the board, and all of the students present were engaged throughout. As we did it, I explained possible reasons why they may have misheard things, for example words that sound similar, connected speech linking words together, or weak forms which almost disappeared. I made sure that every sound was transcribed, not just ‘grammatically correct’ utterances. The only thing that nobody in the class could hear was the ‘ll in Now I’ll generally… right at the start, which prompted a discussion of the difference between present simple and will to describe habits. Here’s the transcript we ended up with, including underlining to show areas which my students had trouble picking out:

Shaun’s disaster film transcript

In pairs, students had to identify all of the features of the text which are part of spoken grammar, not written grammar. They discussed it in pairs, then went to the board and circled everything they could find. We have a whiteboard and projector set-up, which makes activities like this much easier! Here’s the same transcript with all of the features of spoken grammar I could identify highlighted in yellow:

Shaun’s disaster film transcript with features of spoken grammar

We only had a few minutes of the lesson left, so we quickly listed these features, including:

  • repetition (it’s…it’s…; going to die, going to die, going to sit)
  • ‘simple’ linking words (and, but, or)
  • emphasis (you’re just going to sit…)
  • fillers (um…yeah…like)
  • unfinished utterances (one of the worst films)
  • approximation (probably around Christmastime)
  • lack of concrete ideas/listing information (something like Towering Inferno or something with a volcano, or people are stuck in a tunnel)
  • opinion phrases (I have to say; well I can’t get into it at all)
  • time phrases to structure speech (when I was a kid; more recently)

I’m sure that’s not exhaustive, and I know for a fact those aren’t the technical terms, but they’ll do! I emphasised that it’s not vital for students to speak like this, but that they still sometimes sound like they’re reciting from a piece of paper instead of speaking naturally, and that it’s OK to include any of these features in their speech 🙂

For homework, I asked them to read Mike Russell’s Make Your Own Disaster Movie cartoon and look up any of the vocabulary they didn’t know.

Lesson 2: How to create your own disaster movie (reading and speaking)

A slightly different combination of students in this lesson meant we started off by recapping what had happened in the previous lesson and giving everybody time to re-read the cartoon. We probably spent about 20-30 minutes clarifying various items of vocabulary with students trying to help each other to understand words, or me showing them how to find the information they needed in the OALD using the projector (they’re still pretty new to using monolingual dictionaries consistently, despite their level!) These are the words we decided to record on our word cards:

  • bicker
  • estranged family
  • wild conjecture
  • nature’s wrath/the wrath of God
  • lump things together, like it or lump it!
  • mankind’s hubris
  • a dormant volcano
  • mayhem
  • cat-burglar (this was their favourite, and has come up in pretty much every lesson since!)

I had cut up an article from The Guardian along similar lines to the cartoon, called How to write the perfect disaster movie. I gave each section to one student. They read it and wrote 3-5 key words or phrases on the back. The perfect disaster movie article to put in order

With their summaries (without looking at the original text), they then mingled to find out all of the ingredients that Paul Owen believes make the perfect disaster movie. As a class, they decided what order all of the sections should be in by sticking them to the board (with me out of the way). They read it all to check whether they were correct.

With two ‘menus’ for disaster movies to help them out, the students now worked in small groups to create their own storylines. We had about 10 minutes for this, with time for them to present their stories to the rest of us at the end. In the true spirit of disaster movies, these made very little sense but were very entertaining, with one featuring a volcano that stopped air traffic and a monk who decided that a sacrifice to the ancient gods was required to stop it, and the other starring a cop who was a single dad being fired from his job, a meteor shower set to destroy Earth, a magnet on the moon to stop it and a female scientist to coordinate the rescue attempt, who inevitably fell in love with the cop 🙂

Thanks Shaun!

Overall these were two very enjoyable lessons which the students got a lot of vocabulary and intensive listening practice out of, both things which they have told me they want. And all inspired by just one minute of audio!

Typical problems for Polish learners of English

Here is a list of some of the things I have noticed students doing since I arrived in Poland three years ago. Caveats:

  • My numbers here are based on impressions – there is no formal research to back it up! If you want more scientific and in-depth information about problems which Polish learners have with English, look at pages 162-178 of Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems edited by Michael Swan and Bernard Smith [affiliate link].
  • I realise that some of the things I’m correcting might not be in line with English as Lingua Franca, but they should be useful if you have students who want to take exams like Cambridge Proficiency. They’re often things which teachers don’t notice in my experience.
  • Having said that, I’ve skipped /th/ (who cares?!) and features of connected speech like weak forms because everyone has trouble with those things in English!

Please feel free to add to the list, or correct anything which you think I’ve got wrong!


The following do not exist in Polish (or, indeed, any Slavic language) so students tend to avoid them initially, then over-use them for a long time before they get them right:

  • Perfect tenses
  • Continuous tenses
  • Articles

By my estimate, they tend to start getting them right at around high upper-intermediate (B2) level, and are normally pretty consistent by advanced. Articles are the last things to stick – I think at C1 they get about 90% of them correct, and C2 is when they’re 99% correct.

In Polish, conditional sentences are marked in both clauses. When producing English conditionals, Polish learners often use would or will in the ‘if’ clause: *If it will rain, I won’t go.

Nouns are gendered in Polish. When replaced by a pronoun, masculine nouns become on (which is ‘he’ or ‘it’ in English), and feminine nouns become ona (‘she’ or ‘it’). At low levels, students sometimes therefore use ‘he’ and ‘she’ in English.


As in many languages, a single Polish word can be used for each of the following groups of English words:

  • make, do
  • say, tell, speak
  • borrow, lend
  • teach, learn, study
  • fingers, toes

come and go are also very confusing, though there are many, many different translations for these verbs. On that note, in Slavic languages ships and boats ‘swim’, rather than ‘float’ or ‘go’.

In Polish, you ‘make a photo’, rather than take a photo.

The preposition with is often added after verbs like contact and telephone, by analogy with Polish: *I need to contact with his parents. *I’ll telephone with Mark tomorrow.

My new favourite mistranslation is *guarantee guard instead of security guard 🙂 Another favourite is *I like eating Polish kitchen instead of I like eating Polish cuisine, or I like eating Polish food, which is the sentence I try to get students to say in this case. My students can sometimes be resistant to using food instead of cuisine!

Ordinal numbers are used in Polish in places where cardinal numbers are normally used in English. The main time I hear this is when students are referring to exercises or questions, so they say ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘third’, where I would say ‘Question 1’, ‘Exercise 2’, or ‘Number 3’.

The nouns ‘colour’ and ‘shape’ are often used when they are unnecessary in English. For example, *It has green colour. rather than It’s green. or *It has square shape. not It’s square.

For Polish learners (in Bydgoszcz at least!) ‘communication’ means the transport system, rather than being connected to sending information. A ‘karta komunikacja’ is a kind of travel pass, which they sometimes translate as a *communication card. I’ve heard sentences like *In Bydgoszcz we have a very good communication. meaning In Bydgoszcz we have a very good transport system.

‘Actually’ is a false friend. As in many languages, it means something like ‘currently’ or ‘up-to-date’ in Polish, depending on the context. ‘Buty’ is the general word for ‘shoes’, not just ‘boots’. ‘Pilot’ in Polish means ‘remote control’ in English.

My students overuse the word ‘hour’ in place of ‘time’. Examples of mistakes include *We start work at different hours. *It’s break hour. and *The hour of the concert was changed.


Stress almost always falls on the penultimate syllable in Polish words, so students do this by extension in English too. For example, I heard students saying /viOlin/ in a recent observation. Not necessarily super important for international communication, but useful to know about when predicting problems.

The intonation range of Polish is much narrower than in English, so students often sound pretty bored or robotic. I find this is less common if students watch/listen to a lot of English (so teens!). Students need to be really encouraged to be expressive in English and push themselves to use intonation to carry/emphasise meaning.

Sound-spelling relationships are very transparent in Polish, in contrast to English. Some spelling combinations in Polish cause confusion when encountered in English words, particularly for low-level students. For example, ‘ci’ in Polish is pronounced like ‘ch’ in English, but ‘c’ alone is pronounced like ‘ts’ in English. The word specialist particularly confused one group I had – some pronounced it with ‘ch’ in the middle /spe-cha-list/, and others with ‘ts’ and an extra syllable /spe-tsy-a-list/.

The most confusing vowel minimal pair for Polish/Slavic learners is /æ/ and /ʌ/, which is important for me as I often get called Sunday 🙂 This causes confusion with pairs like cap/cup, hat/hut and began/begun.

I tend to group problematic letters together when teaching the alphabet, rather than using an alphabet song. Here are the groups I use, ranked by my opinion on the most to least confusing for Poles:

  • a, e, i, y
  • g, h, j
  • c, s
  • k, q
  • u, v, w
  • x, z
  • r
  • o
  • f, l, m, n
  • b, d, p, t

I don’t normally include the final two groups apart from for beginners, as these letters are pretty similar in Polish I think (though I haven’t learnt the Polish alphabet properly myself yet – oops!) Here are some alternative groupings:

  • f, v, w
  • i, j, y
  • g, k, q


In Polish, the equivalents to ‘you’ (Wy, Pan, Pani…) are capitalised when they are polite, and ‘I’ (ja) is only capitalised at the start of a sentence. Look out for sentences like this: *He helped me so i understood. *What are You doing? Some of my upper intermediate students still did this – I guess nobody had ever pointed it out to them that our capitalisation rules are different!

Months and days start with lower-case in Polish, not capitals as in English.

Clauses introduced by ‘that’ (że) take commas in Polish, so learners produce sentences like *I know, that he is famous. In general, commas are used much more often in Polish than they are in English, and with a much wider range of conjunctions.

As in most European languages, dots and commas in numbers are the opposite way round in English to Polish, so Polish 0,5 would be English 0.5 (nought point five) and Polish 1.234 would be English 1,234 (one thousand, two hundred and thirty-four).

Slackline games, Bydgoszcz

Another challenging thing I’ve seen in Bydgoszcz!

IATEFL 2018: In the classroom

This is a collection of talks I saw at IATEFL Brighton 2018 which have ideas that can be used in the classroom, or thoughts on methodology that may influence your classroom practice. They’re arranged roughly from what I perceived to be the most theoretical to the most immediately practical (as in, activities you could use in class tomorrow).

The frequency fallacy

Leo Selivan’s talk examined how useful frequency-based word lists really are. You can watch the full talk yourself, or read my summary. We can often over- or underestimate how frequent words actually are due to the availability bias, which says that if something is easy to remember, it must be more frequent. There are many different ways you can check how frequent a particular word is, for example by looking at the information in learner dictionaries. In the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, there is information about how common a word is in both spoken and written English. For example, abroad is in the top 2000 words of spoken English, and top 3000 of written English. 80% of English texts are made up of high frequency words, and they are used as defining vocabulary, so it can seem a good idea to focus on them in our teaching.

However, there are many problems with these high frequency words. We can assume that if you know high frequency words you’ll be fine, with a high-level of understanding. Polysemy (same word, different meanings) isn’t acknowledged in word lists, for example the different meanings of ‘rough’ in ‘He’s got very rough hands.’ and ‘It’s just a rough estimate.’ ‘Cast’ has 10 different meanings as a verb, without thinking about its meanings as a noun. It’s essential to consider co-text too. This implies that we should teach collocations straight away, not wait until higher levels. Another problem with frequency lists is the grouping of words, so ‘name’ and ‘namely’ are there as a single item (I think!). This implies that learning ‘name’ should mean understanding of ‘namely’, which it obviously doesn’t! Some words we often use in the classroom don’t appear on frequency lists, like ‘homework’. Leo challenged us to think of 6 words or chunks that we think of when we see the word ‘travelling’. Mine were ‘plane’, ‘alone’, ‘passport’, ‘go away’, ‘holiday’ and ‘backpack’. Leo pointed out that most of the ones we came up with probably aren’t in the top 2000 or 3000, but if we’re travelling, they’re really important, so we also need to consider student needs, not just general frequency of words.

Another issue is that chunks like ‘at all’ or ‘bear in mind’ are non-transparent, so although some or all of the words may appear on a frequency list, it doesn’t mean students can understand them by learning the component words. The PHRASal Expressions List (PHRASE List) and PHrasal VErb Pedagogical List (PHaVE List) are two new frequency lists designed to take this into account, by including non-transparent multiword items.

I found the talk very interesting, and it certainly made me think about how useful frequency lists really are, but I was left wondering what we should do instead. I know it’s hard to answer that in 30 minutes, but I’m hoping Leo will go into more detail on his blog at some point.

Adi Rajan summarised the talk much more thoroughly than I did!

P.S. Another talk about word lists at this year’s IATEFL was Vocabulary lists: snog, marry, avoid? by Julie Moore. Her blog post includes lots of links for further reading too.

Pronunciation and phonology

Mark Hancock’s was called ‘Towards a pedagogical phonology’ and looked at developments in the way he believes that phonology should be taught in a post-ELF world. He highlighted that accent snobbery is pointless, as there are so many different accents in the world and none of them are any better than any others. He also said that it’s important to expose students to a variety of accents, since no matter how ‘perfectly’ you might speak, you can’t control how your interlocutor speaks. It also doesn’t matter which accent you use to speak, as long as it gains you access to the international community.

The more common a variant is between accents, the more likely it is to be understood. This therefore makes it less problematic for listeners to understand. For example, ‘free’ is such a common variant of ‘three’ now, that it is almost always understood. It also generally doesn’t make you less intelligible if you pronounce something that is written, like the ‘r’ in ‘Mark’, but it might make you less intelligible if you don’t say it. We should aim to build or grow our students’ accents, rather than to replace them.

When we think about teaching pronunciation, we ultimately have to think about what is essential and what is superficial. Mark used the metaphor of aliens finding a car in space and trying to copy it. They don’t know that the scratches on the car are not a key part of what makes it work, so they copy them with the same level of care as they copy the engine and the wheels. In pronunciation, the equivalent of the engine and the wheels are things like syllables and phoneme distinctions, whereas the schwa, weak forms and elision are like the scratches. Having said that, it’s important to negotiate the syllabus with students, as they may have different ideas to you about what they want.

You can use this inverted triangle as a kind of hierarchy of pronunciation skills to be developed, with lower order skills at the bottom, and higher order ones at the top:

Multiple entry point model

The full set of Mark’s slides are available here, and there is a treasure trove of other useful materials on the HancockMcDonald site, which he shares with Annie Hancock.


Nicola Meldrum and Mark McKinnon shared some of the insights into pronunciation which they have come up with while running teacher training courses. They were working with A1 groups, and wanted to ensure that they modelled an equal focus on meaning, form and sound/pronunciation with all groups. This meant using natural speech and intonation patterns, even at very low levels, and highlighting what happens when form and sound don’t seem to match. Often students and teachers seem to focus on meaning and form, neglecting the sound of new language. They shared a 3-minute video of Toni, talking in Spanish (subtitled) about his experiences of pronunciation in class. It’s well worth watching, as Toni described how useful he found individual drilling, transcription of phonemes, and being able to concentrate just on the sound of new language at times, among many other insights. Before these lessons, he only used to focus on the written form and not the sound, and now he notices a real difference in how much more confident he is.

Nicola and Mark also recommended feedback focussed planning, where you consider what problems students might have with the sound of new language and plan how you can help them with it. Give students time and space by reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ to get through and leaving time for feedback. A supportive listening cycle is also useful here: time and a variety of tasks means students can spend time really understanding the sound of new language. They have written a series of blog posts covering all three of the concepts they mentioned during their talk: MFS (meaning, form, sound), SLC (supportive listening cycle) and FFP (feedback-focussed planning).

Older learners

Heloisa Duarte’s talk looked at what we can do to support older learners in the classroom. Depending on your context, older learners can start at anything from 45 to 70. As Heloisa said, there aren’t many generalisations we can make about older learners, but one thing we can say is that their parents didn’t force them to come to the classes! They tend to be highly motivated, perhaps wanting to learn English to talk to new family members, perhaps to move to an English-speaking country, or to feel better about themselves and boost their confidence. For others, it is just because they’ve always wanted to and now have the time and money to do it. The social side of courses can also be very important for these students.

Challenges for older learners include health problems, like mobility, hearing or eyesight. For example, the higher the pitch of a voice, the harder it can be to understand. There may be affective factors, such as previous bad experiences with English teachers, or a feeling that it is too late for them to learn, affecting their self-confidence. There may also be cognitive challenges: ‘I want to learn, but I forget.’ Some younger students may have the perception that older students are helpless, or less able to participate, and this is very rarely true.

Heloisa asked us to think about how we might adapt the lessons for three possible students. One of them was shown in one of my favourite adverts ever:

She advised us to help learners to acknowledge every victory they have, and work hard at boosting their confidence. She recommended Seeds of Confidence by , [affiliate link] published by Helbling languages, as a source of other confidence-building activities.

Other advice included:

  • Choose coursebooks with appropriate topics, making sure they’re not pitched too young.
  • Adapt activities to suit the interests of your students. One example she gave was to listen to ‘Old Macdonald had a farm’, then write an advert for him to sell his farm because he’s going crazy!
  • Use and teach memorisation techniques.
  • Revise and recycle as often as possible.
  • Find out about learners and value their experience.

Ultimately, it’s most important to adjust the classroom and lessons to your learners, rather than demanding they adapt to you.

Clarifying grammar

David Connolly shared some Venn diagrams he has used to help students to understand grammar points, rather than trying to navigate the long and often complicated explanations that appear in a lot of course books. I was particularly interested in this session as I have been experimenting with different ways of clarifying language points for a while now, as any of you who have been following my blog for a while will know (another articles chart, anyone?!) David emphasised that Venn diagrams don’t provide a complete explanation covering all exceptions to rules, with context still being key. However, they can be used as a starting point for understanding. Here is one example for the uses of past simple, ‘used to’ and ‘would’ for past habits:

He also had diagrams for vocabulary, for example the different between a table and a desk, something I’d never really thought about before.

The final set of diagrams I have pictures of are connected to ‘have to’ and ‘must’ in the present and past:


Bruno Leys showed us a lot of pictures of real English in use that he has noticed in the UK and abroad, along with the kind of questions and follow-up tasks he uses with them. I would highly recommend looking at the full presentation, here, to see both examples of the pictures and his reasoning for approaching grammar in this way. I’ve selected a couple of my favourite examples to give you a taster. These two are great as the present perfect causes problems for speakers of a lot of languages, including Slavic languages, and these pictures help to make the meaning very clear:

'Fat rescues' article We have moved

If you’re interested in using ELTpics to work with grammar in this way, you could try the Signs or Linguistic Landscapes sets. Bruno also mentioned the free-to-download e-book The Image in English Language Teaching, edited by Kieran Donaghy and Daniel Xerri.


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