Memorisation activities

I put together this selection of memorisation activities for a CELTA course at LangLTC in Warsaw and thought it would be a good idea to share the activities here too. The activities can be used:

  • after error correction
  • to help students fix bits of new language in their heads before they need to produce it at a later stage in the lesson
  • to exploit decontextualised sentences, for example from a gapfill
  • to improve students’ confidence with bits of language
  • as learner training – once they’ve learnt them, a lot of the activities are things they can try themselves or with fellow students, without needing a teacher to set them up

They are taken from various wonderful people I’ve worked with in the past, plus a couple of my own ideas. If you think there are any that should be credited differently, please let me know. It would also be great if you could add your own ideas for activities in the comments. Enjoy!

Draw your sentence

Aims: To exploit students’ creativity. To personalise language.

Use this after students do a controlled practice exercise or study a new set of vocabulary.

  1. Students fold a piece of A4 paper into 8 boxes and put small numbers in the corner, like so:
1 2 1 2
3 4 3 4
  1. On the left half of the paper only (which should have 4 boxes), they illustrate four of the sentences/words in any way they choose, one per box. They shouldn’t write the sentence/word.
  2. Everyone puts the original sentences/words away.
  3. Give them the paper from another group. On the right-hand side of the paper, they should write the corresponding sentence/word.
  4. The original group corrects their answers and gives them feedback.

Mini books

A more high-tech version of ‘draw your sentence’, via Luke Raymond. Use this video to help you make your book:


  1. Page 1 (the front cover) shows the target word/sentence. Each student should have a different item.
  2. The book is passed to student B who draws a picture on page 2 to represent the target language.
  3. Student C looks at the picture and writes the word/sentence they think it is on page 3, without looking back to page 1. They fold the book so page 3 now becomes the front cover.
  4. The process is repeated until the book is finished.
  5. Much hilarity ensues as the students see the way the language has been illustrated and how it has changed throughout the book.

Students love the ‘Chinese whispers/telephone’ nature of this game 🙂

What do you mean you didn’t read the sentences?

Via Olga Stolbova
(I now call this ‘evil memorisation’!)

Aims: To encourage students to notice context. To make them aware of gaps in their language.

Use this after students do a gapfill exercise.

  1. Check the answers by writing them on the board (just the answers, not the complete sentence).
  2. Students put away the original exercise.
  3. They look at the answers on the board and have to recreate the original sentences. Expect protests! 🙂 Encourage them to write whatever they can remember, even if it’s just isolated words or phrases.
  4. If they’re really struggling/When you start feeling sympathetic, give them one minute to look at the exercise without writing anything, then close their books again and continue to work on reproducing the sentences.
  5. Students compare their recreated sentences to the originals. What were the differences?
  6. Optional extra evilness: put away the sentences you’ve just rewritten. Now say them all to your partner./Write them all again. You can also do this at the end of the lesson when they’ve done other things in between.

If students are depressed that they can’t remember everything, tell them you don’t expect this. I normally say that I want them to remember about 80% of the sentences immediately (with some effort), and about 50% by the end of the lesson, once we’ve done a few other things and they’ve had time to forget. It can be useful to show them the forgetting curve too.

Vocabulary revision game

Via Anette Igel

Aim: To revise vocabulary covered in previous lessons.

  1. Give each group a stack of small pieces of scrap paper (about 1/8 of A4 in size).
  2. They should write the English word/phrase on one side, and put either the translation, definition or example sentence on the other side. The game can also be played with word/vocabulary cards if this is something you use with your students.
  3. To create counters, rip one piece of small scrap into coin sized pieces. They write a letter or draw a symbol on each to indicate which is theirs. Alternatively, they can use any small item they can find (e.g. a paperclip, pen lid, etc).
  4. The final thing they need to prepare the game is either a coin, or a scrap paper ‘coin’, which can be made by folding another small piece up into a tight square, then writing ‘heads’ on one side and ‘tails’ on the other.
  5. The words should be arranged in a circle to create a game track. All of the counters should be placed on the same word to start.
  6. One player flips the coin. Heads = 2, tails = 1. To help them remember which is which, H has two legs, T has one leg. They move 1 or 2 spaces around the circle. When they land, they can do one of two things:
    1. If the word/phrase is face up, say the translation, definition or example sentence.
    2. If the translation/definition/example sentence is face up, say the word/phrase.
  7. In either case, if they are correct, they turn the card over and stay there. If they are wrong, they turn the card over and go back to where they started the turn.

The winner is the person who has moved furthest around the circle at the end of a specified time.

Back translation/Reverse translation

Aims: To help students notice differences between L1 and L2. To help them notice gaps in their language.

  1. Select one sentence per pair or ask students to choose one. Sentences could be from controlled practice exercises, tapescripts, reading, sentences produced by students…
  2. Each pair translates their sentences from English into L1. For multilingual groups, they work alone.
  3. Either: give the sentence to another pair immediately (if they share a language) OR take sentences away and return them to the same person/pair in the following lesson.
  4. Students translate the L1 sentence back into English.
  5. They then compare their English version to the original, and notice any differences. The teacher’s job is to point out whether the students’ English version is still acceptable, and to help them understand any mistakes or differences in meaning. Though it obviously helps, you don’t need to speak L1 to do this activity.

This could also be set up as a mingle activity. Student A says their L1 sentence, student B says it in English, then student B says their L1 sentence and A says it in English. If they get it wrong, the ‘L1’ student should say ‘No, try again.’ until they get it right. My students seem to get a lot out of this, especially with language that differs structurally from Polish, like verb + gerund/infinitive.

Drill, drill, drill

Aims: To improve student confidence before speaking. To help students internalise the language.

There are hundreds of ways to drill new language.

  • Point at words/flashcards, moving rapidly between them and returning to problem words often.
  • Whisper, shout, go slow, speed up, say it like an old lady/Arnold Schwarzenegger, be happy/excited/sad.
  • Boys and girls, call and response (e.g. half say question, half answer).
  • What’s missing? Students close eyes/turn around. You remove one or more flashcards/words.
  • Disappearing text (good for dialogues): start with the whole dialogue on the board. Gradually remove parts of it, either a line at a time or leaving behind key words, with students repeating it multiple times.
  • Key word drills (good for functional language): draw a table with numbered cells. Put one word from each sentence in each cell e.g. for the phrases How about going to the cinema?  What about seeing a film? Let’s watch a film. you could have:
    1. How    2. What    3. Let
    They say the phrase from memory. They can test each other by saying the number and their partner saying the sentence. Removing the words (but not the numbers!) increases the level of challenge. Follow up: can you remember all the phrases without looking?
  • Mingle: students have one picture/word each. They mingle, show their paper to their partner who has to say the correct word/phrase. To add challenge, they swap after each turn.
  • Circle drill: pass a flashcard around the circle. Each person says it in turn. You can also turn it into a dialogue e.g. Receiving student: What’s the weather like today? Passing student: It’s sunny. To add challenge, time the class to see how long it takes to pass around the whole circle, then repeat faster.

Some important things to remember are:

  • Make sure students know the meaning of the language before the drill.
  • Choral > group > individual. Don’t put students on the spot too early.
  • Model language naturally: you need to sound like a stuck record. It’s easy to overstress when correcting.
  • Keep the pace up. Add variety wherever possible. For example, can they drill it in pairs and listen to each other?

Mini challenges

Many of these can be done as pairwork after a teacher demonstration. Some are useful for fast finishers too.

  • Say all of the new vocabulary/sentences from the exercise as fast as you can to your partner.
    You can do this before drilling as a test, so that you only drill language students struggle with.
  • Can you remember the word/sentence before X on the list?
    If students really struggle, give them 1 minute to look and remember before doing the exercise.
  • How many of the words from the page can you write alone in two minutes? Compare with a partner.
    This can be at the end of a lesson after lots of work with the language, or at the start of the next class.
  • Mistake sentences: read the sentence with a mistake and students correct it.
    Mistakes could be false friends, articles, tenses (especially ones where connected speech confuses)…
  • Pause sentences: read a sentence but pause in the middle of the collocation. Do students know what comes next?
    Good for improving the ability to predict upcoming language when listening. 


Quizlet is an easy-to-use website which allows you to create lots of activities for the price of one – add some vocabulary and you immediately have about 6 games, plus the ability to print flashcards for lots more. For a full guide to how to use Quizlet and create your own content on there, plus links to level-specific groups, see – it’s a bit out-of-date as the site has changed it’s layout, but most of what’s on there still holds. If you have at least 6 devices (phones, tablets etc) in your classroom, you can also play Quizlet Live – my students absolutely love it!


Quizlet Live with a room of 40+ teachers
Quizlet Live with a room of 40+ teachers in Kazakhstan

What are your favourite memorisation activities?

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?

FCE Speaking part 3 and the L1

My FCE students sounded really stilted when they tried to do this speaking part 3 in class today (taken from the FCE Gold Plus student’s book, page 87). If you don’t know FCE, this part involves looking at 5-8 pictures and answering a question about them, then coming to some kind of decision.

There were three of them, and despite having phrases for turn-taking and ideas on the topic, they struggled to talk for three minutes, and sounded incredibly unnatural, with long pauses while they tried to work out what to say.
I described interactive communication and how people work together to come to a decision, and suggested they watch out for it in the next film/TV show they watch in English. Then we talked about how they do it in Russian. I then had a brainwave: why not get them to do the task in Russian first?
So that’s what they did, and wow! What a difference! They were talking over each other, finishing each other’s sentences, asking for opinions, and most importantly moving from one picture to the next quickly and efficiently. (Although I don’t speak Russian, a lot of the words for the electrical appliances they were discussing were similar enough to English for me to notice that!) In English, they’d taken a minute to discuss a single picture, and they should have done about three in that time!
We talked about how they had spoken in Russian, and I mentioned how they had helped each other to build the conversation. We then repeated the task one final time in English, and it was a huge improvement on their first attempt, with them carrying over a lot of the interaction from their Russian conversation. Of course, it helped that it was the third time they’d done the task too!
Definitely something I’ll try again.

“Every weekend I go on the cottage in the nature” (a.k.a. translations to combat L1 (Czech) interference and learn idioms)

The sentence in the title above is beloved of English teachers across the Czech Republic. It’s all due to L1 interference, as with many of these things. One of my classes asked me to help them notice their Czenglish mistakes and try to do something about them. I looked back over old writing and speaking notes and asked around in the staffroom to collate a list of common mistakes, then created the first three sets of materials below.

I asked the students to translate their versions of each group of sentences, trying to write small enough that they could write corrections in the box if necessary (I told them they would get a ‘clean’ version of the sheet later). I then showed them each group of words on the Powerpoint presentation and drilled any difficult sentences / any which they had all made a mistake with. We talked about why Czech people make these mistakes (on a sentence-by-sentence basis) and I encouraged them to highlight anything which they got wrong and need to learn. We also discussed the Czech equivalents (I crowdsourced these from my Czech friends on facebook, so feel free to correct any mistakes you find!). I sent them the presentation after the lesson so that they can look at it whenever they like.

Czech sentences for students to translate

Common Czenglish mistakes and how to correct them

Czenglish Powerpoint presentation

The second set of materials were adapted from the fascinating Omniglot website. I had to edit some of the English on there as not all of them were correctly translated. This was a final ‘fun’ lesson with a CAE group and we spent a long time discussing how to use the idioms and whether there are differences between the use of the equivalents in Czech and English. First, they attempted to translate any of the idioms which they knew already (not many!). I had cut up the ‘answers’ cards before class. They used them to find the rest of the phrases and checked them against my master list.

Czech idioms and their English equivalents (worksheet)

Czech idioms and their English equivalents (answers)

The final step was to play a game I learnt from Anette Igel. Lay the cards out as a board game, with the Czech on one side and the English on the other (back-to-back). Take a counter. Roll the die, move the counter, then translate the idiom you land on to the other language. For instance, if you land on “knedlik v krku”, you have to say “a frog in my throat”. If you are right, turn the card over so you can see the English side. The next person to land on it has to translate it back into Czech. We decided to award one point for each complete circle of the board you did. I lost by quite a long way 😉

The students really enjoyed playing the game, and learnt some more colourful language on the way.

Anette's translation game

Feel free to download / adapt these in any way you choose, and if you need any help or would like to know how to do a similar thing with your local language, please let me know in the comments below.


A translation hypocrite?

Would these learners have benefitted from a translation class? (Sandy Millin, creative commons sharing allowed)

It’s been a very stimulating afternoon. First I took part in #eltchat, which today had the topic “Can translation (and translation tools) facilitate language learning and how can it be used to best effect?” (the transcript is here). I then watched Guy Cook’s talk “Coming in from the cold: translation in language teaching” from this year’s International House DOS Conference (watch it here). With both of these offering fascinating explorations of translation, I couldn’t help but consider my own experiences as both a learner and a teacher, and what role translation has had in them.

As a learner

So far, I have studied five languages, achieving a greater or lesser degree of proficiency in each of them. I am a native-English-from-England speaker. I think it would be useful (for me at least) to think about how I learnt each language, and how much translation was used by myself and the teacher (bear with me on this, it’s long-winded!). Taking them in chronological order:


I first tried to teach myself French at the age of 8 or 9 from a book called “Essential French” which I had been given as a birthday present. My first memory of trying to produce any word in a foreign language is sitting on my parents’ bed reading numbers from the page and failing miserably – my attempt at 8 was ‘who-it’. The book is essentially a phrase book with pictures showing phrases being used in context. On every page there are lists of words with translations into English.

I was given my next French book at Christmas. It was called “First French”, although the closest I can now found being sold is “First French at Home“. This was a revelation for me, as together with the French and English, there were also ‘phonetic’ translations, so that I could try to pronounce the French possibly. I also saw my first French joke, which relies on translation to be funny. Unfortunately I can’t remember the first line, but the punchline relied on the fact that “Un deux trois quatre cinq” sounds similar to “Un deux trois cats sank” (if anyone can suggest the joke, please do!). I loved this joke, and I think it’s one of the reasons I was fascinated with the book – so it could be said that translation was one of the sparks that made me want to learn languages.

At the age of 11, I had the choice between two different secondary schools. One was a traditional girls’ school with a long history and the other was a mixed school which was technologically advanced and had only been opened 6 years previously. One of the main reasons I chose the latter was that on the Open Day we were told that all French and German lessons would be taught only in L2. Even at that age, this greatly appealed to me and you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered that this was not, in fact, the case. However, the language teachers I had there were excellent (how lucky I was!) and my motivation was not unduly affected in the long term. As is the case in most state schools, I expect, our lessons were taught through L1, with all grammar presented in English. We were encouraged to speak L2, but only really did so to the teacher or when doing activities. All conversation which was not related to the lesson was done in English. Translation was not an explicit part of my secondary school study, but was used implicitly in comparing grammatical structures between L1 and L2, as well as learning vocabulary with translations.

In my first two years at university the method in grammar classes was similar, although there was more French. Being with a group of motivated learners helped, as we had all chosen to be there. We were slightly more likely to speak L2 in class, but it was still far from an L2-only environment. In both years we were expected to take French-English translation as part of our core language module. They differed slightly, as the first year was only French>English and the second was in both directions. This was the first time I had ever translated officially, and it was always thought-provoking. The texts we used were almost always newspaper articles. I noticed patterns which existed in one language, but not the other. I learnt many false friends, because I needed to avoid them in my exam. I also learnt a lot about French cultural mores and the idea that translation is not just about language, but also about culture.

During this 10-year period I did two one-week French exchanges, a school trip to Paris (don’t think I spoke any French except to waiters that week), three months working on a campsite for English holidaymakers in Brittany (I was the only French speaker, so was required to translate for guests in many situations including at a hospital, at the police station and at a garage) and two months working as a receptionist at a youth hostel (I think I translated almost every day in various combinations: English-French, Spanish-French and German-French). Experiencing the culture first hand really improved my acquisition, but the experience was never completely isolated from translation.

Back at university in my final year, we were expected to speak only French in the classroom. This was extremely difficult, as I had never had any pressure to do this from previous teachers. Now, I wish I had as I really believe that the extra practice would have improved my French. This time, there was no translation and everything was done purely in L2. Although my French was up to it, I lost a lot of the feeling of security I had had previously. I still chatted to friends in English, but this time it was whispered and immediately changed to French when the teacher was within earshot.

Since leaving university my French usage has been very limited. I taught a beginner’s French class to two English-speaking Czech colleagues last year which was almost entirely in French, although I had to use English occasionally when I didn’t have the language to explain a concept to them, or when my explanation would have been too difficult. We occasionally had discussions about how all three languages expressed the same concept, which was fascinating for all of us, as it showed the differing attitudes each language conveys. Unfortunately I can’t remember any specific examples. Apart from that, I have had the occasional conversation in French and been asked to translate emails / messages into English a few times.

Overall, translation has been an integral part of both my French studies and my real-life usage of the language. Of all of my languages, it is the one in which I feel I have the most solid grammatical foundation and although I don’t attribute this entirely to translation, I do think it has had a role in my confidence in the language. However, it has also had a few drawbacks, as in a classroom situation I never feel able to communicate entirely in French, even though I’m sure it should be possible, and I always fall back on English when things become too difficult.


(don’t worry – this won’t be quite as long!)

Much of my experience of learning German mirrors that of French. I started German at seconday school and continued on to university, in much the same manner as described above. The main difference between my experience of the two languages lies in my exposure to German in natural contexts and the modules I had to study at university.

Translation was not an integral part of my first year university studies. Instead we had grammar lessons and an ‘Oral and Essay’ strand in which we discussed topics in class and then wrote essays on them at home. Each class was one hour per week and was taught entirely in German, although again, we had whispered conversations in English when we thought the teacher couldn’t hear us.

In second year we all got a shock. 25% of our core module was based on interpreting. All of it was done into English, but it was still a very difficult skill to master. We had to interpret simultaneously (listening and speaking at the same time) and consecutively (taking notes while listening, then speaking in English based on what we had written). To help us, the texts we interpreted were based on topics we were studying in the grammar and oral/essay components of the module, so we had vocabulary from those lessons, but I still remember desperately trying to learn as much vocabulary as humanly possible. How did I do this? Largely with German-English lists of words. It was stressful at times, but I enjoyed the feeling of achievement I got when I could interpret something successfully “I know this word and I can do it!”

I enjoyed interpreting so much, I continued it into the fourth year where it was a module in it’s own right – although this may have had something to do with the fact that all of the other modules I could choose from were literature-based, and while I love reading, I hate ‘pulling books apart’. This time we were interpreting debates from the European Parliament. We had the transcripts of the discussions in both German and English, which we ‘prepared’ at home. Cue more long lists of vocabulary, this time learnt with the help of my technological discovery of the year, a dictaphone. I recorded lists of 20 or so words every few days and listened to them while walking to and from the university. Each entry was the German word, a sentence using it in context and an English translation of the word. To this day, I still see certain words and remember what I said in my own ear about them!

In second year I also did a translation module, with the same benefits as those described above for French.

In terms of real experiences of speaking the language, my exposure to German has been much more limited than that of French. I did a one-week exchange two years after my first one in French; I went on a trip to Berlin corresponding to my Paris trip (in fact it was the weekend before) :); I spent six weeks working at a factory where I listened to music in English all day, then watched German TV all evening as I had nothing else to do; I lived with a third-generation German-speaking family in Paraguay (we spoke a mixture of both German and Spanish as I quite often forgot the German words I needed); I’ve taken various day / overnight trips there while living in France and the Czech Republic.

Again, I’ve taught classes in German since I left university, but this time the learners did not speak English. I always felt uncomfortable, as if I didn’t really know how to express myself properly, and missed the fact that I couldn’t translate from English at times. I also never liked the textbooks / material I was working from, and as a new teacher didn’t really feel comfortable presenting the lessons differently. However, this probably says more about my confidence in German and my early teaching ability (hopefully that’s changed now!), than anything explicit about translation.

Overall, I’ve always felt that my German is on much shakier ground than my French. This is probably due to a lack of real exposure to the language, but the one area which always made me feel that I had achieved was interpreting. It never mattered if my cases were not completely accurate (my main German bugbear), as long as my speaking style was confident and the language I was producing was a good reflection of the original. Thankfully, I didn’t pursue it as a career though, as I’m sure this feeling wouldn’t have lasted!


I started Spanish as a complete beginner at university. My lessons were almost exclusively in L2 only, and I really felt like I’d been thrown in at the deep end. The textbook we used (Claro que si) had English rubrics in the first few chapters, then changed to being exclusively in Spanish. I didn’t study translation or interpreting at any point. However, when discussing anything with my fellow students outside class, we always spoke English. We regularly compared grammar we had learnt in Spanish with that of other languages we spoke (to study as a beginner at university, you generally have to have proven ability in another language) and we often translated as a ‘fun’ activity, because we felt it had benefitted us in our other languages. We also learnt some words through translation: I will never forget that ’embarazado’ means pregnant and not embarrassed! (This refers to Guy Cook’s point about ‘faux amis’ in his talk).

Despite formally studying for three years at university, I actually attribute almost all of my Spanish learning to the year I spent in Paraguay (July 2006-June 2007, the third year of my degree), including two months of travelling (Jan / Feb). During my travels I sprained and fractured my ankle, which was the point at which my Spanish really took off, as every taxi driver I met asked me the same three questions: “What did you do to your leg?” “Why did you go to Paraguay and not Chile / Argentina?” (where I was travelling) “Why don’t you have a boyfriend?” (!) This repetition really improved my confidence when speaking Spanish and meant that when I returned to university my fluency was great, although my accuracy left a lot to be desired. While in Paraguay I went to a translation study group run by the owner of the langauge school I was working at. It often frustrated me, as he insisted on translating everything word for word. We did all of the translations orally and they never really made much sense, but I always felt too guilty to stop going to the class.

As with French and German, my exposure to Spanish since leaving university has been limited. I have done some informal translation between Spanish and English / German. I meet a Spanish woman once a week for a language exchange, often involving one or the other of us asking for translations of words which we can’t remember. I taught Spanish to an English-speaking Czech colleague for a year. Again, although I tried to use only L2 in the classroom, we often ended up discussing both the language and the culture in English, as well as comparing it to Greek, which she was teaching me.

I sometimes feel that a formal translation course would have benefitted my Spanish, as although I can speak fluently I feel my accuracy really needs to be improved. I often find myself thinking “How would I say that in Spanish?” when there are holes in my language, although I then try to get around it. This reflects Guy Cook’s point about “avoidance avoidance”. With only a few hours of lessons in Spanish each week and a large class to teach, I don’t think my university teachers ever noticed or had time to deal with these holes in my language, but as a teacher myself I am acutely conscious of them whenever I speak Spanish. Of course, a teacher who picks apart my grammar could also have them same effect – being a very confident person and unafraid to speak I don’t think this would stop me!


This is the first language I have learnt ‘in-country’. I’m now in my third year of living in the Czech Republic, and I’ve been informed my language is at approximately A2 level on the CEF framework (compared to C1 in French / German / Spanish). I tried to teach myself from a coursebook which is written largely in Czech, with the occasional list of words in both Czech and English, and only got through two chapters before giving up, mainly because I didn’t understand the instructions for any of the activities. I had lessons in my second year, when the foundations of my Czech were really laid. They were entirely in Czech, despite me occasionally attempting to get a translation from the teacher.

Apart from those few lessons, all of my Czech has come from necessity and exposure: I listen to Czech radio, I try to communicate in shops, I attempt to join in with conversations around me, I watch films with Czech subtitles.

The only really active way I have studied on my own has been to take articles in the free newspaper and translate them into English. Until writing this, I had never thought about that! I then get them checked informally by native Czech speakers at school. Again, I have noticed that through translation I have been forced to notice many structures in Czech and to think about their equivalents in English. This has been quite a useful skill when I then attempt to speak Czech – although I can say simple things, there are still huge holes in my language when I want to communicate anything more complicated than “I want to buy that, please.”


For just over a year I had one one-hour Greek lesson approximately every two weeks. As you might expect, my Greek hasn’t come on much, and I’ve forgotten most of it since the lessons stopped six months ago. However, I can read the alphabet and say a (very small) handful of basic sentences.

My lessons were in a mixture of Greek and English. I understood instructions, but could very rarely express myself or understand written instructions in Greek. I relied on my teacher to translate a lot of what was going on in the textbook, as the alphabet was (and still is) a huge barrier to understanding. I still try to read everything I see now though, and am excited every time there is a word I understand, almost always an English cognate.

Conclusions as a learner

Analysing my own learning, it turns out that most of it has been supplemented by translation. This does not, however, mean that when speaking the languages, especially the three stronger ones, I think in English. This only really happens when there is a ‘hole’, and if I’m speaking to a native speaker of the language, and especially one who I know does not speak English, I tend to have the motivation to get around this. So what has this meant for my teaching?

As a teacher

In my English classes I seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time saying “Speak English”, so much so that some of my students joke about it with me when we are outside class – at a school party it was the first thing my FCE class said when I sat down at their table! I encourage my students to speak English and try to discourage them as much as possible from speaking Czech. I do, however, allow quick translations of words if a learner is really struggling with a concept and have even been known to allow an explanation of a grammar point if one student in the class really doesn’t get it. I feel slightly more confident about this now than I did when I arrived in the Czech Republic, since I now have a level of Czech which enables me to at least roughly understand most of what is said in my class, but I still worry about things not being translated ‘correctly’.

This year, all of my classes are intermediate level or above, and most of them are advanced. In every class I have at least who relies on Czech for their English. In feedback which I recently did on an experimental (for me) lesson, one student wrote “Lesson reminded me, when writing review in English, that I have to start think in English, not just translate Czech sentences, even though it’s hard for me.” [sic.] This was from an advanced student who has been studying English for years.

In a 1-2-1 class, I have a student who always tries to understand an explanation in English, but has a tendency to give up quite quickly and go to his computer dictionary to check meanings. I always look over his shoulder and try to help him to choose the correct meaning for the English word he is trying to translate. This has become a regular feature of our lessons, and I have learnt a lot of Czech from him!

I have done one or two activities involving translation during the past couple of months, again because my own confidence in Czech has increased. In my Intermediate-level teen class, the students spoke almost no English during 45 minutes of a lesson. I became so frustrated that I wrote a few of the classroom phrases they were saying on the board and asked them to translate them, for example “What do you have?” “How do you spell…?” Through this exercise I discovered that they didn’t have the basic classroom language needed to interact with each other. In combination with introducing one or two of these phrases each week since that lesson, I have also begun to put on a 5-minute timer. Every time they manage to speak English for five minutes without a break I put a mark on the board. For each mark they can go home 30-seconds earlier. Since doing this, they have really started to try to speak English in class (generally they can leave a 90-minute lesson 5 minutes early) – in most lessons they speak at least 60 minutes of English. What is particularly telling though is that the Czech they do speak is almost always asking for a translation of a word or grammar point to confirm that they have understood.

With two advanced classes I did an exercise prompted by a text in the coursebook about literary translations. They had to bring in a book written in Czech and translate the first or last paragraph into English. All but one of the books they brought in were translations from another language into Czech. Their translations prompted a lot of discussion about comparisons between English and Czech, as well as the original language of the book (German / Japanese). We also looked at a couple of grammar issues which came up.

One very common Czech mistake is the substitution of ‘it’ for ‘that’ in short phrases such as “That’s all” and “That’s a shame”. Every time students make this mistake, I now tell them that the equivalent of “To je…” in Czech almost always translates as “That is…” and not “It is…” in English, even though “To” is normally translated as “It”. Since I noticed this a few months ago, my students have become much more aware of this.

Outside class, a lot of the writing my students do contains elements of Czenglish. Maybe if we did more translation with them, this might go down? They also occasionally ask me to check English versions of texts they have translated, for example, abstracts for their degrees which must be submitted in both Czech and English.


(at last – well done if you’ve made it this far!)

  • Translation has been an integral part of my own language learning, and yet it is a very isolated part of my teaching.
  • I only introduced translation into my own classes once I felt confident that my level of Czech was high enough to understand what the students were saying.
  • My own and my students’ real life uses of foreign languages often involve translation.
  • My students have benefitted from the translation activities we have done in class.

So, bearing that in mind, does that make me a translation hypocrite? Should I be more relaxed about the use of L1 in my classroom and not pounce on Czech every time I hear it? After the discussions today and my own reflections in that post, I’m inclined to answer “Yes” to both questions.