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

Posts tagged ‘writing’

Some things from the IH Torun Teacher Training Day 2018

Torun - Copernicus

A wise man in Torun

Saturday 21st April 2018 was the annual teacher training day at our sister school, International House Torun. I attended sessions by Lisko MacMillan, Matthew Siegal, Rachel Hunter and John Hughes, and presented on Making the most of blogs. Here are few of the things I got out of the day:

  • Although I hated drama at school, and did my best to avoid it, I really ought to embrace activities borrowed from improvisation. They make great warmers and energisers, and there are lots of opportunities for revision there.
  • I wish I’d been relaxed enough to enjoy drama at school, because it’s a lot more fun now that I don’t care about appearances as much!
  • It might be a good idea to swap your writing with another teacher and mark each other’s when possible to avoid the bias you get when you know your students.
  • One way to make feedback on Cambridge writing much faster is to give students a copy of the mark scheme with the relevant sentences for their work highlighted. Obviously you need to explain what it means, but the more they see it, the more they know what is expected of them.
  • gw = good word, ag = advanced grammar, are possible additions to a writing code that focus on positives. Although I haven’t used a writing code for a long time, this was a useful reminder.
  • To encourage students to engage with writing criteria and to kill two birds with one stone, turn the criteria into a Use of English open cloze exercise.
  • An activity to make students plan before writing: you plan your partner’s answer. They only get to see the plan, not the question, and write the answer. Then show the question and they get rid of what they didn’t need.
  • Give students a list of things they can when proofreading their text. They should do as many as they have time for. For example:
    • Task completion and paragraphs
    • Spelling and vocabulary repetition
    • Grammar accuracy
    • Grammar range
    • Linking words
  • Art is an interesting alternative to photos, and lends itself to a lot of the same classroom activities.
  • There are loads of activities you could do with a single picture, like The Bedroom by Van Gogh. Try asking ‘If you lived in a room like this, what would you change?’ Show the picture, then hide it and ask students to remember as much detail as possible. What isn’t in the picture? Whose room is it? Be art critics. Give them half a picture each and make it an information gap.
  • With pictures of people, make the person the subject of an interview. If there are a lot of people, recreate the image by making a tableau vivante. Imagine the relationships between the people or describe their personalities.
  • If you want students to describe and draw, why not given them something like a Picasso or a Dali, and do it as a head drawing exercise (with their paper on their heads)? It’s already an odd picture, so they won’t feel as bad if they can’t reproduce it!
  • There is a blog by a Polish teacher in Polish about teaching English written by Beata Topolska. If you can recommend any other good blogs which are about teaching English but not written in English, please let me know!
  • Problems with teenage students are often due to rapport. Get to class early and get chatting to find out more about them.
  • Watch out for being too shallow or deep with personalisation – it’s a fine line. Try using Speak/Pass/Nominate, so students can choose whether they want to answer (Speak), don’t answer (Pass) or choose somebody else (Nominate).
  • To help students engage with a word bank of photos (e.g. types of food), try getting them to engage using sentences like:
    • I really like ______, but I don’t like _______.
    • I often eat ______ for breakfast, but I never eat _______.
    • I’ve never tried to cook _______ but one day I’d like to.
  • When you give students a list of topics, encourage them to find things in common. This is more authentic, as it’s what we try to do during small talk. You could give them a simple Venn diagram (you/both/me) to frame the discussion. For example, see ‘making connections’ in John Hughes’ post about personalisation.
  • With teens, try asking ‘What do you really hate/dislike?’ rather than ‘Which do you prefer?’ They’re more likely to respond.

All in all, this was a great local conference, and I walked away with loads of ideas for my classes. Thanks to Glenn Standish and IH Torun for organising it!


Why should they care?

In lessons I have observed, it is often a little step that is missing that could make a real difference to the students’ engagement in a particular activity. By asking yourself ‘Why should they care?’ at every stage of the planning process, it’s easy to make little tweaks that could help students to get more involved.*

Do you recognise any of these situations?


You ask students to discuss a question like this in pairs:

Tell your partner what you did at the weekend.

They each monologue for about 30 seconds, and the whole activity peters out after less than two minutes. Neither student really listened to their partner, and apart from saying a few words in English, they haven’t really got anything out of the activity.

Why should they care?

Here are a few little tweaks that might avoid this situation.

  • Give them a listening task too. These can also be used as questions for feedback after the activity.
    ‘Find something your partner did that you didn’t.’ > Feedback = ask one or two students to say what their partner did and why they didn’t do it.
    ‘Decide whose weekend was more boring.’ > Feedback = put your hand up if you had the most boring weekend.
  • Add challenge.
    Students have 15 seconds to tell their partner what they did – time it strictly. Afterwards they change partners and tell someone else what their partner did. Give them thinking time first to decide/rehearse what to say in that time.
    Students can only say two sentences before their partner speaks. Give an example, and make sure you include questions!
  • Change the interaction pattern.
    Students mingle, speaking to as many others as possible. They have to find one person who did the same three things as them/did none of the things they did/did something they wish they’d done.
    Play Chinese whispers with two teams racing to correctly write down one thing each person in their team did.
  • Give them some functional language you want them to use.
    ‘No, really? Why did you do that?’
    ‘That’s something I’ve always wanted to do.’

If you want more ideas for how to adapt speaking activities, I’ve got a whole e-book of them!


You ask your students to write a blog post about a place they want to visit. Some of them write a paragraph, others write a whole page.

Why should they care?

  • Get them interested in the topic first.
    Talk about the most popular places a tourist can visit in the students’ countries.
    Get them to decide three things which make a place worth visiting, then compare the list with a partner and narrow it down to three things from their combined lists.
  • Show them what you expect from them.
    Give them a framework, e.g. Paragraph one = a description of the place, including at least three pieces of information about it. Paragraph two = why they want to visit it. Paragraph three = why they haven’t visited it yet/when they plan to visit it. > This can also be used for marking if necessary, giving you an objective way of deciding if they get full marks for content.
    Show a couple of examples from real blogs.
  • Change the interaction pattern.
    Allow students to choose if they want to work alone or in pairs.
    Get students to write a paragraph, then pass it on to the next student/pair who write the next paragraph, then pass it on again for the final paragraph.
  • Give students other choices.
    They could write about a place they don’t want to visit/the last interesting place they visited/the most boring place they’ve ever visited.
    Let them decide on the format: a blog post, a poster, a newspaper article, a comic strip…


There is a three-minute audio recording about straw bales in the course book your school requires you to use. 30 seconds in, the students are clearly incredibly bored, and starting to fidget.

A straw bale

Image from Pixabay

Why should they care?

  • Use an image.
    Show them the picture above. Give them a minute to imagine this is real – they think about what they can see/hear/smell/touch/taste. Then tell a partner.
    Give them the image in the middle of a piece of paper. They should draw the bigger picture, then compare it to a partner. Do they have similar pictures?
  • Set them a challenge.
    Get them to think of a minimum of five different things they could use a straw bale for, then compare to a partner.
    Somebody has dumped a straw bale in front of the school. It’s too heavy to lift easily. How will they move it?
  • Make sure they have a clear task to do while they’re listening.
    The first time they listen, they could check predictions they’ve made before listening.
    Get students to come up with three questions they want the answers to. They can be as simple as ‘Why am I listening to a text about straw bales?’ 🙂
  • Use the audio in other ways.
    Break it into 30-second chunks. After each chunk, students should tell a partner what they remember. They could also come up with one question they think will be answer in the next section.
    Pause the audio at a particular point and ask the students what they think the next three words are. You can decide on these points before the lesson if you want to focus on particular pieces of language. This can build students’ confidence when listening to English if you choose chunks of language students are already familiar with.


There’s an article about gender pay gaps in the news, which you think is an important issue and should be discussed with your students. Some students have previously said they would like to read ‘real’ things in class, but in the lesson the students just aren’t interested in the article, and you end up moving on to something else after a few minutes.

Why should they care?

  • Deal with part of the topic first.
    Have pieces of paper around the room, each with the beginning of a statement. Students walk around and write as many sentences using these beginnings as possible in two minutes. Examples might be ‘Women are…’ ‘Men are…’ ‘Women can’t…’ ‘Men can’t…’ ‘It’s important for women to…’ ‘It’s important for men to…’
    Ask students to list five jobs where people get paid a lot of money, and five where they don’t get paid much. They compare lists with other students, then decide whether they think more men or women do those jobs.

Gender pay gap word cloud based on

  • Use a word cloud. allows you put a whole text into their creator.
    Students have five minutes to write as many sentences as they can using the words in the word cloud. These become predictions – they read the text to check what was included.
    They choose one big word, one medium word, and one small word, then predict how these are connected to the story. You could also give them the headline to help.
  • Reflect real life.
    Show students the headline. Ask them if this is something they would read about in their own language. Encourage them to discuss why or why not. If they say they would, ask them to read it. If they wouldn’t, ask them to choose another article from the BBC homepage (give them a time limit). In both cases, get them to tell a partner what they think they’ll still remember about the article tomorrow.
    We often read online articles by skimming them quickly as we scroll down the page. If you have a projector in your classroom, replicate that process. Scroll down relatively slowly, but fast enough that students can’t read everything. When you get to the bottom, minimise the window and ask students to tell their partner what they saw, what they understood, and what (if anything) they’d like to go back and read in more detail.
  • Work with the language.
    Ask students to find phrases which describe companies or replace the name of the company, e.g. ‘major companies’, ‘organisations with 250 or more workers’, ‘the carrier’, ‘the firm’. They discuss why these phrases were selected in each case.
    Get them to list five different sentences with a percentage in them, e.g. ‘Many financial firms feature in the list, including the Co-op Bank – where mean hourly pay is 30.3% lower for women.’ or ‘It said 7% of apprentices last year were men, compared with zero in 2016, while 41% of roles involving helping at children’s tea time were filled by men – compared with 25% in 2016.’ They can analyse the structures these percentages appear in, e.g. ‘X is % lower for Y.’ or ‘% of X were blah blah blah – compared with % in year’

Grammar points

You’ve recently taught students how to use the passive in news articles. In a follow-up piece of writing, there is no evidence of passives at all.

Why should they care?

  • Contextualise.
    Make sure that example sentences you use are all taken from clear contexts, not plucked at random from thin air. Context can really help students to understand new grammar.
    After doing a practice exercise, ask students to choose three sentences. For each sentence they should add a minimum of two sentences before and two after, making a longer paragraph or dialogue. They could leave a space where their chosen sentence appeared for other students to remember what it was.
  • Get them to notice how it’s used outside the classroom.
    Ask students to open an article from English-language news at random. They should underline all of the passive structures they can find. Afterwards, they can compare usage of the passive in different kinds of article – for example, is it used more in articles describing a crime? A sports event? An election?
    Send students on a treasure hunt. Ask them to find one example in the news of each kind of passive you have studied, e.g. present simple passive, past simple passive, present perfect passive. They should find as many as they can and write out the full sentence, all within a specified time, for example 15 minutes.
  • Compare and contrast.
    Give students pairs of sentences in the active and the passive, with each sentence in the pair conveying the same information. Ask them to choose their ‘favourite’ sentence in the pair and say why. For example: ‘The dog ate the cake.’ ‘The cake was eaten by the dog.’ ‘Somebody stole my bag.’ ‘My bag was stolen.’
    Show students a 2-3 sentence paragraph including a passive structure. Ask them to translate it into another language they know. They then use the translation to analyse differences between how the idea of a passive is expressed in their own language(s). For example, emphasis on the object might be conveyed through a change in word order but no change in the verb form.
  • Add it in.
    Give students a short news article in pairs. Ask them to add three passive sentences into the article, wherever they like. They can then compare the results to another group.
    Tell students you expect to see a minimum of two passive structures in the news article you want them to write. Include this in criteria for peer checking before the article is handed in.


You introduced a range of words connected to clothes in your last lesson, like ‘button’, ‘zip’, ‘sleeve’. During a revision activity at the beginning of this lesson, the students need a lot of prompting and they can’t really remember any of them accurately.

Why should they care?

  • Find out what they know.
    If you’re working on vocabulary from a particular lexical set, do a board race first. In this case, divide students into two teams. They race to write as many clothes words on the board as possible in five minutes. Teams switch and work out the points for their opponents: one point for completely correct, half a point if there is a spelling mistake.
    Show them pictures of clothes – three or four items is enough. Ask them to list as many things they can see in the pictures as possible. Point to various things and ask ‘What’s this?’ to prompt students to notice features like the buttons or sleeves, not just the items of clothing themselves.
  • Help them to notice the gaps in their knowledge.
    Display all of the words you’re planning to teach on the board. Ask students to draw pictures for as many of them as possible, but not to worry if they don’t know any of them – they will by the end of the lesson! To reinforce this, repeat the same activity at the end of the lesson and point out how much they’ve improved.
    Give them the first and last letters of the words, like this ‘b_____’, ‘z__p’, ‘s_____e’. Ask them to complete the words to describe parts of clothes. Again, they shouldn’t worry if they don’t know them.
  • Add extra processing.
    Don’t just ask students to read words from a flashcard, show them the picture and get them to remember the word. For extra challenge, they could then spell it. It’s better to do this chorally or in pairs/groups, rather than putting individual students on the spot, as this may affect their confidence if they can’t do it or increase their fear if they think they might be next.
    Display all of the pictures on the board/floor. Students should write as many of the words as possible in their notebooks, then compare the spellings with the vocabulary list. To add challenge, you could get them to switch notebooks with somebody else for the checking stage.
  • Make it real.
    Ask them to choose a word which is new for them. They should think of one time they would expect to say/write the word, and one time they would expect to read/hear it. For example, they might say ‘button’ if they’ve lost a button, or read it in a craft magazine which tells them how to make a teddy bear.
    They choose three new words they want to remember, and write them into short sentences connected to their lives, e.g. ‘I’ve lost three buttons from my coat.’. As an extension, they could then google the sentences and see if they exist on the internet anywhere.

All of the vocabulary tips can be connected to the idea of ‘hooks’. This is a metaphor I use to describe how you remember new information. The more hooks you hang something on, the more likely it is to stay where you put it. When you think about learning new vocabulary (or grammar for that matter), you need to give the students as many hooks as possible to ‘hang’ the new vocabulary from and keep it in their heads.


When you ask students to repeat sentences after you as part of a drill, they sound really bored and/or refuse to do it.

Why should they care?

  • Do you care?
    Record yourself doing some pronunciation work. Listen back to it. What do you think your tone of voice and body language conveys to the students? What does your intonation sound like?
    Before you drill anything, imagine somebody is going to ask ‘What was the point of that?’ Do you have a good answer for them?
  • Play.
    Experiment with different tones of voice, speeds, characters (the Queen, Arnold Schwarzenegger…), positions (standing, sitting, superhero poses)…
    A really popular activity at my school is a stickman drill, where students are in teams. Each team gets a stickman, with one or two extra features of their choice, like a hat or an umbrella. Each team repeats the sentence. Whoever the teacher decides did it best can remove part of their opponents’ stickmen. The aim is to have the most complete stickman by the end of the game. [I still haven’t actually tried this, but I’ve seen it used many times!]
  • Add challenge.
    Don’t just ask students to repeat the same sentence again and again. Get them to change parts of it. For example, in the first sentence of this paragraph, you could change the verb (ask), the person (students), the infinitive phrase (to repeat the same sentence) or the time adverbial (again and again). This is known as a substitution drill. Students or the teacher can decide what changes.
    Use key words or images as prompts, so students have to remember the language without having it all in front of them.
  • Add extra support.
    Give students a minute to read and remember the language you’re going to drill, then close their books during the drilling process.
    Break down longer sentences into smaller chunks, then put them back into the full sentence. This is known as backchaining if you do it from the end of the sentence.

*I recognise that a lot of the tweaks I’ve suggested above may more appropriately answer the question ‘What can I do about it?’, but I find the phrasing ‘Why should they care?’ adds a bit more impact when I’m asking my teachers!

Have you tried any of these tweaks? What other little tweaks do you use to encourage students to care more about activities in class?

P.S. This blogpost has been in the back of my mind for a while now, and reading this post about lead ins by CELTA train is what made me actually write it today 🙂

Giving feedback on writing (TeachingEnglish blog associates)

This was a post I’d been meaning to write for a long time! Since doing the Delta exam a few years ago, I’ve been experimenting with different ways to mark writing. To find out what the current results of this experiment are, take a look at my latest post for TeachingEnglish British Council, describing how I give feedback on short pieces of writing of up to 300 words. How do you approach marking?

Marking writing

Revision squares

Tuesday evening. 7:15pm. I walk out of the cover lesson I’ve just completed, working with a lovely group of pre-intermediate teens. Running through my head: right, I need to take the key downstairs, pick up my stuff, and pop into the supermarket on the way home. Followed almost immediately by: [Four-letter word], I forgot to find cover for the last lesson! That’s my evening out the window! Cue 10 minutes of running around trying to work out where to get some food from to get me through the rest of the evening (thanks Shannon and Emma!), telling people how stupid I am, and canvassing for ideas for an unplanned cover lesson with low elementary adults I haven’t met before.

As (nearly) always with these things, the lesson itself was absolutely fine. Two students came, one of whom had forgotten to do his homework. The first 45 minutes were spent working on pronunciation of comparatives from the homework, and with them testing each other, plus practice of very large numbers. For the other half of the lesson, I gave them the choice of unplanned functional language (the next spread in the book), unplanned superlatives (the spread after), or revision (which they’d also had, along with a test, in the previous lesson). They went for revision, and this is the activity which I came up with, based loosely on collaborative profiles, an idea suggested by my colleague Sam just before the lesson (thanks!) I joined in to, so see if you can work out which drawings were mine!

Pawel page 1

Pawel page 2

Revision squares

  1. Fold A4 paper into 6 squares (or 8 if you have more language points).
  2. In the first box, each person draws a person.
  3. (Optional) In the second box, the next person asks three questions about the person. (This didn’t work very well, as I hadn’t thought it through, and I decided I wanted different people’s drawings on each paper, not the same person every time in our group of three.)
  4. In the second box, the next person answers the questions about the person/writes a basic profile describing them.
  5. Pass the paper on (do this after each stage to get a truly collaborative piece of work). Under the person, draw where they live.
  6. Write about where they live.
  7. Draw two or three hobbies, plus one thing they can’t do.
  8. Write about them.
  9. Draw three things they do every morning.
  10. Guess what…write about them!
  11. Draw their last holiday.
  12. Write about it.

Ola page 1

Ola page 2

As the paper was passed on, I encouraged the students to read what others had written and link their texts if they wanted to. I also corrected texts as part of my turn, because it was obviously a bit easier for me to write! The students asked me questions about what they were writing, and about my corrections. There was also negotiation in English as we tried to work out what other people had drawn. Obviously with only two students, it wasn’t that hard, so you might have to think about how/if you want to correct/join in if you’re using the activity with a bigger group. To round it off, we all read all three stories quickly and decided which person we would like to be friends with and why.

Steven page 1

Steven page 2

In about 30 minutes, these elementary students produced about 100 words of English, and practised:

  • question forms
  • interpreting and replying to basic questions
  • There is/are
  • rooms and furniture
  • like + -ing
  • can/can’t
  • hobbies
  • daily routine
  • past simple
  • holiday vocabulary
  • prepositional phrases of various kinds (time, place, manner)
  • vocabulary they wanted to use, based on their drawings

We had an empty box as we ran out of time, but I think I probably would have done something with future plans, like plans for the next weekend, though I don’t think they’d got to that in their book. Alternatively, drawing their family, their job, their favourite clothes…lots of options!

I’m pretty sure it could be adapted for a wide range of other language. I’d be interested to hear what you decide to do with it.

Categorising writing mistakes

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

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

Russian journal

Russian journal

Have you tried anything similar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation jumble with ELTpics

I’ve recently been sorting out some of the files on my computer and came across a worksheet I created for low-level students to help them practise punctuation within a basic conversation. I thought I’d share it with you as I’m sure there’s somebody who’ll find it useful.

The sheet uses ELTpics by Kevin Stein and Laura Phelps. Kevin, I just realised that I said you lived in South Korea – obviously I wasn’t quite so aware then, and was just keen to use one of my all-time favourite ELTpics! Sorry 🙂

There are no contractions in there, but you might want to encourage the students to add them, maybe as a second stage after they done the un-jumbling task. There are also no exclamation marks, as I originally designed it for beginner Arabic and Chinese speakers and I thought that would be a bit too much for them to deal with. I’ve included them in brackets in the answers below.

[I believe you need a free SlideShare account to be able to download the worksheet]

Here are the answers:

A: Good morning. (!)

B: Hello. What is your name? (!) (What’s)

A: My name is Kevin. And you? (name’s)

B: I am Laura. Where are you from? (I’m)

A: I am from America. I live in South Korea. What about you? (I’m)

B: I am from the UK. What do you do? (I’m)

A: I am a teacher. What do you do? (I’m)

B: I am a teacher too. I love my job. (I’m) (!)

A: Me too. (!)


If you’ve created materials using ELTpics, why not share them with us (I’m one of the curators)? If you need inspiration, take a look at the ELTpics blog and start exploring the collection, which now has over 25,000 images!

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