Archive for the ‘Activities’ Category

Working with discrete vocabulary items

February 16, 2014 6 comments

It’s a given that learning words in isolation is not particularly helpful when it comes to learning a foreign language. Words rarely appear in isolation when we communicate, and ELT has come a long way from the days in which vocabulary appeared as single words in a vocabulary box to the presentation of manageable language chunks. Nowadays, I don’t think it takes a lot of convincing to persuade teachers about the benefits of chunks, meaningfulness and personalisation of vocabulary. However, is there any occasion in which presenting language items out of a context can be helpful? Maybe yes, and this activity is likely to come in handy should you be forced to teach words in isolation, or in case you just feel like doing so from time to time.

Suppose you’d like your students to learn how to properly use a dictionary. What if you write a bunch of words on the board – connected to a topic of study if you use a course book, or simply random words to start a lesson – and ask them to work on the meaning of these words? Then, you get them to discuss their opinion with a partner and see if they agree or not. At this stage, give them some chunks of language (on slips of paper) to express their opinion, agree and disagree, and ask about someone’s opinion. After they’ve finished discussing, elicit from the pairs / small groups what their definitions were. Don’t tell them if they were right or wrong just yet. Instead, get them to open their dictionaries and check if their guesses were right.

There is just way too much information in a good learner's dictionary for students to focus only on meaning. | Source: Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

Eat humble pie – There is just way too much information in a good learner’s dictionary for students to focus only on meaning. Who’s to blame when they don’t see it? | Source: Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

Most students will probably stop at the definition of the word, which is the least import piece of information a good learner’s dictionary has. Unfortunately, most students are oblivious to the plethora of information they may obtain from their dictionaries. Teachers who fail to teach students how to properly use a dictionary are also failing in one of their most important objectives: making him or herself less and less needed for providing information. So, once you get your students to check the meaning of the words, it’s time to move onto the next stage – getting them to come up with original sentences using those words they’d just checked.

Should they be struggling with their sentences, or if they happen to fail to produce accurate sentences, point them to the examples of usage in the dictionary. Have them read the example sentences and ask them to focus on the words in bold (when applicable), or the sentences which have a brief explanation of a chunk in parentheses (also, when applicable).

After having read the examples in the dictionary, ask them to correct their sentences on their own. They will hopefully be able to notice some patterns of usage from the dictionary sentences and transfer these to their own sentences. Make sure you monitor accordingly and direct their attention to certain important collocations, such as ADJECTIVE + PREPOSITION, or VERB + PREPOSITION. Write their sentences on the board, or on paper, or on any other device you may use in your teaching context, and try to keep a record of the sentences they have come up with.

The focus of such an activity is not for them to learn the discrete vocabulary item per se, but they are likely to remember some of the words you have presented anyway. To make it more meaningful and a lot more relevant, you can choose these words from songs which are trending in your country at the moment (particularly good for teenagers), words and phrases from sitcoms, series and movies, or just using the news as a source. The possibilities are endless.

Finally, you should show your learners that this is the kind of procedure they could follow when they come across unknown words from reading passages in class. This is something they could do when reading more actively in order to study English and not “simply” reading for content. Needless to say, this kind of reading is very time consuming, so it’s important that you tell them to use this strategy only for one or two paragraphs of the text.

I do believe that by doing so you’ll be helping your learners think more about the language, noticing more, and, most importantly, even though you’re teaching them words in isolation, it’s easy to see that you’ve done a lot more than just teaching the words. This is likely to make their learning more memorable and, consequently, more effective. This is just one of the ideas that I use with my learners when dealing with words “in isolation”, or when we have a quick vocabulary challenge as a warmer. Get them to work on words from songs, for instance. You’ll be surprised how often it will dawn on them that they didn’t really understand what it was that they were singing before.

How about coming up with a twist to override the system when you’re pushed into doing something you don’t think that would be so effective, such as presenting vocabulary lists from students’ course books? I bet you’ll have a lot more fun – and they will learn a lot more.

Using L1 in the classroom – an example

May 3, 2012 9 comments

I’ve already written about the use of L1 in the language classroom before here and here. I do believe that L1, if used properly in the classroom, might actually help learners. The problem, then, lies in knowing when to use L1 in a class and, most importantly, how to use it to promote learning instead of using it to promote laziness.

I think that it’s a lot easier to use L1 in an ELF setting. The fact that learners usually share the same L1, and many times the teacher is a NNEST who also shares the same L1 with learners, makes it much simpler than using a learners L1 in an ESL environment with students from many different nationalities and languages. To each his own, right? If ESL learners have the benefit of speaking L2 much more frequently and having many more meaningful encounters with the target language outside the classroom than EFL students, the latter may at least have the advantage that it’s easier for them to use their L1 to better (and more confidently) understand abstract concepts.

Yet, knowing exactly how to use L1 in the classroom is not an easy task mainly because most teachers who abide by CLT have been taught that speaking L1 in the classroom is a cardinal sin. However, if you are able to make it meaningful and useful to your students, how could this be doing more harm than good? Anyway, this is an example of an activity in which I used L1 in the classroom and, having had a couple of classes since then, I could tell it’s been extremely successful. Not only that, but apparently learners could clearly see the purpose of speaking L1 in the classroom at that moment, so no one whined about having to switch back to L2, or using L2 for everything else other than the activity itself.

Instead of telling students that we would be working on reported speech and falling in the trap of teaching some grammar McNuggets, we simply had a class in which they would end up producing the language I was hoping to help them with without having to explicitly tell them so. I started by telling them they would now have the chance to ask me any question they could possibly want. I handed out a couple of slips of paper and students could ask for more if they wanted to ask further questions. I let them choose their coloured pens and write questions that came to their mind. Once the questions had been written, the slips of paper were handed in.

I sat in the middle of the class and showed them the questions. They then had to guess who had written the question and ask me the question. Fortunately, they were trying to use reported questions at that stage, so I could collect lots of samples of language to work on. We actually dealt with emergent language as it appeared, and pretty soon they started correcting themselves. There were about 20 questions of all kinds – wh- questions, yes/no questions, questions in the present, in the past, in the future, and even the ubiquitous “to be or not to be?”.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the booth in the classroom. | Photo on Flickr by Anke van Lenteren

After that stage, I thought it would be nice if there was something slightly more practical and meaningful to them. I remember that there are many activities for learners to practice reported speech, such as pretending they have been the witness of murder and then they have to report what they’ve seen and heard at the scene, or working with comic strips by removing the speech bubble for student A and having student B reporting what they have in their comic strip, and chinese whispers. These are all nice activities that are likely to require the use of reported speech. However, what we did was playing the interpreter.

I started by asking for two volunteers. One of them was going to be interviewed by the rest of the class, and the other one was going to be the interpreter. This means the interviewed only spoke English, the interpreter spoke English and Portuguese, and the rest of the class spoke only Portuguese. The interpreters were naturally using the proper structure for “he asked you how…” and so on. At times I just had to say “try again” and off they went.

At the end of the class, students said they had a lot of fun playing the interpreters, and that they actually saw this as something they would possibly need to do in their lives. Perhaps this was the reason that they could remember it so well in the following classes and had no trouble at all coming up with the correct structure for reporting what they’ve heard or read. Isn’t this one of our main purposes? Shouldn’t we strive to make learning effective? If that’s the case, L1 should always be yet another tool you have available. It shouldn’t be used to make your job easier, and it shouldn’t be your only tool. We could have played the “game” in English as well, but that’s the point. When explaining a word, we can choose between paraphrasing, showing a picture, miming, drawing on the board, contextualising, providing synonyms and what have you. You have to choose one, though. This is how I feel that L1 can be used to help learning. This was definitely not the only activity we had in class nor was it the only thing I could think of. However, among all the activities I could have chosen from, I chose the one involving L1. This time, with this group, it was a fortunate choice. Oh, and no grammar rule had to be presented… 🙂

Categories: Activities Tags: , , , ,

Surviving a last-minute substitution class

August 5, 2011 10 comments

Sometimes it's a good idea to let go off the maps and use your instincts

I’m pretty sure you are acquainted with this situation: It’s five minutes before lessons start and suddenly you receive a phone call – the dreaded phone call from a teacher saying that he or she won’t be able to get to school on time, or that something unforeseen has come up and they won’t be able to come to work at all. What do you do if you’ve got only five-minutes to “plan and prepare” a 90-minute lesson? Well, I can’t see a better opportunity for you to go dogme than this! Here’s a quick, and I hope useful, survivor’s guide to last-minute substitutions:

1. Change your mindset – look at the material from a different perspective – refrain from going straight to the grammar part. Take advantage of the fact that you didn’t have time to go over the whole unit and check just the topic of the lesson – the TOPIC of the lesson, not the grammar topic. Chances are you’ll end up covering the grammar point anyway if you can get students to discuss the topic. Remember: Language can indeed be conversation-driven!

2. Listen to the learners when you get to class – Don’t despair because you may not have enough time to do this or that activity. I don’t think anyone will ever blame you for not finishing the entire unit as it was planned – in this case, it hand’ t been planned at all, huh?! Start by having a conversation with them about their weekend, likes and dislikes, or favorite movies. If nothing, this will help you to gauge your students’ current linguistic performance and inform your teaching for the rest of the class. Listen to them and respond to both content and language. Focus on correct language as well as mistakes, but don’t point out mistakes bluntly. Use what your learners give you in this initial conversation to inform your teaching. Language teaching can be materials-light and user-generated!

3. Be there to help them develop, not to teach the present perfect – Let’s face it, if you don’t really know the material well, or if you haven’t taught the level before, chances are you won’t be able to do what the book says nor know what your learners are supposed to already know or not. Use what you’ve gotten from the initial conversation to have the examples you’ll need. If you remember the TOPIC of the lesson and are able to start a discussion on that, even better! You’ll be surprised to see how much of the unit you were able to cover simply by focusing on what comes up in class. Your teaching can be based on language that emerges in class.

Oh, but what if your students refuse to talk at first? This might make things a bit easier, believe it or not! If you keep your cool and try to remember your previous classes, you’re likely to remember something that will work as a conversation trigger. This is what you can do:

1. Get them to respond to language and content before pestering them for answers – If you’ve ever watched The Freedom Writers, you’ll remember an activity that Ms. G. did in class to get to know her students better and to help them get to know one another. One variation of that is getting your students to move around according to your commands. For instance, have them line up in front of you and ask them to simply move to the left or to the right depending on how they feel. The last time I had to substitute for a class, we were talking about abilities. I started by asking students to move to the right if their answer was “yes”, and to the left if their answer was “no”. Questions were very simple, “Do you like pizza?”, “Do you like comedy films?” and so on. Later on, I started adding “abilities” to it and asked them to step to the right if they could do what I said, and step to the left if they couldn’t do it. Until this stage, you should also be moving with them. It’s a good chance for them to learn something about you as well. Finally, I did some language assessment asking them to simply step left or right if the sentences were right or wrong. The sentences were such as, “She cans speak Japanese,” or “He can plays football”. Do not correct or explain anything at this moment. If you’re lucky, this will be a good warmer and they’ll be ready to move on to some talking. Get them to interact and use what you’ve learned from their mistakes in this first activity to lead their discussion to a point in which they’ll need to use it – then you may correct it! But remember to use language they’ve provided you with!

Phew! I hope extremely short survival kit is a tiny bit helpful if you’re ever in a situation like this. Any other tips for last-minute substitutions? 🙂

Categories: Activities Tags: , , ,

Care to join me?

March 21, 2011 2 comments

Even though things have been a lot quieter than I wanted them to be, I’ve been doing lots of thinking lately. There are many posts yet to come in response to other blog posts I’ve read, and a couple of extra material on the way. This semester’s been particularly busy as I’ve taken up some new responsibilities, and I’m still getting used to the new workload. It’s all falling into place, and I hope I’ll soon be able to resume my writing on the blog.

If we all contribute our piece to the puzzle, we'll get there much faster. // Photo by Bruce Guenter

However, I’m writing this quick blog post as a call for collaboration. Last year I wrote a post asking for the same thing. A couple of teachers responded to it and we even started planning things, but it never took off. Regardless of this unsuccessful experience, I asked my students to create a wiki page on topics of their interest and, closer to the end of the year, I was joined by a teacher in Atlanta and we could actually put our students to work together. It was a wonderful experience for students, albeit short.

Nevertheless, it was enough to give me some practice and also to spot some problems that came up and think of strategies to solve them. This year, I again call for the collaboration of teachers interested in getting their EFL/ESL learners to collaborate with our class in Brazil. I’m trying to keep things simple, and they seem to be working all right. I’ll also introduce new tools for students to work with as time goes by and more people join in. The idea is for learners to practise using English in an authentic and meaningful environment.

Our learners are from all different levels – A1 to B2 in the CEF, or beginners to upper-intermediate – and they have been told they are to work together to get their message across. Anyway, in case you are interested in joining, pay a visit to our wiki: and send me an email ( or a message on FaceBook.

Teachers who join are free to work in any way that suits his or her needs, be it for assessing students or simply giving them a chance to talk to people from different cultures. They may also choose to help me with the organisation of the wiki and the tasks or not – no need to worry about extra work on our already over-worked lives! 🙂

Once you join, I’ll also ask you for the logo of your school to add to the main page.

Some of the things I’ve tried out recently

November 16, 2010 11 comments

Trust me... we'll get there together! Photo by Josep Ma. Rosell

It’s been a while since I last shared a couple of things I’ve tried out in class. However, instead of writing a post about certain activities, I decided to share a couple of things that I did in class in the past weeks. Some of them worked particularly well; others not so much. Anyway, these might come in handy for any of you out there, or perhaps just be a memory exercise – they are definitely not my original creation, but things I got here and there from reading, attending a workshop, or remembering what my teachers had done when I was a student. Who knows, maybe you’d like to try them out (again).

Talking about yourself through images

I used this activity in particular to try and recycle some grammar, but I wasn’t really particularly bothered if students failed to use the structure I hoped they would to speak. We can always use anything they give us in a conversation to help them recast their own sentences, huh?! Anyway, this is what I did:

1. Give each student a blank piece of paper and have some coloured pencils available for them.

2. Write on the board something for them to focus on and some questions to give them some guidance. I asked them to imagine what their lives would be like in 20 years’ time and some questions to help them out:

a) Where do you live?

b) What do you do?

c) Are you married or single? Do you have any kids?

d) What have you accomplished in life so far?

e) What was the best trip you’ve had so far? Why?

Instead of letting them write down the answers, I asked them to read the questions carefully, close their eyes, and think about the answers while they listened to a song. I played just the introduction of “Hotel California” and then, when they started singing, I asked them to draw their answers. At first, it seemed they wouldn’t be able to produce much, but it got momentum and suddenly most students were actively engaged in the activity. When they’d all finished, they stood up and shared their stories through the pictures, with their classmates. As a teacher, you walk around, monitor, take some notes, and work on language after the activity is over.

As I was trying to get them to focus on reported speech, when the activity was over, I got each one of the pictures and asked them to report what the author of the picture had said about it.

The very first time I tried this out was as an undergraduate student. The professor asked a group of 50 students to go outside the classroom and to draw their name in a way that it’d say a lot more about ourselves than just our name. We then ventured guesses as we saw the pictures and heard what it actually meant. Surprisingly, it worked very well with us, a group of students who initially looked at the activity as something childish. Perhaps this could be a great activity for the first day of classes, huh?! 😉


Letting students run the show

I guess the key for such activity to work lies in the instructions which are given to learners. In this situation in particular, what happened was pretty simple and straightforward. As usual, there was a grammar point to be taught, but I didn’t really enjoy the way the coursebook presented it. No news there, all right. However, instead of coming up with anything else, I simply decided to test Sugata Mitra’s experiment. I photocopied a handout with exercises on the topic – tag questions – and gave it to students. No explanation had been given. I walked into the class and told them that they were going to have to do something different during the lesson. I said that I didn’t really know the topic I had to teach them, but I told them I knew they could grasp it on their own. Then I told them that I would be asking students randomly about the answers when we were correcting the exercise and that each and every student in the classroom had to know how to explain the answer. They were all responsible for the learning of all students in the classroom.

They could talk to one another, use their dictionaries, use their coursebooks, but any time they asked me a question all they got was “I don’t know. Sorry!” It was really good to see them all getting in groups and seeing fast students helping those who were struggling a bit more. As they didn’t only had to have the right answer, they really tried to help their peers learn the reasons why they were answering the questions like that.

As a teacher, I merely observed and, at the end of the lesson, I only had to talk to them about the differences in intonation patterns regarding question tags. But they all knew what they were doing, and, most importantly, why.

Act it out

It’d been a while since I last pulled this one out, and I’m sure most of you have already at least heard of it. Pretty simple as well. Choose a scene of a sitcom or a movie where there are at least two characters talking to one another. It usually helps if they are acquainted with the show (I chose a scene from FRIENDS). Play a short scene with no sound and group students according to the number of characters in the scene. After you’ve played it one, tell them to choose which character they’d like to play. Play the scene with no sound another two or three times. Give them time to come up with the lines on their own. Play the scene one more time for the groups to rehearse their lines. Finally, play it again and ask each group to say their lines as the scene is on TV. End it by letting students compare their versions with the original one. It’s fairly easy to work on the language that emerges once they compare what they had produced with the actual lines.

Hope you found this post useful! 🙂

Categories: Activities Tags:

Collaborative project

June 18, 2010 9 comments

A while ago, I published a post asking for EFL/ESL teacher whether they’d like to join in a cross-cultural exchange project. We actually managed to get a good group of committed teachers who were willing to take it further. We moved from a wiki to a ning, and more and more teachers joined it. However, I believe there were just so many teachers involved that it was hard for me to keep track of it. Unfortunately, that didn’t really work out the way I thought it would when I wrote that post. You see, it outgrew the idea of a cross-cultural exchange project for students learning English and became a cross-cultural exchange project period. Wonderful, yes! But, again, not what I had in mind. Nevertheless, I haven’t given up on the idea – having a space for English Language Learners to collaborate and have another space to learn English in a more meaningful, authentic environment.

So, we’ve piloted a project on a wiki with some of of our students. You can check the results by clicking here or on the image below:

First of all, the students would be thrilled to see on the little globe in the main page that their work has been seen by people from different countries. If you could even send them a message on this wallwisher, I’d be very grateful.

Second, and I daresay most importantly, I’d like to invite teachers who may be willing to have this kind of project run in collaboration with our students. As I said, this has been piloted in the first semester, but now it’s time for it to become a tool for interaction instead of a “mere” tool for information sharing. I’ve already created a wiki called, and there are some guidelines already on the other wiki, which had been created for teachers:

If anyone is interested in joining, please let me know by comments, tweets, or even by filling out this form. We have run the project with student from their very first semester studying English to students preparing to a CAE exam. All students from all levels are welcome.

Linking sounds

April 9, 2010 18 comments

I’ve noticed that some of my students, or perhaps most of them, have problems with connected speech. This is true to many different areas, but I realised it’s particularly difficult for them to understand the linking sounds in English. So, this is an activity I used a long time ago to show students such linking sounds. I focussed specifically on the last consonant sound of a word linking to the first vowel sound of the next word. Let me show what I mean by using one of the sentences from this paragraph:

  • So, this is an activity I used a long time ago to show students the linking sounds in English.

The sound of the consonants in red is linked to the sounds of the vowels in blue, and this is what it sounds like:

  • So, thi sisanactivity I use da long ti meago to show students the linking sound sinEnglish.

It all looks pretty messy if we don’t change things a bit to help students ‘visualise’ the sounds. If you work with the IPA and your students are acquainted with it, the best option is to go with it. However, if they’re not that acquainted with it, perhaps the best alternative is to try to show these linking sounds differently. I used a song (Bizarre Love Triangle – sung by Frente) and it worked out quite all right.

It all depends on how much you have to work on the song: if there’s plenty of time, you can explain the idea of the consonant-vowel linking before you play the song. If possible, make use of some examples in the students’ L1, as this particular feature of connected speech tends to appear in many different languages. After that, play the song and give students the handout with the actual lyrics. Ask them to try to identify the words that end in a consonant sound and that are followed by a vowel sound. Once they finish doing this, get them to practice the links. As they end up having difficulties doing so, it helps if you modify the lyrics of the song to make it sound slightly more “natural” to your learners. For instance, the first line of Bizarre Love Triangle is:

  • Every time I think of you

I rewrote it as if it were:

  • Every tie my thin co-view

When students hear the song, they can easily relate this modified version of the lyrics to the words being sung. Here’s a video of the song:

An alternative is to give students the modified version first and let them try to guess the actual lyrics. To make it even more challenging, don’t play the song and get them to work in pairs or small groups and read the sentences aloud to try to guess the actual words.

You can find both the complete modified version of the song and the actual lyrics here: Bizarre Love Triangle (this is a .doc file).

Well, I hope you liked it!

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