Soap Opera Collaborative Reading Task

I have finally got my new lap top and scanner and can post this task, which I promised to teachers in Japan and I hope you'll all be able to use with your teen classes. It's suitable for Intermediate Plus levels.

And just in case you still haven't written your wish list and sent it to Santa, this is where this activity comes from!


As promised - part 1 - web sies

When in Japan I did say that I would post some useful websites - here they are. There are so very many more out there.

Websites and other online resources
Worksheet making tools
http://www.triptico.co.uk/ (use with IWB for classroom activities)

Comic/movie making
Windows Live MovieMaker (part of the Office package)
http://www.dvolver.com/moviemaker/make.html Make fun animations with dialogues in seconds and then send them or embed them.

Discussion/voting/brainstorming websites

as well as the BBC sites, TV streaming sites, etc.

Recording/podcasting (many of these could also be used for listening practice)
http://my.brainshark.com/Home.aspx  Add audio to presentations
http://mailvu.com/ MailVu allows you to send Webcam messages and can be used for lots of different things. It works with just 2 button clicks and one more to send the videos.
http://audioboo.fm/ Easy to use podcasting
http://www.podomatic.com/login Easy to use podcasting
http://vyou.com/ Students can create profiles and then other students can email them questions. The first student then creates  video answers to the questions so lots of speaking, reading and writing taking place.. You can listen to questions and answers on other profiles and even look up experts.
http://anmish.com/ Choose a famous person, imagine what you think he/she might say and then do the voice recording. Great way of getting students speaking and lots of fun. Takes about 2 mins to do

Music (other than YouTube…)

Blogs: there are lots of ideas on how to use technology, and links to websites

Teacher Training Videos – lots of these websites were introduced to me by Russell Stannard via his Teacher Training Videos: worth subscribing to if you don’t already

16 online tools presented in a video, e.g. Wallwisher

So sorry

Apologies - in particular to teachers in Japan! I am having some technical problems and it may take a bit longer to post the reading game on the blog. I will try to get it up as soon as possible.

I had such a great time in Japan. Thanks you all for your great enthusiasm and hospitality. I must say it's taking time to get readjusted to being home in England.

More soon.........


Activities for First lessons with New Classes

My favourite First Day with a new class activities – 10 year olds and older, including adults

The first lesson with a new class can be very daunting for teacher and students alike. It’s important to establish the kind of class dynamic you want for the year through routines and interactions. Do you want an energetic, collaborative class with a lot of peer support and plenty of room for creativity and self-expression? Then start as you mean to go on. And remember to give very clear instructions, otherwise the tasks will fall apart and you won’t achieve any of your aims.

1.  Write 10 - 15 sentences about yourself on separate pieces of card or paper, making around half of them true and half false,
I can swim, ride and bicycle and speak French.
I have two brothers who are both older than me.
(My students never guess that I really don’t own a TV, car nor an ipad.)
Grade the language so it will not be difficult for the class.
Organise the class into pairs of threes.
Pass the cards around the class asking them to read the sentence together and discussing it decide if they think it’s true or false.
Once students have read all the cards, as a class get them to vote on whether they are true or false and tell you why they have made their decisions.

·        establish a collaborative dynamic
·        focus on thinking rather than just knowing the right answer
·        students can learn a lot about you (they won’t necessarily ask)
·        students, read, listen and speak
·        the focus is on meaningful language
Extension task
For homework or in the lesson, students prepare similar sentences about themselves and then work in pairs or small groups in class challenging their classmates to guess which facts are true or false. This encourages them to write with a purpose.

2. Arrange the class into groups of 3 or 4. Hand out a large piece of paper and a marker per group.
Explain that you want each group to write 3 sentences about your past, 3 about your present and 3 about you future.
Students have to use their powers of observation, deduction and ESP (extra-sensory perception) to decide what they write.
Give a minimum amount of words for each sentence: the higher the level, the longer the sentences e.g. B1 level – 9 words, C1 level – 14 words.
There will be a scoring system at the end. If a sentence is true, they score one point; if it’s grammatically correct they score one point, too.
It’s great fun as students become quite resourceful and imaginative doing this.
Pin up the paper on the wall so everyone can see it and encourage the other groups to decide if sentences are true and/or correct. They’ll need to explain what is wrong with grammar or vocabulary if they say it’s incorrect.

·        Great diagnostic activity – you can see what grammar and vocabulary they are able to use and how accurately
·        Students have to pay attention and give feedback on each others’ work
·        Again this task encourages collaboration
·        Great ice-breaker
·        Despite seeming very game-like there is a big focus on accuracy as well as creativity
·        Getting to know the teacher is quite often forgotten in a first class as the focus is usually on students getting to know each other and students do (really) find us a bit of a mystery!

3. Prepare as many questions as there are students in the class
e.g. What’s your favourite colour?
If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
What do you think is the best place in this town/city?

Make your questions age and level appropriate. If necessary you could give one question per pair of students.

Explain that the students are going to get one question each and they have to ask everyone in the class their question and keep a record of the answers as they will give a report on what they discovered at the end of the activity e.g. they can talk about the most common or most unusual answers they got. (If the class is big, you could divide it into 2 or 3 subgroups).
Students get their questions, mill around asking their classmates and then give their reports, which do not have to be extensive.(they could even me written up and pinned up on the walls).

·        Students move around, so they feel comfortable
·        They talk to lots of their new classmates
·        Asking only one question is not too demanding
·        Great for mixed ability as answers can be as long, short, complex etc as the interviewee wants

Happy New School Year!!!



South Africa

I'm off to South Africa tomorrow for two weeks. I'll be working on a very exciting and very important Primary English project, training up 140 local trainers, who'll then be able to train up all local Primary School teachers of English in the country. AND working again with the fabulous Caroline Grant. We worked together in 2002 and 2003 in Senegal training local Primary school teachers there.
As soon as I get back I am starting a six week stint teaching EAP at Brunel University in London.
Summer is always a busy time for me work-wise!

Hope you are all enjoying the summer whether you are working or playing.


Four things never to say to students, please

     1.  ‘Do you understand?’

Students will always say ‘yes’. They want you to be happy and to keep the lesson going. It is highly unlikely that one individual student will risk looking silly in front of her peers by admitting she hasn’t understood something, even if everyone is in exactly the same situation.

Concept checking is by far the better approach. So let’s say you have been introducing a tricky bit of grammar like 2nd conditionals with an example like – If I had a lot of money, I’d buy a car. Ask questions like
Am I talking about the past? (because had could suggest to students that you are)
Am I talking about the present?
Do I have a lot of money?
Do I want to buy a car?

Top Tips for formulating concept check questions:
  • Analyse the language and its meaning in the given context
  • Define the essential meaning in simple statements
  • Turn these statements into questions
  • Keep the questions simple
  • Avoid sentences that are not relevant  to the meaning of the language
  • Avoid using the same grammatical forms in the questions as you are testing
  • Ask yes / no questions as much as possible
  • Plan them in advance – it is hard on the spot without practice

e.g. I’m playing tennis with Brad at 2pm tomorrow. (present continuous used to talk about appointments and plans in the near future which are definite)
Am I talking about something happening now?
Am I talking about the future?
Is it a long time in the future?
Is it a short time in the future?
It it sure?

2.  ‘Hurry up!’

It seems to me that speed has over the years become synonymous with cleverness. Children have definitely picked up on this. Just look at how satisfied they look, when they shoot their hands up shouting ‘finished’ on completing an exercise. They believe we’ll be pleased with them for being so quick, so clever. Somehow they have got the message from teachers that being slow is BAD. Of course, teachers are under huge pressure to get through a lot of material during a course, but we have to appreciate that thinking carefully, considering options, getting something written using an alien alphabet, deciphering a text – all these things deserve time to be taken over them.

It’s also worth considering if we have allowed the same amount of time for students to do a task. For example, when handing out worksheets do you start at the front of the class and work your way towards the back? Then are you surprised that the students at the front finish first? They have after all been working on the task for a good minute or two longer than their classmates at the back! Why not hand out paper upside down in front of students and ask them to wait until you say ‘go’ to turn them over, so they all have the same amount to do the work?

Research apparently tells us the average time a teacher waits for an answer to a question before moving on to another student is ONE second! Let’s slow down a bit and give the poor students time to digest the question and formulate an answer.

3         3.  ‘Shut up!’

Any shouting or aggressive imperatives should be avoided. A noisy class is just made noisier if the teacher shouts and none of us respond very well to such unfriendly instructions. How do you feel is someone shouts at you? We don’t want to create a negative atmosphere. Quite often students carry on talking to each other because they are focussed on what they are doing and don’t notice the teacher trying to get their attention. That’s actually great: it shows they are immersed in their work.

In a noisy class I tend to speak very quietly. Students notice that I’m speaking and that they can’t hear me. Their curiosity gets the better of them and they start shushing each other, quietening each other down until they hear what I am saying.
I also use different gestures to signal that it’s time for me to talk. For example, I train the students that when they see me standing at the front of the class waving my arms in the air, they should stop talking, face me and also wave their hands in the air. Some students do take some time to notice, especially if their heads are down or they are focussed on classmates. But other students elbow them or tell them and soon enough they are quiet and looking at me. This works well with younger students but I also have great success with this strategy with adults!
Different teachers have different successful strategies for getting attention and quiet. One teacher I saw in Croatia uses a loud squeaky plastic toy. A few squeezes and everyone is quiet. It’s fun, it’s friendly, it’s not aggressive and it works.

4.  ‘You’re stupid, lazy, bad etc’

When I was about six or seven years old, we started every school day with a hymn. I loved singing. It was joyous and energetic. One day as we were signing a teacher was standing next to me and when we finished she quietly commented ‘Oh dear, Olha, you can’t sing at all.’ After that I never sang in school assembly, I merely moved my mouth to look as if I was singing. In fact, I have never learnt to sing after all this time. That teacher (a very inappropriate label for someone who so demotivated a young child) had completely destroyed my confidence. The trouble is students, even teens and adults, tend to believe what teachers say. We are, after all, in positions of authority and who should know better than us?
 If we tell a student they are stupid, for example, one of two things is likely to happen.
(A) They will NOT believe us but consider us a very bad judge of students, lose all respect for us and ignore us most of the time from then onwards. They will lose motivation in the lessons and over time justify our judgement.
(B) They WILL believe us, be dispirited and stop making any effort, believing it’s a waste of time. They will lose motivation in the lessons and over time justify our judgement.
So our words become self-fulfilling prophesies.

We must be careful what we say. That teacher told me I couldn’t sing fifty years ago. I still feel a great sense of being wronged. Why didn’t she try to teach me to sing? Why didn’t she encourage me? Why didn’t she appreciate my joy of singing? Why did she have to say something so negative?

We should be very careful about what we say to students. They do hear us. We can undermine our mission or we can make our positive messages stronger.


Back to Almaty

I am on my way back to Kazakhstan tomorrow for 2 days of very intensive training with 20 Primary teachers. I find myself very motivated and even excited about this. As I pack my fingers puppets, markers, play dough, pipe cleaners, giant story books and bags of sweeties, I already imagine the sessions in action and the difference that learning about practical, realistic classroom activities makes to teachers with little experience in teaching little ones. My aim to to instill them with the excitement of the possibilities that teaching under 10s afford and hopefully to give the confidence to try out storytelling, using puppets, playing games etc to help language development once classes resume in September.
Back to my packing...


meeting students’ needs in our diverse classrooms

There is no teacher who does not teach mixed classes. You are not going to find a group of students who are identical in their needs, strengths and interests. Every student is an individual made up of a complexity of characteristics. Students vary as to their – motivations, aptitude, background, confidence, exposure to English, family status, family attitudes to learning languages, physical challenges, speed, memory and feeling about school. And a lot of these features may vary from day to day and change as they get older, too. I believe the term ‘mixed ability’ is misleading as it suggests that students are either good or bad at learning a subject. Using terms like ‘weak’ or ‘strong’ to describe students is not just unhelpful but also dangerous as labels stick and can cause irreparable damage because not only those around the students accept these labels but students themselves do, too. Once you see yourself as a failure, it’s hard to move on.

But teachers need to consider how to face the challenges of teaching ‘mixed’ classes and these include:
·         It’s hard to pitch lesson
·         The perception that strong’ students dominate
·         Quicker students get bored
·         ‘Weaker’ students hold things up
·         Some students give up
·         And teachers need  to cover the course book within a specific period of time
·         And most worryingly the difference between students only seems to get greater as time goes by.

I would like to suggest the following four strategies to help solve these problems -
    • Vary teaching methods to suit different abilities, learning styles and interests
    • Use  ‘open-ended’ tasks
    • Create a collaborative classroom
    • Reflect on how we affect students

Vary teaching methods to suit different abilities, learning styles and interests

We accept that students are different, so why do similar tasks and activities every lesson? Why stick to the course book which follows a particular style and methodology?
It’s crucial to vary tasks and activities. A lot is said about Multiple Intelligence theory and it is generally accepted by teachers but to what extent do you plan a variety of tasks especially with Teens? Are they moving around? Is there music in the classroom?

Example task one – write the following letters on the board – B C R I E A D and ask students to work together to write as many words using those letters as they can in 150 seconds.
·         It’s a great way to activate vocabulary and practise spelling
·         Some students find individual words easier to work with than grammar
·         Many students have a strong visual memory of words and this taps into that
·         Collaboration is a popular mode of learning as students can not only support and encourage each other they can also teach each other
·         Giving a time limit means that you don’t have to wait for stragglers to finish and hold up the lesson

Example task two - What about doing a quiz like this?

Hip hop is not just music, it’s also
a. DJing
b. Breakdancing
c. Graffiti
d. All the above

Which one of these artists is not a rapper?
a. Madonna
b. Eminem
c. Kanye West

·         It doesn’t just rely on language knowledge but also on world knowledge
·         Some students know more about other subjects than English, like popular music
·         Making educated guesses is part of the skill
·         Knowing the ‘right’ answer is not so important but being motivated to find out is

There is such a huge focus in education on ‘knowing the answer’, yet in life surely the skill is to have questions, be keen to learn the answers and know where to look for them! We seem to have confused the journey that is education with the destination. Mihayli Csikszentmihalyi describes this almost magnetic pull that is learning thus: 
Human beings feel best in flow, when they are fully involved in meeting a challenge, solving a problem, discovering something new.

Collaboration versus competition

When I was at primary school (many years ago) there were pieces of paper on the wall each with a student’ same on. Every time we did a piece of ‘good’ work a gold star was stuck next to our name. Looking back at this now, even though I had lots of gold stars, I feel it was a negative and unfair practice. How on earth did children (as young as five or six) get over seeing no stars next to their names? How motivating was it? Tell a child they are a failure, and they’ll believe it. Drive a competitive wedge between children in the same class and you’ll always have to deal with the worse effects of teaching a mixed class.
Collaborative learning seems to me to be real best practice. Every child succeeds in an environment of co-operation. There is no spotlight shining on individual children, under which they are expected to perform immediately to prove they know the answer. The stress of that is more than learners find comfortable or encouraging.
Vygotsy’s idea of the zone of proximal development simply put presents the idea that working alone a child can reach a certain level of attainment; with support she can reach a higher level. The difference between those levels is where learning takes place. Working together, students can not only help each other, but also create a nurturing environment.
As teachers, it’s our job to encourage children to ask questions and look for answers in a variety of situations. It’s not our job to expect them to know the answers and criticize them if they don’t.

How important is the role of the teacher?

Think back to when you were a child.
What characteristics do you attribute to a good teacher?
Are they any of these?

She noticed me.
She believed in me.
cheerful and friendly
organised and confident
authoritative but not authoritarian

But how many teachers may discourage their students without even noticing? Look at this typical classroom exchange. Have you ever said similar things? What’s wrong with it?

Teacher: You, what’s the answer to number five?
Student:  Um, um....
Teacher: Hurry up. We haven’t got all day.
Student:  Er, um, He don’t like playing tennis.
Teacher: Weren’t you paying attention? We did this yesterday in class. Maria, can you give us the right answer, please?
·         The teacher only uses the name of the ‘preferred’ student
·         The teacher assumes one student is better than the other
·         The tone of the teacher’s voice may also give the unnamed student the message that they are ‘useless’
·         The teacher rushes the student. Research shows that teachers typically wait less than a second for an answer to a question. This gives hardly any time for a student to consider an answer and gives the message that being quick to respond equates to being clever!

Increasing the wait time to 7 seconds results in an increase in 1) the length of student responses 2) the number of unsolicited responses 3) the frequency of student answers 4) the number of responses from less capable students 5) student-student interactions and 6) the incidence of speculative responses.
Akron Global Polymer Academy

As a teacher, am I giving all my students an equal chance to succeed? Here is a personal check list you can use.

Are all the students involved?
Do weaker kids always sit at the back?
Do I nominate ‘brighter’ kids to answer questions?
Do I monitor all the kids?
Do I use all their names?
Am I set in patterns that ensure kids get left behind or left out?
Do I encourage everyone to participate equally?
Do I praise all contributions from students equally?
Am I audible and visible to all the kids?
Is my language clear and well graded or confusing?
Can everybody understand?
Is it clear when I want to get everyone’s attention? What marker expressions do I use?
It’s not easy giving all students what they need in lessons, but self-awareness can go a long way to helping ensure that all students are fairly treated and encouraged equally. Most importantly for us, as teachers, is that we believe in our students’ potential to learn and develop and that we don’t dismiss them, even subconsciously, as failures.

Creative Writing

Creative Writing
Why include creative writing in the EFL classroom?
Consider the three quotes below:
Educating people entirely through left-brain activities of the academic curriculum is like training somebody for a race by exercising only one leg while leaving the muscles of the other leg to atrophy.
James Hemmings, The Betrayal of Youth, Marion Boyars, 1980

To solve complex problems in changing circumstances requires the activity of both cerebral hemispheres.
Carl Sagan,The Dragons of Eden, Coronet, 1978
Imagination is an essential part of human intelligence. Creativity is applied imagination.
Ken Robinson, Out Of Our Minds, Capstone, 2001
Education has become very academic (or maybe has always tended to be). The capacity for remembering and recalling information and logico-deductive reasoning are highly regarded. Over the years in the UK, with the ‘need’ to reduce costs, schools have seen subjects like drama and music disappearing. Yet, employers want people with imagination, creativity and soft skills. I believe that developing creativity in young minds is an essential part of the teacher’s job.

In the English language classroom, I see a role for creative writing for these reasons:
}  To allow for personalised responses
Students need to be free to play with ideas and language in their own way. Not everyone has the same ideas and emotions in relation to a stimulus. Each student has a right to express themselves as individuals and to be respected as individuals.
}  To accommodate mixed (ability) students
Students can write how much, how little, however simply or complexly they wish.  
}  To focus on meaning over form
There is too much focus in many EL classrooms on grammar – on the mechanical manipulation of the form of language, often, I believe, at the expense of meaning. Language begins and ends with meaning. Students should have plenty of opportunities to express themselves using whatever language they have available. This also allows them to tap that dormant language within, because they really search for ways to express themselves.
}  To motivate students
Dropouts don’t leave school because we don’t give them enough facts, but because they don’t find any meaning in them.
Gertrude Moskowitz, 1978

Some practical classroom ideas:
Starting with a frame will help students, especially those unused to creative writing. Unfortunately although creativity is as natural to children at birth as breathing, it gets stifled early and needs coaxing and encouraging. Children quickly learn, usually at school, that a ‘correct’ answer is required of them, one that the teacher is already aware of and it’s wasting time to offer something from outside the box in class.

Example 1:
Once upon a time there was a ....................  girl who lived in a .................... village.  Her mother and father were very .................. She liked to play in the ................... with her ..................... friend, who was called .......................
One day they found a ........................... and they took it to the police station. The policeman was very ......................... and told them they could keep it. They were very ..................................
Give children a gapped story like this (depending on age and level) and ask them to work in pairs or small groups to fill in the gaps. Reassure them that there is no one ‘right’ answer and that they can make their story as funny / scary / silly as they want.

Example 2:
Pictures – with speech balloons to fill are not overwhelming as students can see that they don’t need to write a lot and can then therefore think more about quality than quantity of words. There are may you can find online.


From reading to writing
Linking reading for pleasure with writing is a great idea. Students will have models and inspiration for their own writing and be reassured that they don’t have to write a lot to create something powerful and / or beautiful.
Here are some examples:
An old pond!
A frog jumps in-
The sound of water

An elderly man called Keith
Mislaid his set of false teeth -
 They'd been laid on a chair,
He'd forgot they were there,
Sat down, and was bitten beneath.


Crouching, ready to pounce on a bird
Always running, scratching, purring
That’s Tommy my cat

What’s purple?
My sister’s eyeshadow
my father’s car
the cover of my diary
my new jeans
and the dye
I’m not allowed to use
on my hair.

All right
they are my parents
but I don’t want them to come into
my room without asking,
I don’t want them to read my letters,
I don’t want them to laugh
at my friends,
I don’t want them to check my homework.
All I want is to live my own life.

Writing for the paper
fodey.com is a great easy-to-use website where students (and teachers) can see their articles take shape and look like authentic newspapers.
I start by creating my own for students to read. We do spend some time focussing on the use of passive voice in class. This is where passive is used naturally and effectively. Students can then write their own articles (collaboratively, if they prefer) and then we use the website to work the magic. It makes for a great display – as students can add photographs, too.

Other ideas:
  •       Play three different pieces of instrumental music . Students each have three pieces of paper. As they listen they write down whatever comes to mind while listening to the music on each piece of paper. Students read each other’s writing and guess which music inspired each text. In pairs students choose one of their texts and expand on the writing – turning it into a poem, story, song etc.
  •  ·     The above can also be done with three pictures. It’s easy to find paintings online to show in class.
  •  ·     Use songs to inspire writing. E.g. after listening to ‘She’s leaving home’ by the Beatles, students discuss the events in the song, then in pairs write the note that the girl leaves for her parents, create a missing poster for the girl, write a letter from one of the parents to the girl etc etc.

The books below have a wealth of fabulous ideas for encouraging creative thinking and writing:
Writing Simple Poems, Vicki L. Holmes & Margaret R. Moulton, Cambridge University Press
Once Upon a Time, John Morgan & Mario Rinvolucri, Cambridge University Press
Creative Poetry Writing, Jane Spiro, Oxford University Press
Storybuilding, Jane Spiro, Oxford University Press
Images, Jamie Keddie, Oxford University Press