Homework for busy teens and adults

In a previous post (Is Homework a Waste of Time?) I argued that homework is a great opportunity for independent learning. In a classroom it’s difficult to differentiate tasks and ensure that everyone is doing what they need and/or want.

I was recently chatting to by dear friend Anna Miller in Athens. She teaches a lot of adult students online and they have very little spare time to dedicate to homework and I started thinking about ways they could practise and develop their English easily, focussing on language that was relevant to themselves. Below are some of the ideas I came up with. I have indicated what skills they particularly focus on for teachers and students alike need to know.

1.       Shopping lists / to do lists

·         Writing

·         Vocabulary

·         Grammar

Most of us write lists on a regular basis – what we need to buy or things we need to do. I suggest that students get into the habit of writing these in English. The things we buy and do relate directly to our own lives and this is vocabulary that we would use to talk about ourselves, order food in restaurants and even include in a CV.

The shopping list would be basically vocabulary (nouns) but can be expanded to include adjectives, numbers and types of containers. Mine would look something like this:

A kilo of new potatoes

A small organic chicken

Salad ingredients

A bottle of dry French wine

The ‘to do’ list might be more complex and include verbs and imperatives, e.g.

Phone dentist and make an appointment

Invite Jane and Peter to dinner on the 26th

E-mail Tony about holiday dates

Students would be writing such lists anyway, but writing them in English will be (a) good practice (b) meaningful (c) helpful for memory and (d) hopefully, a fun habit.

2.       Texting friends

·         Writing

·         Reading

·         Various vocabulary and grammar

It won’t be that unusual for a student of English to have friends who are also studying English. Suggest that instead of texting each other in their mother tongue, they do so in English. Again, they will be using English for a purpose, practising language of personal significance and writing regularly.

3.       Join on-line forums

·         Reading

·         Writing

There are many on-line forums, some specifically for English language learning like those on the British Council websites, where students can exchange messages with students of English around the world.

https:// learnenglishteens.britishcouncil.org

Plus, there are many different forums for exchanging ideas and information which are job or interest specific e.g. pinterest.

4.      Reading online

·         Reading

·         Developing vocabulary

·         Learning about topics of interest

The internet has revolutionized the way we do so many things including reading. It’s hard to encourage students to read in English if they don’t read in their own language, but DO encourage them as it’s a great way to practise and develop language.

Students can read absolutely anything that is of interest to them personally and professionally from online newspapers e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/uk, to short stories, to recipes, to academic papers.

What I would stress here is that it is NOT necessary to ask students to write about what they have read. This is not an authentic response to most reading we do in real life. If anything, it will put them off reading, if they have a summary to write afterwards!!

Reading online can be done anywhere on a smart phone, so they could read for 5 minutes a day on the bus, if that is the only opportunity they have.

5.      Watching TV or films

·         Listening

In many countries it’s possible to find English language TV programmes and films which have not been dubbed into the language of the country they are shown in. Suggest to students that they watch at least one hour of English language TV a week. To get them to pay more attention to the words spoken, they can play this game: spot the difference between what is said and what is written in the sub-titles. This can be a lot of fun!

Students may feel that watching English language TV is too difficult, but once they get into the habit it and they are enjoying the programme, it will feel less like a chore.

All of the above can become habits rather than chores!


The Role of Culture in Language Teaching

What is culture?

Culture is a learned way of life shared by a group of people. It includes languages, food, celebrations, artistic expression, the arts, sports and media.

It can be divided into three groups:

Products: literature, folklore, art, music, artefacts

Behaviours: customs, habits, dress, foods, leisure

Ideas: beliefs, values, institutions

Beware of stereotypes

We must beware of stereotypes e.g. everyone in England has tea at 4 o’clock, London is foggy; as they tend to be outdated, idealised, represent the middle-class and often quite wrong. For culture if dynamic and also exists on two levels. There is what we can see: surface culture and what lies beneath: deep culture, which includes belief systems and attitudes.

We include culture in education

Because learners should have contact with native speakers and cooperate with them. Learners must be acquainted with the target culture.

Stern, 1992

But what is the ‘target’ culture when learning a global language?

The Scottish Curriculum of Excellence says:

The goal of education is to equip all pupils with the foundation skills, attitudes and expectations necessary to prosper in a changing society

And help understand diverse cultures and beliefs

These are all excellent reasons for studying cultures of other countries and groups, especially in the multicultural world we live in today, where ignorance of cultures and beliefs leads to so much friction and even hate.

BUT: ‘the viewer contains the view’

I would argue that any study of culture should begin with one’s own. Start with the known, then move to the alien. For

·         Culture is a two-way process

·         Students need to have a sense of their own cultural reality

·         We need to appreciate our own culture in order to make comparisons and appreciate similarities



Make a list of food that is traditional in your country.

Think about why this food is common.

What’s your favourite local food?

Is there any local food you don’t like? Why?

What’s your favourite foreign food?


Where do these foods come from and what are they?


Dim sum





Have you tried them? Did you like them?


Have you ever eaten any of these foods?

Frog’s legs




Monkey brains

Chicken feet

Where do you think they are eaten?

Would you try them, if they were offered to you?

We use tasks like this to

·         To explore fascinating aspects of cultures = motivation

·         To understand diverse cultures = become a global citizen

·         Appreciate own culture = represent own realities

·         And we don’t forget we are teaching English = afford opportunities to use language meaningfully


I love using all kinds of texts in the language classroom and literature doesn’t have to mean Shakespeare and Byron, but can be folk stories, comics, simple poems and children’s books.

The haiku is a traditional form of Japanese poetry, consisting of 3 lines. The lines rarely rhyme.


Ancient pond

Frog Leaps


Haikus can be great to read and discuss in class, but particularly to get learners to respond to them in different ways like drawing the poem and writing their own versions.

There is something about a haiku, to me, that reflects Japanese culture: the seeming simplicity and careful choice of a few words to create a powerful image.

Limericks are humorous five line poems with an AABBA rhyme scheme and strict rhythm.


There was a young lady named Rose

Who had a large wart on her nose

When she had it removed

Her appearance improved

But her glasses slipped down to her toes.

They can be read just for the fun of them and students can try writing their own. They are great for exploring the rhyme ad rhythm of English.

In exploring literature we can learn about different cultures as well as individuals.

Communication is “a process by which two individuals ‘try’ to exchange a set of ideas, feelings, symbols.. meanings”

Pierre Casse, Teaching for the Cross-Cultural Mind, Society of Inter-Cultural Education, 1981

We must learn to understand more than just the words, but also

·         Read between the lines

·         Negotiate meaning

·         Tolerate ambiguity

·         Effectively interpret messages

·         Accept difference


 Nothing defines a culture as distinctly as its language, and the element of language that best encapsulates a society's values and beliefs is its proverbs.



Introduce this Arabic proverb to your students.

The son of a duck is a floater.

Ask them to discuss what it means and to find a proverb in their L1 that conveys the same meaning.

In English we say: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Ask students to find proverbs in their L1 that convey the same meaning as the following:

A woman’s work is never done.

Never judge a book by its cover.

You’re never too old to learn.

This could lead to an interesting discussion.

Including culture in language teaching

·         Brings the world into the classroom

·         Broadens students’ knowledge of world

·         Leads to classroom exploration

·         Practises more than just grammar and vocabulary

·         Allows for critical thinking

You can find examples for class room use in the following:



TV  programmes




Students own information




Guest speakers








Why Play is Crucial in learning

It’s 2017 and I still come across learning environments where even with young children playing is regarded as the opposite of working and not to be entertained in a classroom. Of course, things have improved overall in Young Learners classrooms, helped a lot by the fabulous course books on offer, which come packed with games, songs, drama and even craft activities.

It has long been believed that play is a necessary part of life:

The healthy individual is someone who can work, play and love effectively

G. W. Allport

Pattern and Growth in Personality, 1961

And we can see arguments for it even in the 18th Century.

Teachers need to encourage free expression and natural playfulness…

Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1762

Jean Piaget said:

play leads to consolidation of newly learned behaviours… exposing the child to new experiences and new possibilities for dealing with the world

We encourage children to play with English

·        To make them feel comfortable

·        To help language be memorable

·        To practise language

·        To facilitate involvement

·        Because we recognise that language learning is affective as well as cognitive

·        It’s fun and motivating

But with teens and adults the game changes. We probably don’t play so much with our older students because of

·        Student expectations – their previous learning experiences have been serious and rigidly defined

·        Teacher expectations – we wear a different hat with our older students

·        The course book – there aren’t many games in exam preparation books, for example

·        Play lacks credibility

·        It’s regarded as the opposite of work

·        Play has been defined as trivial by a male-dominated society which emphasises the power of rational thought (Anning, 1991)

It won’t come as any surprise that I like to incorporate elements of play with my adult language learners including those studying Business English, Academic English and preparing for exams.

Below are a few of the activities that have proved particularly popular with my students over the years.


Write a question which will kick start a discussion. Cut it up into separate words. Place these words into a balloon. Use enough balloons so you have groups of no more than 6 students working together.

Blow up the balloons. Place them somewhere in the class with enough space for students to run up to them.

Ask each group to nominate a runner. When you give the signal, the runner has to go to their balloon and burst it without using their hands, gather up the pieces of paper from inside (you’ll have told them how many pieces of paper are in the balloon) and bring them back to the group, who rearrange the question and then start discussing it.

It’s a great way to inject some energy and fun into the start of the lesson.

Getting to know you

There is a limit to how many times students can ask each other the same personal questions.

So, this is what we do. I ask students to write down the following, not showing anyone around them what they write:

 l  A fruit

l  A vegetable

l  A number between 1 and 200

l  Your favourite movie star

l  How many pairs of shoes do you have?

l  What’s the first thing you do every morning?

Then I explain that these 6 things are actually their:

l  First name

l  Family name

l  Age

l  Spouse

l  Children

l  Job

I model the questions (What’s your name? How old are you? etc) with some of the students, write them on the board, drill them if necessary and ask the students to mingle and get to know each other!!

This is a great game because

·        It’s suitable for all ages (obviously tweak the questions to make the answers appropriate e.g. children can talk about their best friend or a hobby)

·        It’s scaffolded

·        All learners participate

·        As answers are surprising, listeners pay attention

·        Students practise vocabulary as well as question forms

·        Laughter promotes a sense of well-being, relaxation and alertness


I write about 25 words on the board, including a range of verbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns etc. Like those below:

teenagers parents       radio   cows         coffee         politics

       a  in  on  an  to   we        their   I   sexy  green  fat  rich   quickly

          dancing        is     eat  was  say  think   the        tall     quickly

I ask students to work in pairs or small groups and write a one word sentence, using any word on the board; then a 2 word sentence; then a three and keep going till they have created the longest sentences they can.

This task is great for practising syntax and grammar as well as justifying the weirder suggestions.

The CSI Game

Either use flashcards stuck on the board or a projected image like this:

Explain that the students are actually all experts in solving crimes and must look carefully at the picture and come up with a theory of what crime has been committed and how.

But as they can never be sure they will be using modals of probability: can, could, might, must etc.

Add more details (e.g. a knife, wine bottle, blood stain, picture of a woman on the wall) to the picture one at a time and get more ideas.

Encourage students to incorporate all the clues into their theories and if they don’t use modals of probability, nudge them by asking ‘Are you sure?’


If learning is just serious it can become boring, uncreative and depersonalised and if it’s just fun, it can lack a language purpose. We need to make sure it’s SERIOUS FUN!

Further Reading:

Laughing Matters, Peter Medgyes, Cambridge University Press

The Excellence of Play, Janet R Moyles, McGraw-Hill

Play, Learning and Early Childhood Curriculum, Elizabeth Wood and Jane Attfield, Paul Chapman Publishing