February 24

More questions

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about questions recently and in my adolescent B1 group yesterday the grammar point was indirect questions.  The book we’re using this year, Gold Experience, is strong on controlled practice activities (which unfortunately aren’t particularly challenging for my group) but I find that the language the book covers, both grammatical and lexical, needs much more dynamic and personalised activities to make it enjoyable and memorable.

After presenting the grammar and doing a quick controlled practice, I gave the learners small pieces of paper like this:

They had to draw themselves on the top left and a classmate on the bottom right (there was also a space to put names in case the drawings weren’t clear!).  They had to think of a question to ask each person in the class – nothing too personal or rude, but something interesting that they would like to know.  There’s a wonderful vibe in this group so I wasn’t worried about them asking anything impolite or distasteful – but it’s worth laying out the ground rules just in case.

We then put all the papers in a pile on the table and then did a mingle: each person took a card and had to approach the person drawn on the bottom right and ask the question indirectly, then write their answer in the speech bubble.

Jaime, Nacho would like to know why you only come to class once a year.

Belén, Inma wants to know what your boyfriend’s name is.

They were really enjoying the mingle and the end of the lesson crept up on us, but the next logical stage will be to do a quick review of reported speech and feedback.


January 20

Interviewing Trump

OK, I couldn’t resist a lesson about Donald Trump – he does have a way of making reported speech great again 😉

With my FCE group, we were doing a review of reported speech, reporting questions and reporting verbs.  Having elicited in the previous lesson the changes which take place when using indirect speech, the first activity of the lesson looked at reporting verbs – namely categorising them into their patterns, such as RV+object+infinitive, and so on.  As I said, this was a review session and learners had already seen reporting verbs previously and done more controlled practice exercises with them.  After feedback on the reporting verbs, I told the learners that we’d come back to them later and put a wordle on the board:

To be honest, they didn’t really even need time to confer with a partner as the lexis was familiar and it was fairly obvious who the words related to!  I then set up a listening task using Sean Banville’s famouspeoplelessons.com and gave the learners the following numbers to listen out for: 1946, 45th, 324th, 70/7/6.  After listening they had a couple of minutes to share with a partner what they had understood the numbers related to – again, not too tricky, though it did throw out the word ‘wealthiest’ which they were unfamiliar with, but understood in the context.

I could have done more with the listening – and indeed, Sean prepares a wide variety of tasks to do for each of the biographies he presents – but I got the sense that nobody was particularly interested in learning more about the 45th President of the United States…there were some stony faces around the classroom just at the mention of his name!

So, we moved onto the next stage and I asked the learners to write three questions they would like to ask Donald Trump, any three questions.  They were quite creative and I was surprised that some of them were using more emphatic language in their questions, like:

“Does your wife actually love you?”

“Do you really think the USA can survive without immigrants?”

Whilst they were writing their questions, I’d written up a quick review on reporting questions on the board, with a couple of examples which we went through together.  I then put them in different pairs and set up the freer practice activity.  I explained that they were journalists who had interviewed Trump and were going to report back on how the interview had gone.  They had to work together to re-phrase their questions into indirect speech and then write Trump’s answers, including at least three of the reporting verbs we’d seen at the start of the class.  Although this is an activity they could have done individually, I found that they were able to support each other more working together – correcting each other as necessary when writing indirect questions and chatting about what his answers would be.

All in all, that took about 60 minutes and a similar activity could be done for any famous person – I found that using someone who the learners were less keen on meant that they wrote more creative questions, but the plan could work equally well with another celebrity.  You could also adapt the plan for lower levels by just focussing on reporting questions and indirect speech (He said…) rather than using reporting verbs.

March 31

Vcb – th cnsnnts f lngg

This post is a bit of a mish-mash of recent thoughts and experiences, so apologies if it doesn’t quite seem to tie together.  Hopefully it will be like one of those films where it all comes together at the end…

When I became the phonology tutor on Active Language’s CertTESOL course, I observed my colleagues giving sessions and picked up ideas on how they introduced different points and I still use  Dan‘s first activity from the phonology session today.  In the first input on phonology, we look at consonant sounds and as a warmer, I write the following on the board and ask the trainees to decipher what it says:

                    Wlcm t Phnlgy n – th frst f sx sssns n th fscntng tpc f phnlgy!

They generally have little trouble figuring out what it says and I’ve tried similar sentences with my classes, most recently with a group of B1 adolescents, one of whom loves the clothing brand GRMY.



Jss tshrt md m wndr whthr y cld rd ths sntnc wtht ny vwls.

And they could!

In English, whole sentences can clearly be understood without vowels, though these will make the meaning more apparent more quickly if correct (is it on or in? of or if?).

On another note, before Easter my colleague Ceri presented a session on the work she had done with a group of beginners a couple of years ago.  At the end of the second term, she did a revision lesson with them, a photo from which you can see below.  Interestingly, the post-its were Ceri’s “interpretation” of what they had covered during the course, whereas the list on the left-hand side shows the learners’ “interpretation”.  Ceri’s boxes focus more on grammar, but if you look at the list which the learners produced, there is more emphasis on context than grammatical points.

To link these two thoughts together, I think we can see vocabulary as an equivalent to consonants – you can hash a sentence together with vocabulary and generally it will be understood; however, correct grammar (or vowels) make it clearer.  And to finish off, here are a couple of pics from my Diploma a few years ago…

Grammar is the glue that holds language together properly.

Grammar is the glue that holds language together properly.



March 4

Picture Dictations

I had a great time the other day with my 11-year-olds as we were practising the present simple through picture dictations.  One thing I particularly enjoy about running picture dictations with Spanish speakers is that it removes their desire to dictate “phonetically” – in a normal running dictation, learners are obviously keen to get the spelling correct and so end up dictating things like, “The to-ast is very de-li-ci-ous” or “I li-ke waa-ching TV”.

IMG_2650A quick stage guide:

  1. Introduce and model the activity with a learner.
  2. Pair learners up and give instructions.
  3. Learners work on running dictation in pairs.
  4. When they have all the pictures, instruct them to work together to write a sentence (remind them to use the present continuous).
  5. Swap papers with another pair to correct. Elicit sentences from learners, write correct sentences on the board.

I told the groups there were a maximum of five points per sentence and that they should take off a mark for each mistake (hence the numbers on some of the pictures).


February 16

Ask the Experts

This is a fabulous game which I picked up at a conference years ago, but rarely play as I always worried that it would only be good for higher-level learners.  However, if you limit the questions, it could be a really useful game to play with younger learners and lower-level adults as well as it really enourages them to focus on sentence structure.  Here’s how I set the game up with my B2.2 group the other day:

I gave each learner a piece of paper and asked them to write a topic on it – I said the topic could be very general or very specific.  After collecting in the papers and shuffling them, I gave each person a topic and asked them to imagine one question they would ask if they met an expert in that topic.

Next, I explained how the activity works – we are the panel of experts and are going to answer these questions; however, each person can only say one word at a time.  We did a quick concept-check with the question, “What’s your favourite colour?” to check they had understood how to play.

The first question was on the topic of films and we had to recommend a good soundtrack composer and the second one was about the dangers of mobile phones.  It was a fun activity as we moved away from the original topic – on the subject of mobile phones we somehow ended up talking about people who cook chicken in microwaves with no protection.  I admitted to the class that I wasn’t sure how the game is originally played – whether you just keep speaking until you get to the end of a logical sentence or if there is a time- or word-limit.  Thinking about it now, it could be good to work in two teams and for the other team to judge the experts on the content of their answer; they could also transcribe the sentence to check it was grammatically sound as I error-corrected on-the-spot during our game.