December 9

Making Questions

Question formation is especially tricky for Spanish speakers given that they don’t use an auxiliary verb in their own language and subsequently don’t change the word order between statements and questions, a simple rising intonation suffices.

I do a simple activity called Guess the Question with my YLs to practise question forms and although I adapt the question each day to incorporate new language and structures we see in class, I’m still finding the activity a little limiting as learners are quick to ask the simpler questions, such as What’s your favourite…? and What time do you…? but struggle to think of more complex structures or more abstract questions.

In order to encourage them to focus on question structure, I’m going to do a similar activity to Guess the Question but as a pair activity rather than whole group and with another slight twist.  This time, one learner will have a card with a question on one side and starter-answer on the back, e.g. What time did you go to bed last night? / Last night, I went to bed at… They’ll hold up the starter-answer to their partner and read out the completed sentence, then help their partner to identify and form the question.  The reason for also including the start-answer is that they’re still in the first stages of exposure to the past tense and I want the focus of the activity to be on question formation rather than whether they can correctly conjugate the verb to answer the question.  However, after a few practices in this way, hopefully I’ll be able to take away the starter-answers.

November 2

Introducing new lexis with YLs

Introducing new vocabulary can often be a tedious, rote-learning affair: the teacher holds up a flashcard, elicits what it shows, models the correct pronunciation, the learners repeat and we move on to the next word. Whilst this is an effective way of exposing our learners to single words, we can do so much more to engage them and make the process of assimilating new lexis much more enjoyable.

Take for example, the flashcard below from Macmillan, “ball”. This may be as much as we want our learners to take from the flashcard, but with a little encouragement we can build them to saying, “It’s a big, orange and green ball” and more!

So how can we build this sentence with our young learners? It happens something like this:
Teacher (holding up flashcard): What’s this?
Learners: Ball
Teacher: It’s a ball. (mimes for learners to repeat)
Learners: It’s a ball.
Teacher (whispering): It’s a ball.
Learners (whispering): It’s a ball.
Teacher (shouting): It’s a ball.
Learners (shouting): It’s a ball.
Teacher: Is it big or small? (with appropriate hand gestures)
Learners: Big.
Teacher: It’s a big ball. (gestures for learners to repeat – and again the process of drilling with different voices: whispering, shouting, slowly, faster, with a robotic voice, with a squeaky voice)
Teacher: What colour is it?
Learners: Orange and green.
Teacher: It’s a big, orange and green ball. (and again the teacher drills the sentence in a number of different voices, both chorally and individually)

We’ve now moved learners away from a single word to a full sentence, using correct adjective order and grammatical structure. As learners become accustomed to this style of introducing new lexis, they begin responding more fully when asked and within a short time will automatically respond with “It’s a…”

But this style of lexical exposure can still be dull for our learners – and this is where a little imagination can have a very positive role.

It’s a sandwich. But what’s in it? Elicit tomato and lettuce and drill, “It’s a tomato and lettuce sandwich”. Then ask them if there are spiders in the sandwich – after an initial, “no! Urgh!”, someone’s bound to shout “Yes!” Then they can come up with their own ideas – anything goes if it’s in a full sentence. What’s important is that they’re repeating the core lexis – by the end of the lesson they will have said sandwich who knows how many times…and it’ll stick.


Images from

June 25

“genuine and meaningful communication”

Genuine and meaningful communication between learners takes place

This is one of the criteria in the DipTESOL assessed teaching unit – what does this mean and how can we ensure it occurs in our lessons?

Perhaps we should first look at the two adjectives used in the criterion: genuine and meaningful.  By genuine, I understand natural, honest and authentic communication; by meaningful, I understand that there is a purpose for communication.

The question is whether the communication which takes place in our classes is genuine and meaningful.  It could be argued that communication which takes place in the EFL classroom is meaningful as we are practising TL, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that the language being produced is genuine.

The key is to find ways of personalising the TL and context of our lessons.  Here are some ideas:

  • In grammar activities, such as Las Vegas Grammar, use the learners’ names in the sentences – this increases their engagement in the activity and you can extend the task by guessing whether the sentences are correct or not after correcting them.
  • Provide identifiable contexts for language – a group of Spanish teenagers may not be interested in what Japanese teenagers like listening to in their free time, so either change the context or allow the learners space and time to give their opinions or contrast the context to their own.
  • Make all TL personal – this is easier than you may think.  Whatever the TL, you can generally ask one of the following questions: “Do you have…?”, “Do you like…?” or “What do you think about…?”

A second aspect of the DipTESOL criterion worth mentioning is the word between – depending on the age of your learners, there may be more or less interaction between them and I do know people who have chosen YL groups for their DipTESOL assessed lessons.  It would be interesting to know whether classroom language qualifies as “genuine and meaningful communication between learners” as there may be more natural communication in this respect than in practising the TL of the lesson.  This also leads on from my previous post on making the class less teacher-centred as by encouraging communication between learners we can give them more of a voice and more responsibility for their learning.

Here are a couple of other blogposts worth reading on the topic of personalisation:

A Matter of Confidence – Personalising

P is for Personalization

March 4

Harry Potter bombs in B1 class

Image from pinterest

I had a less than stimulating start to the week!  On a Monday morning I have a B1.1 group at 10.30 and there are a wonderful group and generally quite enthusiastic and talkative.  I like to put some discussion questions on the board before they arrive for three reasons:

  • It’s good to start the lesson with something communicative
  • They don’t all arrive on time so this gives those who arrive on time something useful to do and is something latecomers can easily become involved in with little guidance from me
  • It’s based around the theme for the lesson (activating schemata and all that metalanguage jazz!)

This week there were some questions on the board with the title Harry Potter as we would later be doing a reading about JK Rowling.  The learners’ response to the initial questions was far less positive than usual as there were no Harry Potter fans in the class and in fact most said they thought the saga was unrealistic and silly (allowed a great teachable moment of some negative adjectives!).

I feel as though this initial stage then set up the atmosphere for the rest of the lesson.  In later discussions, the learners seemed less animated than usual which made me wonder whether they had been negatively affected by an initial phase which was so uninteresting for them.

February 28

Flashcard Games

I was feeling a bit uninspired the other day before my S2 and S3 classes (6 and 7 year olds)…I could feel that the learners, especially in the S2 class, were getting a little tired of the same old revision activities with flashcards.  So I went through to Chris‘ class and started thinking about games I’d done in the past to review lexis and then asked him for some more ideas.  This is the list we came up with in a couple of minutes…

Secret Code: put three flashcards on the board facedown and tell the class which lexical set each one comes from.  Learners then guess the code.  With VYLs, I do it like this; with YLs you can give them ticks when they guess one or two correctly…but not say which word was correct.  A disadvantage to this game is that it doesn’t encourage or really allow space for BIG language, just single lexical items.

Board Slap: I still haven’t invested in fly swatters, although I see a number of my colleagues have.  There are a number of varieties for Vocabulary Slaps – again though I feel it doesn’t provide learners with the opportunity for BIG language.

SharkShark: This is actually a favourite in most of my classes…with each incorrect guess the man drops down a step.  Will the class guess the word and save him?  (Although there are groups who actually lose on purpose so the poor chap gets eaten! )

Teacher, stop!: In this activity the teacher shuffles through the flashcards facedown until one learner says, “Teacher, stop!” and then asks, “Have you got…?”  This activity could easily be adapted to allow for a greater range of language.  For example, when working with animals learners could ask a question about the animal such as “Has it got four legs?” or “Does it live in the jungle?”

On your head: VYLs especially like this activity because it shows that they know the vocabulary better than the teacher!  Shuffle through the cards then hold one up (above your head) and make a sentence about it…at the most basic lvel this would be, “It’s a pencil.” The learners then respond either with “Yes, it is” or “Yes, you’re right” or, as is more commonly the case, “No, it isn’t” with varying amounts of laughter followed by a correct sentence about the flashcard.

Describing: Another activity which works better with some lexical sets than others – choose one flashcard and describe it; learners guess what it is from the description.

Circle Drill: Although we often associate drills with phonology, they can be useful with flashcards to help learners remember less frequent or more complex lexis.  Choose the flashcards which learners are having most difficulty remembering and then pass them round in a circle, ensuring the learner says the word as they have the card.  To add a bit of mayhem, have a number of cards going in opposite directions.

Pasapalabra: An activity adapted from a Spanish TV show, both classes really enjoyed playing this on Thursday.  Choose 8-10 flashcards from different lexical sets and then put them in a pile facedown.  This is an individual activity, but it’s important for the others in the group to be attentive as it’s being played.  Choose which learner is going first and hold up the first flashcard; if they say the correct word, move on to the next and so on.  If they say the wrong word, play passes to the next learner and you start from the beginning.  Again, this is good for discrete items.

With all the activities above, after modelling how it is played, a learner can become “Question Master” with guidance from the teacher.

Target: Stick four flashcards to the board, one in each corner.  The first learner makes a sentence about one of the flashcards and if their sentence is correct, they try to hit the flashcard with a ball.  If they hit it, they win the card and play passes to the next learner.  This activity encourages learners to move beyond single words and becomes even more demanding if learners aren’t allowed to repeat the same sentence throughout the game.

This last activity can be adapted to play with higher levels and is especially useful for learners preparing for Cambridge PET in which they have to describe a photo.  For each flashcard, learner must introduce their sentence describing the location of the flashcard on the board.  For example, “In the bottom left there’s a camel.”