March 5

Character Builds #3

In a previous post, I talked about how to set up a character build in the class and how they can be used to practise specific grammar points.  With my KET group, we recently looked at the present perfect with for, since, just, already, etc.

We did a character build in class and then the learners completed the following worksheet:

Character Build

It appealed to the more creative learners, both artistically and linguistically  and I allowed the learners freedom to answer the questions how they saw fit.  Our character, a lovely Swedish lady who lived in Madrid, had just stolen something from IKEA according to one learner!

May 1

Grammar – implicit or explicit?

I finally completed my Diploma application today!  I say, “finally” as although there wasn’t that much to it, it’s been on my to do list for quite some time.  It was actually the written task which was causing me problems, as it was an interesting topic to discuss, but there were a number of things which had to be included, all within a 500-word limit.  Anyoldwho, now it’s done, so happy reading!


Grammar should be implicit, not explicit.  Discuss.

With any topic on the methodology of teaching, there are a number of factors to consider when asking which is the ‘best’ way to teach.  In the case of teaching grammar, it is important to consider the age of the students, their level and the learning environment.  Young learners are much more accepting of grammar than adults, who often ask for rules and clear explanations of structures.  And, in my experience, higher level adults don’t feel the need to have such clear explanations as they are more content to use a new structure through trial and error in order to ascertain when and how it can be used.


A clear argument against teaching grammar explicitly is that, as I’ve said before, low-level adult students often ask for clear explanations of structures and uses.  However, this can be counter-productive as for every rule we give, there are often a number of exceptions or cases in which the rule doesn’t apply.  I recently made a worksheet to practise simple present questions with an A1 adult group and included the question, “Is Marinela’s car blue?”  This led to a number of confused faces and concerns over why the adjective came after the noun when I’d always told them it should come before.


Lewis (1986) argues that teachers should not feel that one of their key functions is “explaining grammar”.  He says instead that you should provide answers to students’ questions.  In this way, teaching grammar implicitly gives students the opportunity to discover patterns for themselves, taking the focus away from the teacher, who may inadvertently supply a ‘rule’ which has a number of exceptions, and putting it on the student who has learnt to use a certain structure in a certain situation.


I also believe that the learning environment is a factor to consider – students learning a language in a monolingual class are perhaps more likely to be shown cases where the second language is similar or different to their own, which can in turn both help and hinder. Klein (1986) outlines the Contrastive Hypothesis of second language learning and he notes that where there are corresponding structures between a second and previously learnt language there is “positive transfer”; whereas contrasting structures create “negative transfer” or “interference” between the two languages.  This again highlights the need for the teacher to be a facilitator of language learning – to be available to answer questions arising from structures rather than providing students with a hard-fast rule and an ever-growing list of exceptions.


In conclusion, I believe that adult learners should be given more opportunity in the classroom to discover grammar for themselves.  Teachers should provide a number of examples so that learners are encouraged to find patterns and help them to define the grammar in a finite situation.



Klein, Wolfgang – Second Language Acquisition (Cambridge University Press, 1986)

Lewis, Michael – The English Verb (Language Teaching Publications, 1986)

April 10

Running picture dictations

Here’s a quick idea for an activity to practise the present continuous which will appeal to the artists in the group.

Stick twelve present continuous sentences around the room and divide the class into pairs.  Get each pair to draw a 4×3 table and then do a running dictation BUT one student goes and reads the sentence, comes back and dictates to their partner who then draws a picture of the sentence.

When students have completed the board, you can do feedback by asking them to make a sentence abou the picture – perhaps giving points for the correct grammatical structure as well as points for how closely it resembles the original sentence.

Here are some ideas for sentences…

  1. A fat mouse is looking at some cheese.

  2. Two old men are sitting in the park.

  3. Three children are watching TV in the living room.

  4. A happy rabbit is jumping in the garden.

  5. A tall, thin man is drinking some orange juice.

  6. A boy is reading a book in bed.

  7. Four people are riding horses in the countryside.

  8. Two boys are playing computer games in their bedroom.

  9. An ugly monster is eating three small children.

  10. The teacher is standing next to the blackboard.

  11. Six children are playing football on the beach.

  12. A beautiful woman is talking on her mobile phone.

March 29

Streaming (of the non-tech variety)

To stream or not to stream…it’s a big question, not only in EFL but education-wide.  Today I’d like to present a very positive argument in favour of streaming, having seen the effects of it in class.


We currently work in a state school, giving a variety of different classes including helping final year students to prepare for their English university entrance exam.  This year, the classes have been streamed into three groups and they rotate between two native teachers and their school teacher – having a block of three classes (once a week over three weeks) and then changing.  They have another two hours English a week as a whole class with their school teacher.


Initially, there is a sense of “Somos los tontos” (We’re the idiots) as students know they’ve been streamed and some feel disheartened at being in the lowest group.  However, focussing on the positive side of streaming today…


We’ve been working with the low-level groups on a short story about Sherlock Holmes and during the peer observations, I watched a colleague teaching one of these groups.   These are classes of students aged 17-18 and so generally they are very mature and there are few discipline problems in the class.  However, I have been struck during the three-week block by how particularly polite the low-level groups are.  During feedback, I asked my colleague why she thought the students were so polite and she said that they respond to the material.  Whilst the other two hours a week they’re swamped in a class beyond their level, for the hour a week they spend with us they use adapted material and realise that they actually CAN understand and use English.


You could argue that rather than streaming into different groups, you could teach the same short story to a mixed-level class and adapt the material to suit, but students would still know who was working with what material, which wouldn’t solve the problem of “Somos los tontos” but perhaps exasperate it as the teacher tries to give ample attention to the needs of the different levels.


With Sherlock Holmes and the Red-Headed League, I’ve felt that our students have responded very positively towards reading extended texts in English and working with them.  I also feel that it’s such a shame that for all they’ve achieved with us and the effort they’ve put into our classes, it’s unlikely that they’ll pass their English exam and so will once again walk away saying, “Somos los tontos”.

December 13

Multi-tasking in the classroom

cdsLots of coursebooks come with loads of extra materials these days, but do our students actually use them outside the classroom?  I think it’s all very well for us to say, “Check out the CD-rom, it’s got some great games on it!” but unless we show them what it can do and how it can be used, a lot of those CDs will just get lost in a drawer.

So, the other day I decided to show my 11 year olds the CD-rom and give them a chance to play some of the games, hopefully enticing them to do more at home.  However, with a class of students, it’s a bit tough to have them all playing on it at the same time.  So I put on the board a series of exercises, each of which would take ten minutes each and we rotated in pairs.

1. Playing on the computer

2. Board game to practise the past simple

3. Write and practise a dialogue about your holidays

4. Reading activity and T/F comprehension

It worked really well – everyone was engaged in what they were doing at that time and I didn’t have any problems with fast finishers.  It meant a bit more work for me as not everyone was doing the same thing at the same time and I sometimes found myself repeating things to each pair, but it made a nice change from a “normal” class and at the end of it, I would say that we’d achieved more than we would have done doing all the activities together as nobody was distracted by what other people were doing and pairs didn’t start chatting to other pairs.