Monday, 9 December 2013

My Life In 20 Lines - a simple storytelling activity

Here's a simple idea for practicing the past simple with lower level students. I got it from Quora, a website that allows its users to ask and answer each other questions. Unlike other similar sites, you are required to sign up to get access, resulting in a higher calibre of contributions. If you're interested in the big questions, I recommend signing up.

Quora users were asked to share their life story in twenty lines, and I thought this would be a great practice for my pre-intermediate classes. Asking them to create a story to practice the past simple can be difficult for some learners as not everyone is a natural storyteller, but everyone has lived a life. It's also an opportunity for them to try out the tense in short sentences without having to worry about too much content.

Here's my suggestion for how the activity would run:

1) Ask students to think about the most important moments in their lives. Ask them to choose 5 and share them with their partner.

2) Show them an example “My Life in 20 Lines”. You could make your own life story if you feel comfortable sharing it with your students, or create an example. Here's one from the Quora page:

3) Ask them to note why number 20 is different (all the other use the past simple to talk about the past and 20 uses the present continuous to talk about how he feels now) 4) Ask students to write their own, possibly as homework. If you teach teenagers or young people, you could create some conditions, such as they are aged 19 or younger, they can write ten lines, between 20 to 30 years old, fifteen lines, and over 30's write twenty lines. 5) After you've given the students feedback on their writing, collect the students work and stick them up on the wall. Ask the students to go around and read them. Ask them to make a note of anything they didn't know about their colleagues. They can then discuss this in groups, asking follow questions as they talk about it. Check for their use of the past simple as they give more information about what happened.  

Quora users can find more examples of 20 line life stories here.
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Monday, 11 November 2013

Songs In The Key Of ELT: Don't Worry About The Government


Here's a funny thing. Despite music being my number one passion and hobby in life, I've never once written about it here on my blog. In fact, I don't tend to make a big thing out of it in my teaching either. Well, I plan on changing both those things, starting here with a new strand on my blog, Songs In The Key of ELT.

But as is my way, I won't be using the most obvious songs and artists. They are obviously so many songs and types of music to choose from, so I'm going to find tracks by artists that are not as obvious as the ones you normally find in ELT materials. First up, appropriately enough, are my favourite band Talking Heads.

Artist: Talking Heads

Song: Don't Worry About The Government
Written by: David Byrne

Lyrics (taken from here):

I see the clouds that move across the sky
I see the wind that moves the clouds away
It moves the clouds over by the building
I pick the building that I want to live in

I smell the pine trees and the peaches in the woods
I see the pinecones that fall by the highway
That's the highway that goes to the building
I pick the building that I want to live in

It's over there, it's over there
My building has every convenience
It's gonna make life easy for me
It's gonna be easy to get things done
I will relax along with my loved ones

Loved ones, loved ones visit the building,
Take the highway, park and come up and see me
I'll be working, working but if you come visit
I'll put down what I'm doing, my friends are important

Don't you worry 'bout me
I wouldn't worry about me
Don't you worry 'bout me
Don't you worry 'bout me

I see the states, across this big nation
I see the laws made in Washington, D.C.
I think of the ones I consider my favorites
I think of the people that are working for me

Some civil servants are just like my loved ones
They work so hard and they try to be strong
I'm a lucky guy to live in my building
They own the buildings to help them along

It's over there, it's over there
My building has every convenience
It's gonna make life easy for me
It's gonna be easy to get things done
I will relax along with my loved ones

Loved ones, loved ones visit the building
Take the highway, park and come up and see me
I'll be working, working but if you come visit
I'll put down what I'm doing, my friends are important

I wouldn't worry 'bout
I wouldn't worry about me
Don't you worry 'bout me
Don't you worry 'bout me...
Handout: here
Level: Beginner

Lesson Plan:

1) Ask students to complete these sentences in anyway they want:

They visit...
I live...
I smell... 
I think...
They own... 
It moves... 
They work... 
I see...
I pick... 
They try...

Check their answers as they work. Group feedback.

2) Give out the handouts. Ask the students to place the verbs in lyrics. Play the song more than once if necessary.

3) Ask students to make a note of any new vocabulary in the box. Discuss it with their partner. Collect the vocabulary as a class, put it on the board and give it meaning and context.

4) Ask them to discuss the song. The chances are they they won’t pick up on the double meaning of the song. On one hand the song is a mundane description of a man’s life and the choices he has made, but on the other it represents how the modern world has been shaped to his needs. If they only pick up on the first meaning, that's fine, but it would be interesting to try and give them a deeper understanding if possible.

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Tuesday, 22 October 2013


Here's a lesson idea I came up the other day. I was trying to spice up a rather dry FCE coursebook reading on animal cheats so I decided to add a video to the mix. After figuring out these activities, I realised that I wasn't so much improving the reading activity as I was replacing it with a listening, so I changed direction and did something else.

But rather than waste all that hard work, I thought I'd share it with you here instead...

Is JR Cheating Off a Cheater? Or Will He Turn Rat?

1) In groups, ask the students to list all the things they think of when they think of the word 'cheat'.

2) Put their answers on the board in a mind map.

3) Ask them to discuss for a couple of minutes if they think animals can cheat. Get feedback on their opinions.

4) Put students into pairs. One student is A and the other is B. A watches the video without sound.

5) Students A then describes the video to their partner. B tries to remember what happened.

6) Mix up the pairs so all the A's have new B's to talk to. B's have to try and describe the video to their new partner. A's add any missing information to their description.

7) Play the video still without sound. Ask the students to see how they did and what they missed. Did it look how they expected?

8) Ask a couple of students to volunteer to describe the video while it plays. Put some of their best sentences on the board and analyse them with the class. Use them to create a script which class collectively builds with your help.

9) Show the students some vocabulary from the video. You could put it on the board or show it to them visually like this:

Ask if any of the students know what these words and phrases mean. If they don't (and they probably won't know most of them), ask them to identify whether they are nouns, verbs etc.

10) Now play the video with sound. ask the students to try and understand the new vocabulary from the video. You might need to play it more than once.

11) Once students have grasped the meaning, ask them to fit the new vocabulary into the script that you created together.

12) Ask the students to discuss a time someone played a trick on them or deceived them in small groups. Optional homework: Write a description of when someone deceived you.

Hopefully nobody will write about this...
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Tuesday, 15 October 2013

My Talk At RSCON4

My co-presenters during RSCON4
I had the great pleasure of presenting at the RSCON4 conference on the 13th of October. It was an online global event highlighting “wow” moments in teaching and learning, and the entire conference was held online. I'd like to thank all of the organisers for putting together such an amazing event, everyone who came, and my moderator Malu Sciamarelli.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to attend many sessions as I was travelling, but I will always remember giving my presentation. I had to do my talk from a hotel room in the rainforest of Costa Rica, and five minutes before the start I was warned that there was a group of howler monkeys sitting outside the room! Twice during the talk I had to apologise to everyone for the noise, and make sure that they knew it wasn't me screaming away at the top of my voice.

So if you'd like to watch my talk Making The Most of Reading including my monkey friends, you can find it here.

Presenting, jungle style!

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Monday, 9 September 2013

P Is For Bacon


A couple of weeks I hosted a workshop at my school on the subject of parsnips. Parsnip is an acronym standing for the subjects that coursebook writers are allegedly supposed to avoid:


We had a really interesting discussion on the subject, looking into the reasons behind why this happens and the result of this decision to omit what many people would consider to be some of the fundamental building blocks of life. For our homework, we took a parsnip each and created an activity which we could share in the following week's workshop. I decided to try and create a pork lesson plan.

Pork is perhaps the parsnip which stands out the most on the list. For many people, at first sight it takes a moment or two to figure why it's even there at all. Then the realisation hits, and you remember that for a large proportion of the world, food from a pig is a serious taboo. But in a culture such as the one I teach in where pork is not so much forbidden as it is a national dish, was it possible to create an interesting and challenging lesson plan that effectively communicated this issue?

Well that's what I tried to do. I haven't had the chance to teach it yet, but I think it would provoke some interesting reactions, some cross cultural awareness and of course, some meaningful learning opportunities. And if you have any feedback for me, please leave it in the comments below.

1. Ask the students to discuss this questions in small groups: 
  • Do you have any food taboos? Is there anything that you would never eat? Why?
  • In some areas of the world, there are foods that are not allowed. Do you know any of these  places and the foods that are banned?
2. List these religions on the board and ask the students to match them to the banned possible foods:


frogs / hot drinks / cat / blood / pig / cow / onion / crocodile 

Answers (make sure the students know these answers are in some cases generalisations, such as onion and hot drinks):

Judaism - Frogs / Crocodile / cats / 
Islam - cats / blood / pig
Hinduism - cow / onion
Mormons - Hot drinks

3. Tell students "You’re going to watch an interview with a man who was raised a Muslim. He’s talking about bacon. What do you think he will say about it?" Students discuss in groups.

4. Give the students a handout with this group of sentence stems repeated on it three times.

“One of the other waiters dared me to eat bacon, and he dared me because he knew I was a Muslim and it was a forbidden thing, and ……………………………………………………………………………………...…………......”

“We have a choice ...……………..…………………………………………………………….”

“Eating pork for me is ……………...…………………………………………………………..”

Ask them to predict how he will finish the sentences.

5. Now tell the students "If I told you that the man now considered himself an atheist, how would you now finish the sentences?". Ask them to try and finish the sentences again with a new version.

6. Students watch the video and then compare their predictions with his answers.

7. Ask them to watch the video again and try to write his actual answers.

8. Discuss in groups your reaction to the video. (Possible discussion questions: Did you realise that a food could be so meaningful to someone? Is there anything like this is your culture, food or otherwise? How do you think his friends and family reacted to his decision. How do you think his co-workers reacted when he ate the bacon?)

9. Follow up written activity - ask students to write his diary entry for that day, describing the incident and how he felt after.

Pigs in blankets
I am indebted to Clive Elsmore (@CliveSir) for the video that this post is based on. It was originally posted in the comments of this blog post:

Photo credits: 

Crispy - Photo taken from by @cookbookman17, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,"
Pigs in Blankets - Photo taken from by @sandymillin, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,
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Thursday, 20 June 2013

A North Korea Q&A


Last month Ann Loseva, a fellow teacher in Moscow, asked me to answer some questions from one of her students about North Korea. She asked me because I visited the country in 2010 and had written about it for the travel website Global Grasshopper. She had used the article with her student who wanted to know more, so together they made a list of questions and sent them over to me.

I'm certainly no expert, but since I've been there, I did my best to answer the questions. I decided to answer the questions in a video, and since I'd gone to the effort of making it, I thought I'd might as well share it with you. Hopefully some of you will find something useful in it.

The questions I answered:

1. What do people do when they take rest?
2. Where do people travel?
3. What programs are shown on TV?
4. What is daily routine of people?
5. What are the main subjects at school?
6. What is the level of healthcare?
7. Who do children want to be?

If you do find a use for it, let me know, I'd love to see what you do with it.
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Monday, 10 June 2013

Silent Movies - The BELTA Day Special Edition

Just before the workshop...

On June 1st, BELTA (the teaching association of which I am president) held its first ever national conference. We were delighted with how it went, the speakers were fantastic and the delegates were enthusiastic participants. I’m already looking forward to next year.

On the day, I hosted a workshop based on the Silent Movies series of posts on my website. I showed four movies to the participants and asked them to share their ideas in groups for how they would use each of the films. I didn’t set any parameters, they were free to think of any idea they thought was interesting or useful.

After each film they discussed their ideas and made some notes. They then nominated their favourite idea from the discussion and shared it with everyone. I collected their notes in order to share some of their ideas here on the blog.

Note: All of these films have been featured in Silent Movies posts here on the blog before, but never with these ideas.


Group 1 Before the film starts, give the students a list of all the words they will see illustrated in the film. Then get them to check common collocations with these words in a dictionary. Once they have these listed, show them the film and ask them to make a note of how many they see.

Group 2 also looked at the different meanings of the words, such as light “bring something to light", "light a cigarette", “let there be light". Play the video and then the students can write down all the different meanings they could remember which were seen in the video. Then they could write a story using as many phrases as possible, therefore putting the phrases into a context.


Group 1 Students write a script the film - what would the characters be saying if they were speaking? They can then act the dialogue out in front of the class.

Group 2
What will happen next? Ask the students to suggest what would happen if the film continued. This would provide them with the chance to practice inferencing, predicting and using future tenses.

The Scream

Group 1 This group focused on the dialogue spoken at the beginning, and suggested asking students to use reported speech to describe what the men say.

Group 2 suggested showing other paintings to the students and asking them to choose a piece of music they think would go well with their painting. They then suggested that the students combine the music and the painting by recreating how the people in the painting would move to the sounds of the music.


We didn’t have time for suggestions.

A big thank you to everyone who came to the workshop, your participation was much appreciated.

Thanks to Krishnan Coenen for the photo.

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Wednesday, 8 May 2013

A Classroom Full of Poets

Poetry is one of those things I rarely use in class, but whenever I have, I’ve got a great reaction from the students. For example, my Korean teachers loved making their own stem poems. This involved them completing sentences to describe their classmates which became a poem. However asking someone to just write a poem could be a very intimidating thing to do, so I always try to limit the activity and place parameters on it so they can create without that pressure.

So I’m always on the lookout for a way of introducing poetry into the class in a way that feels natural and doesn’t place too much of a burden on the student. Hence my interest in a recent article on the ever reliable Brainpickings about ‘book spine poetry’. In this, the ‘poet’ takes a handful of books and using their spines, makes a poem. Here are a few of my own works...

The blind assassin
On the road
Dead man’s footsteps
Farewell my lovely

The monk and the philosopher
Dining with terrorists
All men are mortal

The old man and the sea
Catch 22
Big fish
Breakfast of champions

Birds of Costa Rica
Without feathers
You are nothing

I love the idea of asking the students to create their own book spine poems, but there are some issues to resolve first. Firstly they need to get hold of the books. If they don’t have their own, then they can visit the library or a bookshop (with permission). If that’s not possible they could use the bestsellers list on Amazon and if you’re really desperate, you can always bring your own books, although that would obviously limit the range available.

Secondly, you may have to resolve some language issues. When ‘building’ the poems, the temptation is to try and find titles that give you articles, prepositions and other connecting words in order for it to make sense. You might want to let your students cheat and add a few words if they think it is necessary.

A second idea is Newspaper Blackout poems. Simply, the ‘poet’ finds a newspaper or similar text, finds words on the page that they want to use for their poem and blackouts the rest of the page. So all you need to do is take a handful of markers and newspaper articles to the class and off you go! You can even do them on an iPad if you’re more technologically minded (although I used different apps from those mentioned in this article - Safari for the text and Screenchomp for the colouring in.)

Here are a couple of my own newspaper blackout poems:

The original text for poem 1

Alternative health 

Alternative Health

l read a headline
I flinch with shame
So over the top
Diptheria, tetanus, tuberculosis, pertussis, polio,
But we had a fridge full of organic vegatables.
Alternative health left me paranoid.

The original text for Warhol


A vacant, heartless worshipper of money and fame.
Yet a sensitive, shy man
Hidden away
Lost then found
Away from the sleaze and glamour
with his mask off.

Obviously just creating these poems is not enough, so I would print the poems to share with the other students. They could then discuss what they think the poem is about and why the poet chose to put them in that order. The conversation could then switch to them speaking to the poet, telling them what they thought and finding out whether they were right or not.

But of course there are many other ways the students could use these poems, and if you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments below.
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Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Professional Development - Not An Option

This post was first written as a comment on the blog of the Secret DoS. To read the interesting article that prompted it and the discussion that followed, including my original comment, click here. I have adapted the comment for this blog post.

Conferences are just one of the many PD options 

I can never understand why some people think professional development (PD) should be optional. If we want to consider ourselves a profession, and I do, then we have to act like one. Why is it that teachers should be allowed the right to do their training, get a job and then coast for the next twenty/thirty/forty years? If I found out that my doctor, or the architect who designed the hospital he works in, or the engineer who constructed it, had the same attitude I'd be deeply worried and hightail it to the hospital on the other side of town.

Professional development means that a teacher is at the very least keeping up to date with developments in their field and updating their teaching accordingly. It can go a lot further than this, encompassing writing, reflective practice, presenting and networking, but it doesn’t have to. What it symbolises is that the teacher takes their job seriously.

This doesn't mean that I think all teachers should be blogging or tweeting, far from it. PD can take many forms and not everyone needs to be doing it in public. A small discussion group is a great way to reflect and improve. Reading methodology books is enough, if that suits you.

So I think an employer is quite justified at looking for their employees to take some responsibility for their jobs and give something back to the students who are investing their time and money in lessons. And I see nothing self-righteous about demanding high standards. This is about giving students value for their effort, having a sense of personal pride and driving up the standards in our profession.

I love having a PLN, but this doesn't make it the right PD option for everyone

But what to do if you are responsible for encouraging staff who have no desire to improve? How do we motivate those who don’t wish to be motivated? I have reservations about forcing them. To have any success, I think it has to come from them. I would also avoid an over-emphasis on tech and web based solutions as I think those who are resistant to change are most likely to reject these methods. You need as wide a range of options as possible, tech and non tech, so they can decide for themselves how they develop.

Ideally, they should lead this. If you plan on running an incentive scheme based on points and prizes, as the Secret DoS was planning to do, I would definitely ask them to create their own list of PD options, and they can even decide how points can be assigned. I think that if they feel like they own this process, they are more likely to engage in it. You can even ask them to choose the prize.

My final suggestion, and this is where I go back to being hardline again, is the true solution to this problem, but it’s not a quick fix and it needs institutional support. It involves a cultural shift I’d like to see not just in individual schools but across our profession. I think that when you employ someone, you make them understand in their interview that PD is an expected part of their job. PD can be tied to bonuses or whatever system your school operates. You have to get the right people in there from the beginning. I think this is the only real way to create that staff room that we all dream of.

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Tuesday, 19 March 2013

A Letter To An Unnamed Student


Dear Unnamed Student,

I am writing you this letter because I feel the need to apologise. Recently, I was thinking back to our lessons, and I realised I needed to say sorry. I should have given you more when you were a student in my class.

There was clearly a problem from the beginning. As you were all too aware, the other students in your class were at a higher level than you. You struggled to produce even the most basic sentences when asked and it was clear from the beginning that you weren’t going to fit in. I imagine that made you feel vulnerable, embarrassed, maybe even ashamed and lonely. I hate to think of anyone feeling that way in one of my classes.

When I look back on it now, I wish I had been more thoughtful and considerate. Unfortunately amongst us teachers there was an unspoken agreement that you were somehow unteachable. I think we thought that to give you the lessons you needed would have been detrimental to the other students in your class. Now I don’t think that’s true, I think we told ourselves that to make us feel better. We wanted to be reassured into thinking that by neglecting you, we were doing the right thing.

And that’s what I want to apologise for. We were wrong. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, or was incapable of finding a way to help you, but I was lazy of thought and I took the easy way out. You were there in my classroom and you deserved as much of an opportunity to learn as anyone else. So I’m sorry, and I want you to know I’ll never do that to another student for as long as I teach.


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