Embassy English Teacher Summer Swapshop 2015

Yesterday we had an INSET session where teachers at my school shared an idea that they use in teaching.  Here’s a summary of the ideas.  Thanks Sarah Wakefield, Fiona Thomas, Melissa Threadgill, Esohe Ebohon, Mariella De Souza, Kallie Watters and Maggie Carruthers!

Grass Skirt Race — Sarah

This could be used for anything:  error correction, gap-fills, etc.  ‘Grass skirts’ are put up around the room.  One student has to run, rip a paper off and take it back to their partner.  Together they complete the task and then bring it to their teacher.  If it’s correct they can take another strip, if not, they have to try again.  It’s a race to be the first to complete all of them.

Sarah with a "grass skirt"
Sarah with a “grass skirt”









Speaking Games — Melissa, Esohe, Fiona, Sarah

We talked about lots of speaking games including classics like ‘backs-to-the-board’ and ‘stop the bus.’  Another one that came up from several teachers is putting a sticky note with the name of a celebrity on students’ backs.  They have to go around asking questions to find out who they are.  This could also be done with character adjectives.  A variation of this is ‘ask the expert,’  a game Fiona saw presented at IATEFL, where students have to research their celebrities and write questions to ask their fellow celebrity classmates.  In class students hold up a mask of the celebrity and then answer their classmates’ questions.

Esohe told us about a game she often plays which is similar to charades.  She gives students 6 pieces of paper each.  They write words for 6 given categories (e.g. famous people, sports, animals, jobs).  Then all the papers get mixed up.  A student has one minute to come to the front of the room and describe or mime as many as they can for their team.


Writing Games —  Esohe

The first writing game has students write the name of the story at the top of a piece of paper, then fold it over to cover it up, pass it to another student, write the name of a man, fold, pass, name of a woman, fold, pass, he said…, fold pass, she said…, fold, pass, her mother said…, fold, pass, then they…, fold, pass, etc.  until they end up with a crazy story.

The other game involved writing key words (man, woman, number, etc.)  that then slot into a template story written on the board.


Speed Dating — Melissa, Laura

Students are introduced to the concept of speed dating by watching a short clip from Sex and the City.  Students are divided into male and female (not necessarily matching their real gender) and get to create a new identity.  They choose a photo from a selection of laminated, somewhat crazy-looking images of people and then write a description of themselves (who they are, what they like, don’t like).  Then students sit across from each other and ‘speed date.’  After 2 minutes, all the ‘men’ change chairs and meet someone new.  At the end of the 2-minute date, they have to decide if they want to go on another date so they complete a form (name / do you want to meet again? / comments).  This is a lesson I often do with my own students and it’s always so much fun.   It’s good for practicing question forms and it’s worked at all levels from elementary to advanced.


Trip to Borough Market — Mariella

This is a multi-part lesson, spread out over many days.  First, students research Borough Market and make a list of 20 tasks for another group to complete at the market (e.g. Find three stalls that sell apple juice and find out where the apples come from).  Then in other lessons teach conversation starters, indirect questions and reported speech if you want to have them report back the information after.  On the day of the trip, distribute the tasks created by other groups.  Then they have to go around the market using the conversation starters and indirect questions to complete as much of the task as possible.  Encourage them to take photos. As a follow-up, they could create a blog or pamphlet about their trip and have a discussion about their experience.

Some of my students at Borough Market
Some of my students at Borough Market








Drama Improv Games — Kallie

Kallie presented three improv games.

1.  Situations:  Students are given a character, a setting, a problem and an opening line.  They must resolve the problem.

2.  Waiting for the bus:  Students are given a character, profession and personality trait.  Two students sit at the front of the room ‘waiting for bus.’  They have to guess who the other one is (e.g. Superman and Obama).  If they guess, another student comes to take their place.

3.  Party mingle:  Students are given a different motive (e.g. borrow £50) while they mingle at a party.  They have to guess each others’ motives.  They can never say no to any requests, only yes to everything.

Lexical Find Someone Who — Laura

This is something I often do on the first day of a new class.  I’ve been doing it for years, but I think I first learned it from Luke Fletcher.  I give my students a ‘Find someone who…’ task, but instead of only having to complete it with their classmates’ names, they have to complete part of the statements with missing lexis.  I adapt it in many ways for different levels or language focus.  I use it to try to draw attention to collocations and chunks, get them to notice prepositions, or work on playing with the language to generate more examples.  I use it on a first day to train students to record lexical chunks in their notebooks and generate discussion on learning strategies.  After they mingle, I make students turn their papers over and ‘test’ them in pairs to see if they can remember everyone’s name and something interesting about them to help build class rapport.  Then I ‘test’ them to see if they can remember some of the new expressions and see how well they can produce them (for example, they often remember ‘keen’ but not ‘is keen on doing’).   Here is the one I used with teachers in our training session.

Find Someone Who…

  1. ____________ has been teaching for what feels like ages
  2. ____________ is r…………….. an interesting book at the moment
  3. ____________ thinks they take a lexical approach to teaching (emphasizing chunks, fixed expressions, collocations, etc.)
  4. ____________ has …………………. abroad
  5. ____________ is in a …………………… relationship
  6. ____________ is keen …. going to gigs
  7. ____________ is looking f……….. to going ….. holiday soon
  8. ____________ can’t stand doing paperwork
  9. ____________ is fed u….. with one of their students
  10. ____________ tweets about ELT or follows teaching blogs
  11. ____________/ ˈɒfən ju:ˈzɪz fəˈni:mɪks wɪðeə(r) ˈstjuːdənts /
  12. ____________ fancies going out for a drink after this workshop

Reflection from a learner’s perspective: the inspiration

One of the most interesting talks I went to at IATEFL 2015 was one that I went to to just hang out with my friends.  I was tired, there was nothing particularly inspiring, and so I thought I’d just wander into ‘Lessons Learned as a Language Learner’ by Jo-Ann Delaney and Madeleine du Vivier because basically my friends were going there, it was right next to the entrance and I couldn’t really be bothered to sort out another talk to go to.  I’m so glad I went.  I didn’t think it would be that relevant for me because it was about exploring trainer beliefs, but really I felt it could be applied to any teacher and getting them to reflect on their teaching style.  This workshop allowed me to reflect on my teacher training, but also on my own teaching, though not in the way I think was intended and probably not in the same way others who went to the workshop would have reflected at all.

Reflection as a Teacher

In this workshop we were given a set of teacher beliefs, asked to rank them as not important, important or essential, and then to discuss with people around us.  I loved this stage because it got me reflecting on why I do things in the classroom.  Then Jo-Ann and Madeleine told us about their experience as elementary Spanish learners and showed how this changed their beliefs.  So interesting.

Here’s the list they gave us to rank:

  1. Learners should engage with the meaning of a written or spoken text before they do any language work.
  2. Teacher should provide controlled practice of pronunciation through repetition and drilling.
  3. Classroom tasks and resources should be authentic.
  4. Learners should work in different pairs/groups in a lesson.
  5. Whole group questions should be asked randomly.
  6. It is good for stronger and weaker learners to work together and encourage peer teaching.
  7. Praise is important for motivation.
  8. Be aware of physical features of the learning environment.  e.g. heat, light, furniture layout
  9. It is important to always use the target language even with a monolingual group.
  10. There should be a variety of tasks and input.

And here’s what they found:

  1. Before doing their Spanish course, they both believed this to be important but not essential.  After, though, they deemed it essential.  As learners, they really wanted to engage with texts and talk about meaning, not just move on quickly to exploit the language point.
  2. This also changed from being important to essential.  They really wanted more pronunciation drilling.
  3. This shifted from essential to not important.  They didn’t care if the resources or tasks were authentic.
  4. It’s essential to change pairs because they got bored always talking to the same person.
  5. They disagreed about whether students should be randomly nominated because one of them wanted time to prepare while the other liked being put on the spot.
  6. They started thinking this was essential, but changed their mind to not important, and even suggested the idea that peer teaching benefited the stronger student was rubbish.  They wanted to work with someone of the same level.  If they were stronger, they hated having to explain to someone weaker, but they found it frustrating to be the weaker student as well.
  7. Praise is extremely motivating.  This changed from important to essential.
  8. The physical environment is so important, more than you might think.  Their beliefs went from not important to essential.
  9. They disagreed on this one as well.  One wanted only Spanish, but the other wanted more English explanations.
  10. They wanted a variety of tasks and input, changing their views from important to essential.

To sum up, they thought all teachers and trainers should do a short course in another language.  We need to be more aware of our assumptions because they can end up being prescriptive without us really understanding why we do the things we do.

Reflection as a Trainer

I really enjoyed how this session was presented and so thought back to it several times when planning workshops for other teachers at my centre.  What makes a good workshop?  Why was this one so enjoyable for me?  Two main things I think:

1.  A good workshop allows teachers to talk about their own teaching.  I mean, what teacher doesn’t like talking about their classes, students, methods, lessons, etc?

2.  A good workshop has a ‘take-away,’  something you can use in future lessons or something that makes you think about what/why/how you teach.


Reflection as a Learner

I found this talk so inspiring that I wanted to try reflecting from the learner’s perceptive.  And so I enrolled in a beginner’s Spanish course.  Actually, in all honesty, I was thinking of studying a bit of Spanish anyways, but this talk gave me a bit of the push I needed as well as more of a structure for evaluating my experience as a learner (rather than from just my own over-critical teacher’s perspective).  More to come in a future blog post 🙂

Reading, Using Ken Lackman’s prep-free approach for IELTS

A New Way to Teach Reading

In Ken Lackman‘s talk on ‘A New Way to Teach Reading’ at IATEFL 2015, he argued that the way we teach reading is no longer relevant because the classroom isn’t the only place for English–students have access to English texts all the time through the Internet.  They can practice reading whenever they want outside of class and need strategies for doing that.  There is nobody there to spoon-feed them questions to activate their schemata or check their comprehension.  Ken advocates a genre-based approach with student-led schemata activation, gist questions, comprehension questions, vocabulary learning and discussion.

He showed us this through a demo lesson of a short story, but it could work with any genre including restaurant and film reviews or even listening to things like lectures or sitcoms.  Here’s a brief summary of the stages:

1.  Students discuss:  ‘What do you expect from a short story?’

2.  Students write their own ‘comprehension questions’ or what they expect to find out in any short story such as ‘Who are the main characters?’ ‘What happens?’ ‘Was the ending expected?’ etc.

3.  They are given the title and write more questions.  In this case the title was ‘A Secret Lost in the Water’ so things like:  ‘What’s the secret?’

4.  From this list of questions, the teacher guides the students to choosing the best ‘gist’ question.

5.  Students read fast to find the answer to the gist question.  I loved the way Ken had us read fast–we all had to stand up and could sit down when we finished. It really worked to speed up our reading speed, and I’ve used it a few times successfully with students since.

6.  Then students re-read slowly to find answers to all the ‘comprehension’ questions.

7.  Students underline unknown words in text.  Teacher goes through an example of determining meaning from context to see if students can work out their unknown words or if they need to look them up.  The stages Ken suggested are:  determine part of speech, find clues based on word parts, look at adjacent words, look at sentences before and after, guess with a synonym or phrase, and put this synonym in the sentence to see if it makes sense. Students do this in pairs to help with words they know.

8.  Students choose 10 collocations they think would be useful for them from the text.

9.  Students write their own discussion questions to talk about with the class.

Using this with my IELTS class

So if this could work with any genre, could I use this framework with an IELTS reading?  Obviously, not as exam practice, but to get my students to engage more with the text.  My students are really struggling with how to improve their reading skills quickly, and although I believe the real answer lies somewhere between ‘improve your general level of English/vocabulary’ and ‘read more,’ this is not a satisfying response to my students who don’t enjoy reading but need ilets 6.5 by yesterday (sic).

I wanted first of all to detach reading from IELTS so they don’t get so hung up on it and discouraged, as well as see that what we do in class can be applied outside of class to improve their general reading abilities.

So I started by asking my students: ‘What kind of things do you read other than IELTS?’ and then from that list selected ‘articles’ and asked them:  ‘Why do we read articles?’  They came up with ‘to get information.’  I then asked, ‘So how do you know which articles you want to spend time reading’  and they said they look at the picture, title and maybe skim the first paragraph.  So then I gave them the picture, title, and a few key words from the first paragraph of an IELTS reading, and had them imagine they had chosen this article because it had interested them in a magazine or online.  In this case we were doing ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ from Ready for IELTS (McCarter 2010), p 155, obviously not an article that would have grabbed their attention but in another context it might have.

Ready for IELTS (McCarter 2010)
Ready for IELTS (McCarter 2010)

Using just that information (picture, title, a few key words) they had to write 3 ‘facts’ they thought they knew about the topic, or in other words what world knowledge they already had that got them interested in reading the article in the first place.  They came up with things like ‘Children don’t live with their parents in this village in Africa.’  Then they had to think of 3 questions they wanted this article to answer for them, or in other words why they decided to keep reading it.  They came up with factual things like ‘What roles do elders play?’ but also subjective questions like: ‘Are their families similar to families in my country?’

Then they had to read the text to find out if their ‘facts’ were true, false or not given (sound familiar?) and answer their comprehension questions (which also might be not given).

After reading, they underlined and talked about unknown words, chose 5 useful collocations, and had a discussion about the text.

We also did the actual IELTS tasks, which most of them did very quickly and accurately having spent so long engaging with the text first, although obviously not under exam conditions.

I think they found this approach useful because they could see how they could apply this (and in fact already do subconsciously) to non-IELTS readings.  Writing their own questions also helped them to see the relevance of and rationale behind True/False/Not Given and comprehension questions, as well as how they can relate to our general reading habits rather than just an IELTS task to be feared.


IATEFL 2015 Getting your students to lie

Some of the most practical ideas I got from IATEFL 2015 involved encouraging students to lie…in order to get them speaking.  Jamie Keddie presented an idea for getting students to record a video telling a personal anecdote but either telling a true story or lying so when their classmates watch, they have to guess if it’s true.  Jason Anderson presented a whole talk entitled ‘Lying is the best policy…to get students speaking’ and I’m convinced.  Jason explained that lying encourages higher-order thinking because it involves learning at the top Bloom’s taxonomy like creativity and evaluating, allowing learners to process language more deeply.  In addition to this, lying encourages imagination and gives students practice in the interactional function of using language, as opposed to functional.  The one thing I really noticed in his workshop was how motivating these activities were not just for the speaker but for the listener.  You have to listen really attentively to work out if they are lying or not.   Here are some of the ideas he presented that are also in his fabulous new book ‘Speaking Games.’

Question Taboo

Students are given a card with a question and a taboo word.  They mingle trying to answer the question without saying the secret taboo word.  They have three chances and if they answer without saying the hidden word, they get 3 points on their first attempt, 2 on their second, 1 on their third.  Obviously the goal is to collect the most points.


The teacher tells two stories, one true and one a lie.  Students have to listen and decide which one is true and which one a lie.

Secret Sentence

During a discussion activity students have to smuggle in a secret sentence and try to make it sound so natural the others don’t guess that is their secret sentence. 

Truth or Lie

Any discussion board game or list of discussion questions can be adapted to this.  Instead of answering the questions truthfully, the speaker secretly flips a coin, and if it is heads, they tell the truth, but if it is tails, they have to lie.  The listener(s) have to determine if what they are saying is the truth or a lie.  

The most common white lies

Students are given a list of the most common white lies.  They listen to each other saying them and notice intonation, facial expressions and gestures.  

Kangaroo Court

In groups of 3-4, one student is told they are caught red-handed committing a soon-to-be revealed crime and must justify their actions.  (Such as breaking into Jeremy Harmer’s hotel room and getting caught going through his underwear drawer.)  The others must interrogate and sentence them.  

Two Truths and a Lie

This is a well-known TEFL activity and one that I was inspired to use the day after IATEFL because it’s easy and requires no prep.  Students create 3 sentences, two true and one lie, and the others have to guess which one is the lie. It can be used to practise whatever grammar or vocabulary is being covered.  

IATEFL 2014, a year on

This post actually started its life as a summary of talks after IATEFL 2014 Harrogate which I never got around to posting. Do other people do this too-start a post then never post it? Last year I actually had more unposted posts that I started and never published than ones I got around to finishing!

So anyway, with this year’s IATEFL fast approaching, I thought I’d look back and see which of last year’s talks have stuck with me and had an influence on my day-to-day teaching.

There were so many amazing ideas at IATEFL Harrogate; I kept meaning to go online and watch some of the sessions I had missed, but I never seemed to have the time, let alone find time to revisit my notes and websites for the ones I attended.

The three themes that have stuck in my mind this past year and influenced the way I teach are to try to incorporate more film clips into my lessons, think about how I teach listening and pronunciation, and to use more technology to improve my students’ speaking.  Here is a summary of some of those talks and a collection of websites with useful resources from some of the ones I went to.

Using images and video clips

Probably the most practical session that I went to and one that I quite regularly incorporate into my lessons was on using short film clips from the website:

http://film-english.com/ by Kieran Donaghy.

This site has lots of short film clips and ready-made lessons. An absolute gem.

I always meant to try to incorporate memes into my teaching or start using readers with my classes after attending ‘Using Memes’ by Nina Jeroncic and a presentation by Black Cat on integrating film and readers, but somehow never got around to it.

Listening and pronunciation

My students often complain that listening in class is easy but as soon as they walk out of the classroom into London, they can’t understand anyone.  Why is there such a discrepancy and what can we do as teachers to help them? I went to quite a few talks that addressed helping students understand authentic listenings and different pronunciations, and although I left inspired, I’m not sure it has translated into practical lesson activities or me being a better teacher of either listening or pron. I’m looking forward to hearing more at this year’s conference and exploring this area more. Websites of my favourites:

ELF Pron by Laura Patsko and Katy Davies


http://sandymillin.wordpress.com/ by Sandy Millin

http://speechinaction.com/ by Richard Cauldwell


Using technology to encourage speaking

I went to a few sessions where practicing teachers explained which technology they have used with their students to get them speaking and how well it worked.  I’m not sure if I’m inspired to use any of the websites/apps with my students, but it is always interesting to share personal teaching experiences.  This past year I have tried a few new apps but mainly relied on getting my students to record themselves in whatever built-in recorder they had on their phones. These sessions did though confirm the relevance of using technology to get students to make progress and build confidence in speaking.  More importantly, like all of IATEFL, they provided a chance to share ideas with teachers from around the world, comparing contexts and experiences, sharing expertise, and developing and redefining best practice.  Bring on IATEFL 2015!

4, 6, 8, teaching past continuous

This was a fabulous idea mentioned by Nicky Hockly in her talk at the IATEFL LAMSIG and LonDOSA event this weekend. It’s so simple and yet I can imagine so effective–I can’t wait to use it with my students.

Get your students to set their alarms (on their smart phones of course) for 4 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 8 o’clock. Then when their alarms go off, their homework is to take a selfie doing whatever it is they are doing at that time. The next day in class, look at these photos and start asking questions. Where were you? What were you doing at 4 o’clock? So simple, and yet so brilliant. Thanks Nicky!

Embassy English Conference, Hastings 2014, Part 1: Lesson Ideas

Embassy London Teachers in Hastings
Embassy London Teachers in Hastings

I know I’ve taken a bit of a break from blogging, but this conference has inspired me to get out there and start sharing ideas again.  To be totally honest, I often get down at the lack of professionalism in the TEFL industry (and I don’t mean from the teachers but from the employers not treating teachers as educated professionals worthy of continued professional development, compensation, job security, etc, etc–ok, not going to rant about this now), so it was really refreshing to be able to attend an event dedicated to teacher development and the sharing of ideas.  It made me feel really fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with teachers from Embassy schools in Brighton, Cambridge, Hastings, Oxford and our other centre in London and exchange teaching tips and experiences.  Because it was impossible to go to all the swapshops and sessions, I thought I would post a summary of the ones I went to so other Embassy teachers won’t feel like they missed out, and for any non-Embassy teachers reading this, hopefully you can benefit from the teaching ideas and I apologize in advance if some internal company references/politics slip in.

Already some of you may be asking, ‘what’s a swapshop?’  and  I hadn’t really known either  before the conference.  This was especially unfortunate because my swapshop was timetabled in the first slot.  Basically, it is a 10-minute slot where a teacher quickly shares a teaching idea they use in their class, demonstrating, with the other teachers acting like students, rather than just telling about it.  We were told less than a week before the conference that every teacher would have to do a swapshop, causing of course mass panic and our minds to go completely devoid of any lesson activities.  But despite the initial despair, these swapshops were brilliant and full of practical teaching ideas, as were the 30-minute presentation slots all done by fellow teachers.

As I started writing this, I realized it was turning into something quite lengthy so I decided to break it up into three sections.  For lack of better words I’ll call them Part 1:  lesson ideas, Part 2:  course ideas, Part 3:  innovative ideas.  So here’s a summary of the ‘lesson ideas’ sessions I went to:

Writing for writing’s sake:  Tom Boulton (London Greenwich)

He started by asking us to discuss:  What was the last thing you wrote?  

(notes in the last session, emails, texts, shopping lists, to-do lists)

Then:  Was it  A) because you expected a reply or B) to read again yourself at a later time?

(yes A or yes B, yes definitely one of those two purposes)

And when was the last time you got students to write something that fulfilled purposes A or B?

(oh, uhm, never)

So the point being we often ask students to do very unnatural writing tasks, for example to practise a language point, rather than writing something for writing’s sake.  He then went on to suggest a quick youtube writing activity.

The readings from our coursebook are often based on a real event/idea which means that there is probably a youtube clip about it.  As a class, watch this clip and then read some of the comments at the bottom.  Each student is going to then write comments about what they saw.  Give them each a letter:  A-absolutely loved the clip, B-hated it, C-just wants to say something controversial, and D-disagrees with whatever the commenter before has written.  Give each student a piece of paper.  They write their comment.  Then pass the papers to the left, read their classmate’s comment and comment on it.  Then pass again and repeat all around the class.  At the end, put them all up on the walls for students to read.  Tom said when he does this activity, it is very motivating for students because it is interesting and they take care about what they write because they know their classmates are going to read it.  He also said that the more stupid the video/article, the better it works.  You can also set specific lexis to use, such as starting all comments with ‘It’s not exactly…’  or ‘I wouldn’t…’ or whatever you’ve studied in class.

Using film and making a film:  Rosie Chard (Brighton)

For low-levels Rosie recommended using video clips to help students learn grammar, such as showing Mr Bean at the airport to teach past simple verbs.  By showing the film several times it helps reinforce the language and get students to make connections.

With higher levels she sets up a film project where students actually make a film.  She starts by teaching key film vocabulary, including words they will need to know for their project such as storyboard, cast, rehearse, etc.  For inspiration, she shows them a model short film, The Black Hole, which is brilliant if you haven’t seen it.  (It’s also good for making predictions.)  Then they work in groups to prepare their films.

(She also gave us some excellent lesson handouts, but as I don’t know her, I don’t really feel comfortable posting them.  And Rosie if you ever read this–thanks 🙂  )

The last 10 minutes:  Chris Reakirt and Alex Cracknell (Cambridge)

They presented three quick vocabulary review activities to do at the end of a lesson that require very little prep.  (Yeah!  Teachers love ‘no prep’)

1.  Backs-to-the-board (aka hot seat)

This is my go-to review lesson activity as I’m sure it is for a lot of teachers.  2 teams,  one student from each team sitting in the front of the room with their back to the board so they can’t see it.  The teacher writes a word/expression on the board, the other team mates have to describe it to the person sitting with their back to the board, the first person to get the correct word gets a point for their team.

2.  Synonym scan

After  doing a reading, exploit the text for incidental vocabulary.  The teacher writes words on the board and as they are doing that, the students have to quickly scan the text to find the synonyms.

3.  Discussion question dictation

For example, if you have looked at phrasal verbs in a text, the teacher reads out discussion questions that include these key lexical items, but instead of saying the phrasal verb, the teacher says ‘banana banana’ and the students have to write down the question incorporating the correct phrasal verb.  After students discuss the questions.