One of the things we do for professional development in the school where I work are so-called ‘experimentation cycles’, where the team chooses a topic, we pool resources (books, resource packs and blog posts with all sorts of activities on the topic), after which everyone who is interested in the topic picks a few activities and tries them out in class. Finally, we organize a workshop to share the activities we liked.

This post is a summary of one of these workshops, which was focused on Vocabulary revision activities. As I mentioned above, the activities mostly came from books and the Internet, and I’m sure you’ll see here quite a few ideas that you’ve tried too – so if you have a variation that you love, could you share it?

‘Vocabulary revision’ is a very broad term and activities could be very different in terms of what the learners need to do with the words:

  • am I given something or do I need to retrieve something from memory?
  • am I given / need to retrieve the meaning or the word itself?
  • how many times?

Based on these questions, the activities here can be roughly categorized (with some overlap) into four groups (ordered according to how cognitively demanding they are):

  1. recalling the meaning of an item
  2. recalling the item (to be more exact, these are mostly pairwork activities in which one person recalls the meaning of the item and explains the item and/or uses it in an isolated sentence and the second person recalls the item) 
  3. recalling and using multi-word items
  4. using lexis in extended speech

Recalling the meaning of an item


Elena Wilkinson shared an activity in which the learners review lexical items learned previously and sort them into three categories: I know, I’m not sure that I know, I have no idea. They then discuss the words in pairs, with people who know words explaining them to those who are not sure / have no idea. The pairs then get combined into groups of four and so on. A variation is to do this activity with the lexical items on slips of paper.


Source: Elena Wilkinson

Vocabulary auction

In this activity the learners review a list of words and expressions and discuss what they mean (a variation: they come up with a definition and an example sentence). Depending on how certain they are, they place a bet on each definition – the bets should add up to $1200.

Once that’s done, the whole class goes through the list word by word. For each word, the team that placed the highest bet explains the word. If the definition is correct, they gain their bet. If it’s wrong, they lose their bet and the chance to define the word is given to a team with the second highest bet. However, if this second team gets the definition correct, it gains the amount the first team bet (e.g. if Team A bet $150 on a word and got the meaning incorrect, Team B, which bet $100 and explained the meaning correctly, will get $150, not $100).


Source: Olga Akimkina

I think this game could work especially well with easily confused words, false friends and lexical mistakes commonly made by the learners in the group.

Recalling the item

Memo (tried out by Olga Akimkina)

In this simple activity the learners look at a list of words/expressions on the board for 30 seconds. Then the list gets erased and the learners try to recall as many expressions as they can (for one minute). They check in pairs – the pair that has recalled the most words is the winner.

Tip. Explain to the learners that they’ll need to recall the words before you display them.

Vocabulary die (tried out by Olga Akimkina and Irina Dubovitskaya)


For this activity you need a set of vocabulary to revise for each pair/small group of learners and a die with tasks (you can create your own dice using this free dice maker). Alternatively, use standard dice and write the tasks on the board (1 = give definition; 2 = draw it, etc).

Tip. Both teachers who tried out this activity found that it worked quite well with ‘concrete’ verbs (see sample images produced by the learners below), but didn’t really work with more abstract concepts like ‘stagnation’.


Source: Olga Akimkina


Polina Safronova shared a nice crossword maker that automatically creates half-crosswords for pairwork guessing games. In this type of crossword student A’s version contains only the horizontal words, while student B’s version contains only the vertical words. The students need to complete their crosswords by listening to their partner’s explanations.

The tool requires registration. Once you’ve registered, the process of creating a crossword is very simple: choose Pairwork crossword and tick I want to make my own:


Type your words (for some reason the words without clues didn’t show up in the crossword, so I simply typed dots for clues) and click ‘Make my crossword‘:
editingHere’s what the resulting crosswords look like – you can print it into a pdf document in order to keep the worksheet for future use:





In this guessing game (tried out by Evgenia Antonova and Irina Dubovitskaya) the learners pick a slip with a word and say an example sentence, substituting ‘banana’ for the target word. Here are some examples:


Source: Evgeniya Antonova

Walk and swap

This is a variation of the Banana activity which requires only one set of cards for the group and allows the learners to stretch their legs. At the beginning each learner is given one or two cards with words. They get up and mingle to play banana. Each time someone guesses a word on their card, they give the card to that person. The aim of the activity is to swap cards as many times as possible.

Hot Seat

Another well-known simple activity that requires no preparation at all is Hot Seat. The class is split into two teams. Two learners (one from each team) sit with their back to the board. The teacher boards a word. The team explain the word to the person on the chair – the first team to guess gets a point.

Tying out of class revision with classroom activities

One thing that has really grown on me in the past couple of years is using Quizlet for vocabulary learning and revision. Quizlet is a free web service that allows you to create sets of flash cards and then share them with the learners by link. The learners can play a number of games with the flash cards (moreover, if they install the mobile app, they’ll be able to access them even when they’re offline).

The beauty of it is that the site also allows you to print out two-sided cards based on the sets that the learners worked with for homework. For example, here’s a worksheet generated from this set. This makes it possible to play a whole range of games in class based on exact same cards that the learners studied at home, without any extra preparation apart from cutting up the cards and printing the game boards. For a set of game templates that could be used with any set of cards, see this post (where you’ll find nice tic tac toe templates, dots and boxes, variations of snakes and ladders, battleship, blockbusters, Game of the Goose and a few other templates).

Revising multi-word items

Collocation cards

One really simple way to revise collocations is to prepare a set two-sided cards: a word on one card and 3-5 collocations taken from the collocations dictionary on the second side. Each turn, a learner takes a card, looks at the collocations and guess the word. Again, these cards can be prepared using Quizlet – in fact, see here for more examples of Quizlet sets that help learners practice collocations (created by Leo Selivan).

collocation cards

Source: Olga Akimkina

Tic tac toe

Another activity is to put gapped multi-word items on a Tic Tac Toe grid. The goal might be simply to recall the expression or to use it in a sentence to say a truthful fact or opinion.

Tips. If you’d like the learners to be able to check their answers, provide them with empty grids and two-sided cards. A no-cut alternative is to do the activity in groups of three, with one learner checking the players’ answers using a cheat sheet.

Tic tac toe

Source: Olga Lifshits

Discussion gapfills 

Another suggestion, also shared by Olga Lifshits, was to provide the learners with a gapfill in which each sentence is a question. Gapfills can be done with any vocabulary, but they work particularly well with multi-word items where only part of the item is gapped out.

After the learners do the gapfill, they pick 3-5 questions they’d like to discuss with their partner – this won’t necessarily make them use target lexical items in speech, but it will help them to process their meaning more deeply.

Here’s a sample set of questions:


Source: Olga Lifshits


Pelmanism is a game that allows one to revise two-part expressions (e.g. two-word collocations such as ‘meet + the deadline’, dependent prepositions, such as ‘interested + in’, two-word compound nouns, such as traffic lights, and so on).

Prepare a set of cards for each pair of learners (each expression should be split across two cards). The players spread the cards on the board, blank sides up. Each turn one player turns over two cards – if they form an expression, the player keeps the cards. If the cards belong to different expressions, the player puts them back.


Compound nouns (pelmanism). Source: Olga Lifshits

A lot of teachers avoid this game because it seems too time-consuming and because it focuses only on form without any emphasis on the meaning of the expressions. Here are a couple of modifications that may make it less time-consuming and more useful in terms of language practice:

  • each turn, a player turns over one card – if they can remember the whole expression, they’re allowed to look for the second card (or, to keep the element of chance, they are allowed to turn over, say, up to seven cards);
  • each time a player finds an expression, they need to either use it in a sentence (again, telling a true fact or stating an opinion) or ask their partner a question that contains the expression.


Another activity that allows one to practice two-part multi-word items is dominoes, which can easily be created in a Word document (see a sample Word table below). The players work in pairs or small groups. The learners need to arrange the dominoes on the desk in such a way that they form a circle.

Again, Dominoes is primarily a form-focused activity, but it can be adapted to focus on meaning by asking the learners to make a statement or ask their group a question with an expression each time put two dominoes together..


Collocation dominoes. Source: Olga Lifshits

Using lexis in extended speech

For all activities in this category you need a set of vocabulary cards to revise – these can be prepared by the teacher or pooled by the learners – simply give them 5 minutes to flip their notebooks and coursebooks and put on cards any words and expressions they’d like to start using but haven’t started using yet.

Guess my word

Prepare a set of discussion questions and a set of cards for each pair / small group. Each turn, one learner picks a vocabulary card and a discussion question. Their objective is to talk for a minute about the question and to use the word on their card at some point. The objective of their partner / group is to guess which word was on the card.

A by-product of this activity is that it encourages the learners to use more ‘interesting’ vocabulary, so that the ‘fancy’ word on their card isn’t too obvious. Another reason I liked this activity is that it can be used when each person has their individual set of cards (e.g. I used it with a group of teens who did out-of-class reading and accumulated their own vocabulary sets based on the books they were reading).

Picture-based story (tried out by Evgenia Antonova)

Prepare a set of target expressions, a picture and an opening line of a story (here’s a nice ‘first line generator’). Learners work in pairs or groups of three. Each team picks about 7 cards with vocabulary and a picture. They have about 10 minutes to create a story based on their pictures that uses the words they picked. Here are sample materials that were used with a group of advanced learners (but the activity worked equally well with a pre-intermediate group):

Picture based story


Source: Evgenia Antonova


The learners work in pairs. One person picks a slip with a word. They ask their partner a question trying to get them to use the word in the answer. The important thing is that their conversation should be as natural as possible: they shouldn’t give the definition or reply with just one word.

Here are some examples of questions that the learners asked to elicit vocabulary items:


Source: Evgenia Antonova

4-3-2 Speed dating 

This is an activity that I actually learned only today from Julia Galichanina, another colleague of mine, and I really look forward to trying it out.

Part 1. Give the learners a list of expressions and a list of categories (e.g. ‘Hobbies’, ‘Things I do every day’, ‘Things that aren’t related to work’, etc). Get the learners to decide which words could relate to which category (e.g. ‘occasionally’ could work everywhere, but ‘golf’ is more like a hobby)/ After that, each learner writes several sentences related to each category using target lexis.

Part 2. Split the group into interviewers and interviewees. The learners stand in two circles, with the interviewers in the inner circle.

  • During the first round (4 minutes) interviewers ask one interviewee any questions related to the categories, and the interviewees need to reply using as many target expressions as possible. The interviewers tick the expressions that the interviewee used. Conduct quick group feedback asking which expressions were used.
  • The learners go to the next partner and repeat the procedure in 3 minutes.
  • Finally, with a new partner, an interviewee gives a monologue summarizing their answers to the two interviewees questions.
  • The interviewers and interviewees swap roles and the 4-3-2 cycle is repeated.


Finally, here is another nice activity which was shared by Christina Rebuffet-Broadus at her conference workshop at IATEFL Poland:

Going through my notes from the workshop while writing this post, I realized that while I learned a few very useful activities that have since become my favourites, I completely forgot about some of the others. In particular, I’ll definitely be trying out picture-based stories and vocabulary dice.

Are there any great vocabulary revision activities that you’d add to this list?


A couple of weeks ago Irina Dubovitskaya, a colleague of mine at EPAM Systems, told me about an activity that worked really well with her students. I loved the idea behind this activity and asked Irina to write a guest post about it. The activity is highly adaptable, very personalized and uses a very simple, visually appealing tool that the learners can access from their own devices. See for yourself:

Irina Dubovitskaya

Irina Dubovitskaya

Level: B1+
Target structure: hypothetical conditional (conditional II)
Activity type: pre-class task (for homework) + warm-up

If it weren’t for Russell Stannard’s webinar “Key tools for quick collaboration between students” (an LPM’s Globinar organized by Jürgen Wagner), I would probably have never learnt about AnswerGarden, a convenient “feedback + word cloud” tool that can be used in teaching English. “Plant a question and invite participants to your AnswerGarden. Their answers will instantly form a growing word cloud!” says the promo, not mentioning that the growing word cloud can then blossom into a very engaging communicative task.

I decided to use the tool to prepare a warm-up activity focused on drilling Conditional II with my B1+ group of adult learners.  The objective of the task was to engage them in a discussion and encourage using Conditional II as much as possible. Here’s what I did.

Before class:

1. Think of a question.
In order to revise Conditional II I prepared two questions:

  • “What would you change about your working conditions?”;
  • “If you had more spare time, how would you spend it?”.

2. Get answers from participants.

As there are four students in my class (2m/2f) I paired them up and gave each team one question. To share the question with the students, I opened AnswerGarden, clicked on ‘Create an AnswerGarden’ at the top of the page and inserted my question.  This created a  link to a dynamically updated word cloud that I could send to my students – here’s what it looked like for them:


3. Print the word cloud.
Ss’ answers formed word clouds that I corrected and printed.

NB. I decided to set this idea generation stage for homework as my students sometimes have problem with what can be called “spontaneous imagination” in class. However, the whole activity can also be done in class, provided that the students have some technology to access the internet, to type their answers. Also, since each cloud has a unique URL, instead of printing the clouds you can simply share the links.

In class:

Warm-up. Part 1.
In class, I handed out the word clouds. Each group received their partners’ clouds. The first task was to reconstruct the original question. The only requirement should be met – the question should be formulated using Conditional II. It took the Ss about 3 minutes to guess the initial questions.

Warm-up. Part 2. 

Then the Students were asked to discuss the answers and decide which of their classmates gave them. As the groups were gender equal (a male and a female), they relied not only on the facts they knew about their classmates, but also on some gender stereotypes that proved to be totally misleading. In order to check their guesses, the Ss had to ask another team questions using the second conditional:
“Ilya, would you add more monitors?”
“Maria, would you get married if you had more free time?”
Surprisingly, it was Andrey who would get married and Olya who would add more monitors. 🙂


I really liked the task because of its power to generate an engaging discussion. Not only did my students use Conditional II every now and then, but also they extended both their answers and questions to get more information about their classmates and to get to know each other a bit better.

Dorothy Zemach gave a very useful practical workshop on using song to a packed room at the NATE conference in Moscow, Russia. Here are my notes from her workshop. 

Abstract: This practical workshop gives examples of activities you can do with songs – far more than just removing some words for students to write in. We’l also discuss how to select songs and which ones work best to teach and practice English. And of course we’ll listen to real music!

The handout for this workshop will be available at Dorothy’s website next week.

What are some reasons to use songs in the classroom?

  • Students like this – this is a good reason and not the only reason.
  • When looking for songs, the question ‘why questions do my students like?’ is not the main for Dorothy. She wants to find songs that will help with vocabulary, grammar and, most of all, pronunciation (because features of connected speech in slow songs are a lot easier to hear than in conversation).

Challenges associated with using songs:

  • Some songs contain bad grammar – which makes them bad teaching material
  • Bad/explicit vocabulary – also makes the song impossible to use in context
  • Lyrics that you find online are often incorrect and you have to double-check
  • Difficult to find songs for a particular language point.
    Where can you find suitable songs? Save all links – over the years Dorothy has collected a collection of songs that are good for present perfect / two-part verbs / etc.

Dorothy encourages teachers to buy copies of songs we use in class, as it’s only fair to pay the people who created your materials!

Next Dorothy Zemach showed activities that she’d used with five songs.

Tom’s Diner Suzanne Vega

This is a very clear song that can be used with A2 learners.

Stage 1 Read and understand and answer these questions just from listening – to give the learners a sense of achievement.


Stage 2 Students are given gapped lyrics, in which  all present continuous verbs have been taken out.



  • The gaps are too close so Dorothy warns the students in advance that while they’re writing one verb they’re likely to miss the next one. She says that she’ll stop after each verse and play it again.
  • The verbs straightening / hitching are likely to be problematic, so Dorothy will pre-teaches them in advance. In a practicing activity that is well designed the students are able to get almost everything right.

Stage 3 Listen again without looking at the lyrics and raise your hand each time you hear present continuous (this does challenge the students because some words, like ‘morning’ sound like verbs, which means they have to process what they’re listening to.

I Can See Clearly Now by Johnny Nash; On the Rocks
Language point: weather vocabulary

This song has a lot of weather vocabulary. You can see the procedure in the handout – notice that in Task 4 the students talk about what it means because it’s a metaphor.

For lower level students the challenge is that their language level is low but they’re still adults and they have complex ideas. So it’s important for them to sometimes get the chance to talk about complex issues.


Interestingly, in Libia when Dorothy asked ‘what do heavy cloud mean’, the learners said ‘happiness’ – because it hardly ever rains there and they pray for rain! But this prompted discussion of connotations in western countries – important, e.g. for understanding of films (when we see dark cloud, this might signal that something terrible is going to happen – if you can’t interpret that, you will have trouble understanding the film).

As you listen to this song, notice that the singer sings so slowly that it’s easy to hear the phonemic features, e.g.  what happens with sound /k/ in ‘dark cloud’ .

Working with a song, you’ll probably need to play it several times. When lots of people have covered a song, why not play different versions? If the versions are slightly different, this gives the learners another reason what to listen for.


Nothing (Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians) 
Language point:  ‘nothing / something / everything.


Stage 1. The students are given gapped lyrics to listen and fill in.

Stage 2. Dorothy asks the learners to explain why the singer is singing ‘Don’t tell me nothing’ – is that bad grammar? No, because actually she’s singing ‘Don’t tell me ‘nothing” – what she’s saying it ‘talk to me’. When low level learners work that out, they feel that they understand the hidden meaning and feel intelligent.

Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin
Discussion point: family/culture

Stage 1: discussion.

Worksheet design: notice how pre-listening section starts with some very easy to answer questions, followed by questions that require more thought.

Stage 2: students listen and read at the same time – if there’s any vocabulary or anything else you don’t understand, underline it.

This normally arises some cultural questions related to:

  • Cat’s in the Cradle, a children string game,
  • Little boy blue, a line from a nursery rhyme
  • The man in the moon – this is what little kids are told (as the spots on the mood resemble a face)
  • a silver spoon – the traditional gift for a newborn baby

So these are all things that people heard in the childhood and so they evoke nostalgia.

Stage 3: Discussion

Is this a terrible father? Should he not pay his bills?
Why did he not call? (When this song was written, phone calls were very expensive)
What can you do to have close feeling with your family, given that you have a limited amount of time?
These are the topics that everyone can relate to.




Exposé – I’ll Never Get Over You Getting Over Me

Language point: two/three-part verbs; phonology (intrusive /w/ in between vowels, e.g. go_w_away, go_w_on – which is very difficult to hear in conversation, but a lot easier to hear when sang slowly.

Worksheet design: for students, Dorothy will normally provide the expressions in a box, for them to listen and choose.


I hope you dance by Lee Ann Womack
Dorothy Zemach uses this song with more advanced students

Stage 1: Listen (not watch) and decide: what’s the relationship between the singer and the person that she’s singing to?


Stage 2: As it’s quite metaphorical, Dorothy provides the lyrics, gets through them line by line and elicits what is implied in each line.

Dorothy 2

Stage 3: Focus on language (language of imperatives..)

Stage 4; Writing assignment: the learners write their own letter to someone they care about (if they can, they can write a poem). They need to do that using the same grammar points (imperatives / I hope you [verb]). Here’s how Dorothy scaffolds this task:



I thoroughly enjoyed this workshop. For me it was very interesting to look at some specific examples how Dorothy Zemach has used songs in class, and I’d really like to try some of these songs and activities in class.

I also really liked the way Dorothy shared practical advice on material writing (e.g. on ordering discussion questions) simply by commenting on the design of the worksheets.

The thing I enjoyed the most was the post-listening activities – the way Dorothy encourages the learners to explore metaphors and culture. I especially loved the post-listening activity that she designed for the last song – I know that I’d love to be in that class. 

I teach Business English students at the moment and I hardly ever use songs with my BE learners – I came away from this workshop inspired to keep an eye out for songs suitable for my context and to use them a lot more in class.  

Lindsay Warwick gave a great talk on activities that encourage learners to engage more with reading texts and make them more active and critical readers. Here are my notes. 

Abstract Academic reading requires a while new set of skills that even learners with excellent English need help with. Not only do they need to understand the ideas in a text, they also need to be able to question those ideas and critique them. In this talk, I will suggest practical ways to help learners develop these skills in order to make them more active and critical readers.

Lindsay Warwick shared some ideas for before reading, while reading and post-reading activities that encourage the learners to engage with the text more. These ideas are summarized on this slide:



Lindsay encourages her learners to predict the content of the article, based on headings, subheadings, the visuals and so on. She also sometimes gives them a reason for predicting, e.g. Imagine that you need to write an essay on this topic. Will this article be useful/relevant? 

She also uses Padlet to get the learners to share their prediction – one of the benefits is that the quieter students share their ideas with the whole class.



According to research, teachers ask on average 300 questions a day. But how many questions do students ask? Lindsay Warwick encourages the learners to ask questions, based on the predictions they made, and also gives them a table that encourages them to continue with this as they read:




Another way to engage deeper with the text is to highlight key ideas.

Lindsay recommends Scrible – a tool that allows you to annotate any article online.


Post-reading activities

Drawing connections:


Lindsay also gets her students to put on the skeptic hat and respond to texts with ‘yeah, but’. She scaffolds them with giving them questions to consider:



Reading critically

Lindsay uses the Save The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site to introduce the idea that not all sources can be trusted. This particular site is more ‘tricky’ than most ‘fake news sites’ because it’s very difficult to spot that it’s fake.

Another activity she does is ask the learners which of these ideas they believe:

If they believe some of them, she gets them to go and prove them. This activity encourages them to critically assess sources of information.



I can remember several occasions when my learners were able to answer every single question on a reading passage but the first one, because the answer to the first question was in the title of the article, which they had skipped. I find the skills that Lindsay were talking about quite difficult to teach, and I really liked the practical ideas that she shared and in particular the way she scaffolds her learners, providing them with a table or questions to structure their thinking. Regarding the tools she recommended, I haven’t tried Padlet with my learners but I’ve tried Scrible and it was a very satisfying experience – I wrote a post about it some time ago. I also loved the myth busting activity – I tried working with similar myths with my teenage students and it was a lot of fun, and I’d love to get the chance to use this particular activity. 

To sum up, although I haven’t taught reading for a while, much of what Lindsay said reminded me of some of the struggles that I’ve faced, and I really liked the activities that Lindsay suggested and I hope to get the chance to try them. 


David Evans gave a great keynote at the NATE conference in Moscow yesterday, in which he suggested that teaching has a lot in common with public speaking, overview research into what makes TED speakers good communicators, and suggested ideas how teachers can benefit from this research. He is an absolutely amazing speaker who got the audience roar with laughter and no talk summary can do his talk justice, but still here are my notes. 

Abstract Public speakers and teachers have much in common. The both need to be able to command attention and engage with an audience, while putting their points across in a simple and compelling way. But the real key to success in both fields is to remember that it’s not just what you say, but the ways that you say it. So, in this keynote talk David Evans draws on research into what makes a successful TED speaker and applies those lessons to the classroom. He will discuss the importance of body language and talk about how we can control it. He will suggest ways of using voice and gesture more effectively, as well as proposing some ideas for overcoming nerves and boosting confidence. He will also draw on exmples from the courses Keynote and 21st Century Reading, both produced by National Geographic Learning in association with TED talks.

David Evans started by making a point that TED talks are wonderful examples of communication and a lot of research has been done on what makes TED speakers fantastic communicators. In his keynote talk, David Evans wants to explore some of these insights and how they can be applied to teaching.

confident connections

He started out with told a story that exemplifies that it’s not what you say – it’s the way that you say it.  In this story high school girls were making a mess in the restroom by applying lipstick and leaving lipstick marks on the mirror. The school headmistress addressed the girls twice ordering them to stop, but this didn’t work. Then she showed them how the mirrors were cleaned with the water from the toilets, and not a single lipstick mark appeared on the mirrors again.

The way that we say things is incredibly important. And yet as teachers we often spend a lot of time thinking about the content of what you’re going to talk about, but spend far less time thinking how we’re going to say that.

Here are aspects that are very important to the impression we make on our audience, whether we are giving a talk or a lesson:


First impressions

First impressions are important. And they’re important not only the first time. Every time you walk into the classroom, you’re making an important first impression: the learners assess what mood you’re in today and what to expect from you and the lesson today. It is possible to change a first impressions, but it’s really difficult.

How long to you have to make a first impression? Researchers into TED talks discovered that people have the same opinion 7 seconds into the talk as they have at the end of the talk. If at the beginning of the lesson you appear unprepared and students think, ‘What an idiot’, it’s going to be difficult to turn this into a good lesson!

Factors important in terms of creating first impressions?

Body language 

Posture. To control the class and command the room you need to make yourself appear big i.e. standing up straight, using your voice properly, breathing correctly. If we appear small, we look submissive and like we don’t want to be in control.


Controlling the space that we have. If you’re too still, you will appear boring. But fidgeting is distracting too – this is bad too, so balance is important.

Facial expressions are extremely important because of so-called mirror neurons because the people listening to us subconsciously ‘recreate’ our facial expressions.

Here’s a 3 minute extract from David’s talk in which he demonstrated what effect our facial expressions make on the people listening to us:

Then David showed this video which exemplifies that to an extent, we listen with our eyes:


David maintains that we love Mona Lisa because she’s smiling and that’s unusual in a work of art. One reason for the absence of smiling is that models were encouraged not to smile: in the past, when people smiled and you could see their teeth, which were either missing or black! As teachers, we might tend to think that teaching is ‘a serious business’ and we’re not in class to smile. The TED research discovered that the more the presenter smiles, the more intelligent they think the presenter is. So if you want your class to think you’re clever, smile at them!


The voice is extremely important.
Correct posture makes sure we breathe properly, which is important for our voice. Another thing to think about is resonance. You need to get resonance using the whole front part of your body. You need to feel your voice in your chest, not only throat and/or face. Another important factor is variety – according TED research, particularly in terms of establishing the speaker’s charisma. British people use enormous variety – the pitch goes up and down and slow and fast. Russians, for instance, sound ‘on a level’.

A few TED talks that David recommended:

  • The Hidden Power of Smiling (Ron Gutman)
  • The Neurons That Shaped Civilisation (Vilayanur Ramachandran)
  • How to speak so that people want to listen.
  • Your body may shape who you are by Amy Cuddy

Amy Cuddy says don’t look protective (placing your hand on your face/neck), avoid hand-hiding, etc. However, this is not the most important. Our body language can change our brains: the way we stand or sit changes the way our brains work. When we stand in a dominant way, testosterone is released into your brain. These hormones stay in your brain for quite a while – and you can change them by the way you position your body.

If you you have a class that you dread, David Evans recommends that you find a free classroom,  stand there in a ‘wonder woman’ for two minutes and in the few seconds of your lessons your students will know not to mess with you. Your colleagues will think that you’re absolutely mad, but you’re an English teacher, so they know that already.


As I mentioned at the beginning, this was a great and inspiring talk, and I actually enjoyed this talk exploring research into TED even more than the actual TED talks, which says something! The talk was filmed and apparently the recording will be available to NATE members. 

Abstract: This informative and entertaining presentation will use activities, stories and videos to explore the qualities of great teachers, Robert’s unusual personal and professional experiences as an English language instructor, and the important things he has learned to make the classroom a better learning environment for students.

At the beginning of his talk Robert asked the audience the following question:

What makes a teacher great?

Robert then shared a few quotes from a book by Joseph P. Batory, Philadelphia Public Schools Superintendent (retired), which he finds very enlightening:

Great teachers are somehow able to effect positive change in all students who come to them, no matter what problems or lack of skills they bring with them.

Great teachers foster growth and inspire self-confidence in the students who have been written off, the ones no one else wants

Great teachers don’t squash dreams, they build them!

We also watched a video that teachers wrote to themselves on their first day teaching:

Robert went on to share his own teaching story:

He didn’t like school, especially high school. He hated his English grammar and literature classes the most – later he realized that that was because of the way they were taught. He never EVER considered teaching as a career. His first love is weather, and his first degree was in meteorology. Before teaching he worked as a scientist on a tiny island in Polynesia in a facility that destroys WWII weapons.

Then he came to Japan and there he was told, ‘You’re perfect to be a English teacher because you speak English AND you’re an America’. There wasn’t even an interview.

In 1995 Robert quit his job and moved to Miami, where hardly anyone spoke English but everyone needed to learn it. He volunteered at a farm workers’ migrant camp, where he taught basic literacy and numeracy – he was using their L1 (French and Spanish). He enjoyed that so much that he decided to get some formal training and applied to a master’s degree program.

He was told:

You don’t have the right background in linguistics, language education, or even English, but we’ll let you in as a probationary student. You have one semester to prove yourself.’

He applied to teach in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, one of the larges, most diverse and poorest school districts in the USA – again, on probation! He had one semester to prove himself and he needed a plan. He asked his students: who are your best teachers and why? He visited those teachers and asked to observe them teaching (and when they asked ‘why me’, he said, ‘because the students told me you’re the best’. And then he asked asked them, ‘why did you do that? He videotaped himself and discovered that he was standing in one particular zone of the class and tended to focus on the students at the front of the class. He also read Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms by Richards & Lockhart and answered every single reflective question there.

At the end of that semester he handed all of that in – the journals, the videos and what students thought about him.

The reply he got was very moving:.


Reading that, he realized that his only resource he’d drawn on to get there wasn’t even part of his MA programme – and this is a source that he has never underestimated ever since. 

Over time, his role changed significantly:

cote roles.jpg

And here are some key things that he learned on the way:

lessons learn

outside the box

In terms of the essay contests, first there was low uptake and little excitement, but an idea that really worked was to publish the essays they produced – having your abstract published in a book that you can show when you go home provided extra motivation.

Robert finished his talk with another inspirational video:

Finally, he asked us to reflect on a few things throughout the conference:



This was a talk that really put me in a contemplative mood and inspired me to think more about what I’ve learnt over the years. I think his experience of learning from great teachers and from the learners is very inspiring – I agree that this is invaluable resource, but Robert’s experience inspires to dip into it even more. 

After Robert’s talk, Svetlana Ter-Minasova made a comment that, for her, the key for teaching is love: love for the subject and love for the students. When he talks about teaching, Robert’s love shines through. 

NATE Conference 2017

Posted: May 18, 2017 in Conferences

I’m very excited and honoured to be the conference blogger at the XXIII National Association of Teachers of English Russia annual conference. Expect lots of conference reports from me in early June!

If you can make it to Moscow in June, the program features a fantastic line-up of speakers and it’s not too late to register.


Finalists_ eBadges for use on social media profiles

Exciting news! My husband Kirill Sukhomlin and I were delighted to find out that our service TubeQuizard has been shortlisted for this year’s ELTons award in the category of Digital Innovation! ELTons are the only international awards that recognise and celebrate innovation in English language teaching (ELT), and getting shortlisted is a true honour.

TubeQuizard, as we dubbed it, is a true labour of love for me: a few years back I had an idea that I was very passionate about and really wanted to implement, then a developer in a company I’d just joined offered a hand, then we worked and worked and worked like crazy, and then we ended up falling in love and eventually got married.

The last few months have been hectic for our family, but we continue working on the service. I’m very happy that it’s turning out useful to people, and I feel very grateful – to British Council for shortlisting us, to people who have been spreading the word writing about it or mentioning it in their conference talks, and especially to our users who have been giving us lots of invaluable feedback and suggesting ideas how to improve the service.

They asked us to produce a 30 second video about the service for the award ceremony – here goes!

This is one more post in my series of posts about the EVO 2017 session on teaching listening. In this post I want to summarize one more issue that was raised during the session: the use of authentic materials with lower levels.

Below you’ll find some of the ideas and experiences that the teachers participating in the session shared:

  1. Watching short clips for fun
  2. Using songs
  3. Grading the task by using the material as a warmer or a lead in
  4. Micro listening: focus on grammar
  5. Vox pop videos for word hunt or micro listening
  6. Watching the video without the sound
  7. Some thoughts on the role of assessment and a case study: following a news story
  8. Authentic listening (and speaking) out of class

But first, let’s look at some pros and cons of using authentic materials with lower levels.

A lot of the session participants voiced concerns about using authentic materials with lower level learners, such as:

  • it takes a lot of time to find extracts that lower level learners would have any chance of coping with;
  • even with these extracts, the learners are often frustrated that they don’t understand much;
  • one often hears ‘grade the task not the text’. But what are some examples of graded tasks? And won’t it happen that we’ve graded the task, but the learners fail their ‘inner task’ of understanding more or less everything, and still feel frustrated?

So do lower level learners need to work with authentic materials at all? Here are some reasons why they do:

  • the learners might be exposed to authentic materials outside class (especially in ESL / business Engish settings, but also on the Internet and while they travel) – they need to prepare for that in the safe classroom environment;
  • coping in some way with authentic materials gives tremendous sense of achievement to lower level students
  • using authentic materials in class will give the learners the courage to try to ‘get out there’ and start practicing out of class, which is great for language acquisition. This will be especially useful if we discuss with the learners specific ideas where they might find suitable materials and what they could do with them.

Image source:

So what are some sources of lower level materials, and how can we use them in class? 

1. Watching short clips for fun

Oksana Kirsanova, an English teacher from Russia, encourages her learners simply to watch very simple funny videos like the one below.

The video could be shown in class or shared with the learners to watch at home. The learners watch for enjoyment – Oksana sets no task. If the video contains a lot of dialogue, she finds a version with Russian subs.

This is a very simple way to introduce the learners to authentic materials. You probably know a lot of good videos already (who hasn’t shown Eleven of  We’re sinking at some point in class?) but it’s worth building a bigger collection and showing/sharing the videos regularly throughout the course. One good source of such videos is funny commercials. There are lots of compilations on YouTube – if only some commercials in a compilation are appropriate, use to isolate and share only those bits you want to share (here’s an example of a clips isolated with TubeChop).

2. Using songs

This can be extremely motivating for learners, especially teens (but not only)! There are lots of songs that are suitable for lower levels because the pronunciation is very clear. Again, it’s worth building up a collection to use throughout the course (or Google some ready-made collections, like this one). There are two challenges: doable tasks and finding songs that are relevant for the learners.

Some ideas for tasks:

Svetlana Bogolepova (Russia) got her learners to listen to Yesterday by Beatles and clap every time they heard the word ‘yesterday’ – which is a very simple activity that encourages the learners to notice the words they know in songs. I think this kind of activity could be a great lead-in (or warmer / filler) to some topics dealt with at Elementary level (e.g. adverbs of time or past simple).

We got more examples of tasks to be used with songs from this article by Nik Peachey on A framework on planning a listening skills lesson (scroll to ‘Applying the framework to a song’). Some of the tasks that Nik offers are:

  • listening to the song and deciding if it’s happy or sad;
  • listening and ordering jumbled up lyrics;
  • listening and correcting mistakes in a summary of the song pre-written by a teacher.

Regarding the question of finding relevant songs, I’d predict this would be a real issue with teens, who might not be very motivated by having to listen to, say, Abba! I think the best idea with learners who feel strongly about this is to involve them in creating/maintaining a list of songs with clear pronunciation. The learners could be encouraged to maintain a board like this one curated by Teaching English – British Council.

3. Grading the task by using the material as a warmer or a lead in

One of the concerns that the participants of the EVO raised was that the learners are bound to understand little in authentic materials, which will frustrate them. One way to help learners feel more OK with the fact that they don’t understand everything is to use the material not as the main listening text in the lesson, but as a warmer, setting a task that the learners could cope with.

E.g. with the following video the learners could

  • watch the video and guess the topic of the lesson (food)
  • watch the video and note down all foods they could see
  • a word hunt activity: watch the video and note down all food-related vocabulary they heard someone say

4. Micro listening: focus on grammar

This is something I love doing with my lower level students: using video compilations that show lots of examples of just one grammar point, like this one:

I normally do this as a part of a grammar lesson, asking the learners to fill the gaps the transcript:

 1. Spider-Man ________ hero.
2. ______ ready? ______ born ready.
3. A hundred years ago, ______ one and a half billion people on Earth.
4. Exactly! ______ a worker, but now _______  war hero!
5. Oh, right! _______ my sister.
6. But ______ young and proud!

You’ll find the end of this exercise and a lot more links to such videos in this blog post.

A big issue is that these videos come with hard-coded subs. I dealt with this simply by dragging some kind of window, e.g. an open notepad document, over the subs area.

Another issue that one session participant raised was that these extracts are decontextualized. I think that that’s not much of a problem, because the visual element is so rich it provides micro context – notice how the feeling that one gets watching these videos is very different from if you were listening to the extracts.

5. Vox pop videos for word hunt or micro listening

Another source of videos that are ideal for word hunt or micro listening, because they naturally provide multiple examples of the same language feature, are so called vox pop videos (videos in which people in the street get asked the same question – normally there are two or three questions per video).

I’ve found several sources of such videos:

  • Speakout video podcasts for all levels, including Starter and Elementary, freely available on their site. For example, the learners could watch the following video and note down all family vocabulary they can hear (word hunt) or count the number of times the word ‘my’ is used (this could lead to a micro ‘pronunciation for listeners’ activity, as ‘my’ is often pronounced as ‘mu’):
  • Real English videos uses the same idea. E.g. in this video people in the streets say how old they are – the learners could listen and note down the numbers they hear
  • Vox Pop International, an authentic YouTube channel, also contains some videos suitable for lower levels. E.g. watching this video the learners could note down all adverbs of frequency they hear:
  • If you are subscribed to onestopenglish, they recently created Live from London, a great collection of such videos with worksheets and transcripts. Here’s a sample video, with ideas how it can be used with Pre-Intermediate learners and higher.

If you want to try how listening to such videos feels, why not try this video in Mandarin Chinese shared by Curt Ford, another EVO participant:

What I like about vox pop videos is that they’re so adaptable to a range of activities: while they could easily be used for a quick micro-listening activity or a ‘word hunt’ warmer as described above, they could also be used in the traditional gist – details – follow-up lesson shape:

  • Stage 1: the teacher board the two or three questions asked in the video on the board, uses tubechop to play the corresponding two or three extracts in which people answer the questions, the learners watch and match the extracts to the questions (Variation for a higher level group: the learners watch and guess the questions).
  • Stage 2: the learners do a micro-listening (fill in gaps focusing on one grammar feature) or a word hunt activity.
  • Stage 3: the questions are used for a speaking activity (either in pairs or mingling).

6. Watching the video without the sound

Heather McKay shared an activity that helps the learners to draw on the paralinguistic features in the clip (body language, context, facial expressions, etc). Before watching the clip with the sound, she plays it several times without the sound, for the learners to draft the dialogue/share their predictions with each other.

Here’s a sample clip she has used this approach with:

A useful source of such clips is Claudio Azevedo’s web sites/blogs:

7. Some thoughts on the role of assessment and a case study: following a news story

Two session participants, Tanja Debevc and Keith Murdiff, reported on their experience of what happens when authentic materials become part of the end-of-course exam. They have experienced a real positive backwash, as both the teachers and the learners want to target the type of material that the learners will be assessed with. A big challenge is, of course, designing graded exam tasks that the learners would cope with. Tanja shared a link to a book which features exam tasks for lower levels based on authentic materials.

What is more, their experience shows that the learners cope with a lot more than we assume they might cope with. In particular, Keith prepares his learners for an exam in which they need to follow a news story. This is why one of the tasks he sets to his learners is to choose a news story and listen to all news they can find related to the story (online and on the radio) over a period of time. Keith’s experience is that the learners have a lot of context (as he puts it, context is king), the learners are able to cope with, benefit from and enjoy difficult listening texts and discern a lot of detail. The learners are provided with a worksheet that focuses on story-key vocabulary, main actors and their role in the story, predictions on how the story will develop and a summary of the news. The learners use this framework to follow up on their listening in class, sharing with other class members.

8. Authentic listening (and speaking) out of class

I think that the idea for getting the learners to follow a news story outlined above exemplifies two key ingredients for encouraging listening to authentic materials out or class: the learners need specific ideas what to listen/watch and they need very specific tasks to do while they listen.

Recently I attended a webinar on encouraging learner autonomy by David Nunan in which he shared a number of case studies from a book they’d published a year ago. One of the stories he shared really brought home for me how important it is for the learners to be helped both with the ideas what to listen to and the tasks – I want to share it here albeit this story goes beyond the topics of listening and using authentic materials with lower levels. 

In one of the case studies presented by Nunan Mark Cadd, a researcher, was looking into the problem that many students who come back from a summer abroad don’t seem to have improved their language skills that much. The reason is often that they tended to spend time with other students studying a language but they weren’t interacting with the target community.

So he set up a program in which the learners were required, through 12 contact tasks, to interact with local residents and report her reflection back to the teachers.

Sample task
: attend a festival or another public event celebrated in the culture. Speak with at least two members of the culture who are present. Choose two who are quite different, e.g. young vs old, male vs female, etc. Ask why the event is important.

Reflection: Which festival, fair, public event etc did you investigate? What is its history? Did you learn anything meaningful about the culture? If so, what? Did you notice any difference between your style of communication and theirs? If so, what were they? Did you have problems understanding them? If so, what did you do about it?

Reflection needed to be posted to a website available to the teacher and other students.

Cadd found that the fact that they were required to do these tasks was initially challenging and scary for the learners, but over time they found that their anxiety lowered and their confidence, fluency and cultural sensitivity improved. Furthermore, they were able to make connections between what they learned in the classroom and the language they were using out of the classroom.

This story made me think of my recent week-long visit to Germany: I love the language but I didn’t practice it at all. I thought how much easier it would be for me to strike up conversations and take advantage of the language environment if I was on a mission to collect evidence for a project – this would not only give me ideas what to look out for and what to talk about, but also serve as a passable conversation starter, and I would feel a lot less self conscious about asking people questions. I think this idea could and should be applied to the wider issue of scaffolding the learners’ interaction with the target culture, whether they live in a country where their target language is spoken, or interact with the culture on the Internet.

If you’d like to provide your learners with a ‘menu’ of resources they could explore out of class, you could find some useful links on this list that the participants of the EVO session complied – but we didn’t work on a menu of autonomous activities.

All in all, I’m extremely grateful to the participants of the #listeningEVO for the wealth of ideas they’ve shared on this topic. There’s everything here I could wish for: from really simple activities to help introduce authentic materials and build the learners’ confidence, to evidence that it’s possible to plunge the learners at the deep end, provided they get scaffolding and that the institution supports this with higher level decisions such as the contents of the exams. Lots to think about and try out in class. 

Here’s one more tutorial that was created for the EVO session on teaching listening.

In this 12 minute tutorial I demonstrate
(1) how to use quizzes on
(2) how to create your own quizzes based on any subtitled YouTube video
(3) how to look for YouTube videos that contain high quality subtitles (i.e. subtitles that are not automatically generated).