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).


Here’s a quick (8 minutes to be exact) video tutorial on how to use Aegisub to work on listening decoding skills. I created this tutorial for our EVO session on teaching listening, but decided to post it here on my blog too, because, although I’ve already mentioned this tool in a couple of posts, I have a feeling that a demonstration might be worth a dozen screenshots.

In the tutorial I mentioned that you need a video and subtitles stored locally on your computer. I used a video and subs downloaded from MIT OpenCourseWare. Another way to get a video with subtitles is to choose a subtitled YouTube video and download the video and the subs using

The first week of the Electronic Village Online is in full swing! I’m co-moderating the session on teaching listening, and this week, under the guidance of Lizzie Pinard, we’ve started out with the topic of encouraging learner autonomy.

One great thing about online sessions like this one is that there are a lot of participants who share a wealth of tips about the activities and resources they use. From what I’ve read in our discussion threads, it seems that a lot of teachers encourage their learners to watch TED talks out of class, and the participants have suggested a variety of ideas for activities based on the talks.

What also often happens, however, is that the teacher recommends this resource but the learners don’t start using it – and the teacher kind of knows that they don’t, but they don’t even ask because that would be admitting failure (oh haven’t I been there a lot of times?) Below are my takeaways for how to avoid this problem and really help the learners start watching the talks out of class and get the most out of them

First of all, in her live session Lizzie offered some tips how to encourage the learners to start learning out of class in general:

  • provide the learners with a concrete ‘menu’ of things they can do out of class (a handout), because otherwise the learners will feel overwhelmed with the variety of resources out there;
  • educate the learners about the ways we learn languages (e.g. in class after we do a task, spend a few minutes discussing why it was done that way. One example is activating schemata before listening: the teacher could ask the learners to recall what the learners had done before listening, and then discuss how that task helped them to understand more). In general, the more insight the learners have into the way languages are learnt, the  more responsibility they will be able to take and the more efficiently they will be able to spend their out-of-class English time. For the same reason, in the ‘menu’ mentioned above it’s important to provide the learners with concrete ideas for activities that they can do while watching  the videos.
  • make learner autonomy a social experience: if you have lessons twice a week, devote 5 minutes every week to discussing in small groups what the learners have done out of class. At the beginning, predictably, a lot of them will be saying, ‘nothing’, but that doesn’t mean that the autonomy scheme isn’t working – the most important thing is to persevere

So, if we get back to TED talks, this means that

  • the learners need to try out a range of activities that they can use while watching TED talks;
  • they need opportunities to reflect about the effectiveness of these activities for their language learning;
  • they need the social experience of discussing the talks they’d watched out of class.

Below I outline ten ideas for tasks based on TED talks

  • Mind map the talk
  • Take notes using Cornell note-taking grid
  • Evaluate your level using a CEFR descriptor
  • Notice and learn key lexis in the talk
  • Work on your fluency using the 4-3-2 technique
  • Improve your listening and pronunciation by shadowing the speaker
  • Practice listening intensively with TubeQuizard
  • Analyze the speaker’s accent using TubeChop
  • Explore the talks on learning languages
  • Negotiate!


NB To make this list easier to use, I decided to outline sample procedures – they might be quite different from the procedures used by the teachers who suggested the activity.

Before I describe the ideas themselves, here are some tips that work with all these ideas:

  • Introduce the activities over a period of time, one at a time
  • Always model the activity in class before assigning it for homework
  • After you model the activity get the learners to recall what they just did and discuss how this procedure helps them to learn the language. The more the learners understand about the way languages are learnt, the more responsibility they will be able to take for their learning.
  • When you assign the activity for homework, provide the learners with written instructions (e.g. a handout or instructions posted in the learners’ online space).
  • The easiest way to follow up on the activities done out of class is to get the learners to
    (1) retell the talk they’d watched to a partner (if the activity involved producing notes, they can use their notes while they’re retelling) and
    (2) get the learners to discuss what they felt while doing the activity and whether they feel it has learning value for them.
  • When the learners have tried out quite a few activities, reduce the amount of scaffolding to encourage autonomy: let them choose for themselves which tasks they’re going to do while watching the talks (and maybe negotiate with the group how often they’re going to report back to the class, etc).

Mind map the talk

Svetlana Bogolepova from Russia asks her students to analyze the structure of the TED talks they’ve watched and create a mind map of the talk.

Intro lesson:

Choose a (short) TED talk.

Do a topic-related warmer, and then tell the learners that they’re going to watch and analyze the structure of the talk. Tell them a one-sentence summary (e.g. ‘In this talk the person speaks about his experience doing something new for 30 days’) and ask the learners to predict what sub-topics the speaker is going to mention, e.g. why he did this? what things did he do for 30 days? 

The learners watch to check their predictions and then discuss in pairs. As a follow-up, the teacher boards their suggestions in the form of a mind map. The learners copy the mind map.

The learners watch again and add details to the mind map, compare their mind maps in pairs and report back to the whole class.

Finally, the learners

  • recall the procedure of the task (predicting the content, watching the talk once to identify the main points and putting them in writing, watching the talk a second time to note down details)
  • brainstorm the benefits of each step (e.g. predicting the content will allow you to ‘activate’ topic vocabulary).

A sample mind-map:


At home

The learners find an interesting talk and create a mind map that reflects the structure of the talk.
Optionally, they upload a picture of the mind map to the group’s online space.


In pairs, the learners retell the content of the talk they’ve seen to a partner who hasn’t seen the talks (using their mind map), and discuss the talks.

Take notes using Cornell note-taking grid

This idea was shared by Jennifer Rueda from the United States. She gets her learners to reflect on the talks they watch by using the Cornell note-taking technique.

Intro lesson

  • Ask the learners how they usually take notes. How useful are their notes? Do they ever re-read them?
  • Tell the learners that they’ll try a new method called Cornell note-taking. Elicit what they know already about the method. Then give them an article that explains the method, e.g. this one. Get the learners to read the article and, in pairs, (1) compare how they understood the article (2) brainstorm 2-4 advantages and 1-2 disadvantages of the system.
  • Get the learners to draw the Cornell grid, watch a short TED talk and write their notes in the right-hand column. The learners compare in pairs and then fill out the rest of the grid. In new pairs, the learners compare their grids and discuss if they think this method is useful

At home (instructions for the learners):

Choose a TED talk, watch it and complete a Cornell grid.
[Optionally] upload a picture of their grid to the group’s online space

Follow-up lesson

In pairs, the learners show each other their grids, briefly retell the summary of the article and discuss whether they would like to continue using this note-taking method.

Evaluate your level using a CEFR descriptor

Sidney Martin Mota from Tarragona offers a variety of listening tasks for his learners to do autonomously (suggesting they watch news and TV shows, as well as TED talks), and links each task to the appropriate CEFR descriptor for the learners’ target level, e.g. a B2 descriptor for TED talks will be ‘I can follow the essentials of lectures, talks and report and other forms of complex academic or professional presentation in my field’.

At home 

The learners watch the talk and rate their performance of the descriptor on the scale of 1 to 5.

Follow-up lesson

  • The learners briefly share what their talk was about,
  • The learners report on how well they understood the talk
  • The teacher elicits and boards what kinds of problems prevented the learners from understanding the talk (e.g. insufficient vocabulary, etc)
  • In small groups, the learners discuss what activities they can do to work on overcoming the problems

Notice and learn key lexis in the talk

Pomilla Agarwal from India suggested a task in which the learners note down key expressions from the talk and then retell the talk using the expressions.

Intro lesson

  • Choose a short TED talk. Do a warmer, then set a gist task (e.g. the learners predict the content of the talk based on the title and then watch to check their predictions)
  • Open the interactive transcript (either on TED or on Youtube). Choose a collocation that is key to the talk (e.g. ‘do a challenge’). Board the sentence containing the collocation with some parts of the expression gapped out. Ask the learners what’s in the gap, then play the line for the learners to check. Play the line a few more times for them to notice the pronunciation of the expression and practice saying it together with the speaker.
  • Refer the learners to the transcript and ask them two find 5-10 more expressions that are key to the text. Monitor to encourage them to notice more than one word (e.g. if they choose a noun, prompt them to look for the verb that goes with the noun).
  • Board the expressions that the learners have chosen. If there are too many, the learners choose which ones to wipe out.
  • Find the expressions in the interactive transcript to analyze and copy pronunciation.
  • Get the learners to summarize the talk using the expressions on the board (step 1: in writing; step 2: orally).

At home (instructions for the learners):

Find an interesting TED talk and watch it.
Look through the transcript and find 5-10 expressions that will help you summarize the talk. Try to look for multi-word expressions that you already understand but don’t use.
Use the interactive transcript to play the expressions; try to speak with the speaker to copy the pronunciation.
Practice giving a summary of the talk using the expressions.

Follow-up lesson 

The learners briefly report on the talk they’ve seen using the expressions they’ve chosen.

Work on your fluency using the 4-3-2 technique

In this task, the learners retell the talk 3 times, each time speaking faster (this is an activity that I really enjoyed doing with a group of teens).

At home (instructions for the student):

This task is a great way to work on your fluency. 

  • Find a TED talk that is interesting for you, watch it and take brief notes.
  • Retell the talk in 4 minutes
  • Check that you haven’t forgotten any important ideas by briefly looking through the transcript of the talk (alternatively, you could watch the talk one more time)
  • Retell the talk one more time, this time in 3 minutes. You’re working on fluency, so your goal is to retell the talk as fully as possible, but speak faster than last time.
  • Briefly look through the transcript again, and then retell the talk one more time, this time in 2 minutes. Again, your goal is to speak even faster than last time.
  • [optionally] Record the final attempt and upload it to the group’s online space.

Follow-up lesson:

  • In pairs, the learners retell the talk they’ve seen to their partner in 2 minutes. After that, allow a few more minutes to discuss the talks.

Classroom alternative: 

The learners watch the talks at home. After that, in class, they retell the talk they’d seen to a partner in 4 minutes. They change partners and retell it one more time in 3 minutes – don’t forget to explain the goal to them and stress that they need to speak faster. Finally, they retell the talk one more time to a new partner in two minutes.

Improve your listening and pronunciation by shadowing the speaker

This was the idea suggested by Lizzie that a lot of the session participants want to try out (especially since quite a few already have, successfully, either with their learners or as language learners).

In this (challenging) task the learners listen to an extract from the talk and simultaneously speak with the speaker, trying to copy their pronunciation. Read this post for the detailed procedure.

Practice listening intensively with TubeQuizard

At home (instructions for the learners, but first demonstrate the tool in class):

  • Find a talk that has English subtitles on Youtube. The talks with subtitles are labelled ‘CC’.
    To check that the talk has English subtitles, click on ‘More’ under the video, choose ‘Transcript’ and look for ‘English’ (not ‘English – Automatic captions’).
  • Watch the first 2-3 minutes of the talk without the subtitles for general understanding to make sure the topic is interesting for you.
  • Copy the Youtube URL of the talk. Go to and insert the URL into the ‘Youtube video URL‘ field:
    Choose and do at least do 3-5 quizzes. While you’re doing a quiz, do you notice any features of the pronunciation of the grammar structure in the gaps? (E.g. how is ‘was’ pronounced in past continuous phrases? What happens to the ‘-ed’ endings of verbs in past simple?)
    Finally, watch the talk from the beginning to the end. (Click here to see the quizzes in the picture below.)



Follow-up lesson

The learners retell the talk they’d watched to a partner and discuss the talk. They also share what grammar structures they listened to and what they noticed about the pronunciation of these structures.

Analyze the speaker’s accent using TubeChop

Maren Behrend from New Zealand gets her learners to improve their listening skills by transcribing a 30-60 second extract from the video and then using the transcript to check their work and analyze the speaker’s pronunciation, e.g. the weak sounds.

At home (instructions for the learners, but first model in class!)

  • Choose a TED talk with subtitles (see screenshots above).
  • Watch the first 1-3 minutes to make sure the video is interesting
  • If you feel that you need training in understanding the speaker’s accent, transcribe 3-4 sentences and analyze the speaker’s pronunciation. This is easier to do if you can replay a very short extract from the video. In order to do that, copy Youtube URL of your video, go to TubeChop, insert the URL and click  ‘chop it’. Choose a random 5-6 second extract from the video:


Listen to the extract. If you can understand every word, choose another extract. If you can’t understand every word, click ‘chop it’ and you’ll get to the following window where you can replay any part of your 5-6 second extract (click here to try an example)


Listen to the extract 4-10 times and write exactly what you hear. Go back to youtube, open the interactive transcript and find the extract in the transcript. With a different pen, copy the words that you didn’t catch.

Listen to the extract again on Tubechop and try to hear exactly how the speaker pronounces all words (to do that, replay individual words). Listen for

  • the sounds that the speaker doesn’t pronounce
  • the sounds that change from their dictionary form
  • the sounds that the speaker adds
  • the sounds that get attached to a different word

Mark these pronunciation features on your paper:


Finally, put the words that you mark onto this grid (click here for a .pdf version or here for an editable .docx version of the grid):


Repeat with 5-10 extracts, adding new words to the grid. Finally, watch the talk – after the work you’ve done, you should understand the speaker’s accent a lot better.

Explore the talks on learning languages

Anastasiia Gubarenko from Russia suggests to her learners that they watch videos that might actually help them turn into better learners (e.g. talks on how to become self-motivated)!

Also, the learners might benefit from watching the talks about strategies for learning languages autonomously.

Intro lesson:

Follow-up lesson
The learners retell the talks in groups of three and compare:

  • What ideas did all speakers mention?
  • Did any of the speakers contradict each other?

The teacher elicits and boards the ideas. The learners discuss which ones they’d like to try out and how they’d like to try them out (e.g. what will be the completion criteria? what are the best ways to incorporate these ideas into your existing life style?)


This was an idea that Jenny Wright came up with: once the learners have been exposed to a range of strategies, they could negotiate which talk  (or a different resource) they will all watch next week and/or which combination of activities they will do. I think this is a wonderful idea because this seems to be a very natural way to get the learners to talk about the educational value of the activities.


How about you – what are your favourite tasks to do with TED talks?