Archive for the ‘Activities’ Category



Here’s a quick activity that might be great for the festive season. It comes from a lecture by Matt Abrahams, a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business who teaches strategic communication.

In this activity, the learners work in pairs. They give each other imaginary boxes with gifts. They don’t say what’s in the box. The person who got the gift ‘opens’ the box, looks inside and says what they see. They should say the first thing that comes to mind. Then the gift giver should improvise to explain why they thought the gift receiver needed this gift.

This is the video extract in which Matt Abrahams explains the activity: (26:00 till 29:00)

You could get your learners to watch the video or, if you’re pressed for time or if your learners would find a three minute authentic extract difficult to follow, explain the activity yourself.

I’ve also written an editable worksheet to go with the activity and a Slideshare pdf document if you don’t have Microsoft Word:


In this post I’m sharing an Excel template that takes a list of questions and answers, chooses twenty random questions from the list and produces a printable grid that can be cut up into separate two-sided cards (with questions on one side and answers at the back). I create cards using both my own sets of questions and sets exported from Quizlet, and use these cards with board games (e.g. Snakes and Ladders or Tic-Tac-Toe) – you’ll find instructions how to export cards from Quizlet and a list of suitable games in the second part of the post, along with some links to board templates.

I got the idea a few weeks ago as I was reading a great post by Tekhnologic about a tool that he created: over the course of the year, he accumulates discussion questions in an Excel file, and his tool chooses 9 random questions from the list and arranges them into a 3×3 Tic-Tac-Toe grid, for the students to discuss and play. Reading that post, I realized that I needed something very similar to revise language feedback that I type up for my students. I got the Excel document created by Tekhnologic to produce the cards, by playing a bit with his formulas, so now it takes me about five minutes to create, print and cut-up cards for a revision game. Thank you Tekhnologic!! 

Preparing the cards using the Excel template. 

If you have a long list of questions and want to revise some of them, use this Excel file: randomiser template.

Alternatively, if you have a small set of up to 20 questions and want the students to revise them all, use the 20 cards template

Here’s how to create the cards:

  1. Create the questions: open the ‘Question database’ tab. Insert or type your questions and answers. Your questions and answers will be automatically copied into the tabs Question grid and Answer grid.Questions
  2. Print the cards:
    First, print the tab Questions grid using the following settings: Print active sheets + Landscape orientation + Normal margins (Left: 0.7”, Right: 0.7”) + Fit Sheet on one page.
    Settings1Second, insert the printout back into the printer and print Answer grid with the same settings. Voilà!
    NB It should also be possible to Select both grids and print them using the following setting: Print on Both sides (Flip pages on short edge) . However, unfortunately about 50% of times it gets printed on two separate sheets (this seems to be a known issue with Excel).

Randomizing the grid
If you press F9, the file will generate another random set of cards. This will delete the previous board, so don’t press F9 until you’ve printed both the question and the answer grids.

Creating a pdf worksheet . If you want to share your worksheet, you can use a pdf printer and print your grids into a pdf file that can be printed without any hassle with the settings.

Games to play

Below are some games that can be played with a set of Question/Answer cards, some widely known and some that I only learnt about while on my hunt for games.

No adaptation is required for any of the games – simply print out the board and a set of Questions/Answer cards and you’re done. At the start of each turn, a player picks a card with a question. If they answer incorrectly, they miss the turn and the card goes back into the stack.

A tip: if you’re creating a randomized set for revision, you can create different versions for different pairs (by pressing F9, as explained above). This way the students can share the cards that have been played with fast finishers.

1. Dots and boxes 

The number of players: 2

Rules: The goal of the game is to win more squares than your opponent. Players draw lines on a grid, and the player that ‘completes’ the square wins it.

Links: check out this beautiful free template.

2. Tic Tac Toe


The number of players: 2 (or two teams of two for the adaptation).

Probably everybody knows the rules: this is a paper-and-pencil game for two players, X and O, who take turns marking the spaces in a 3×3 grid. The player who succeeds in placing three of their marks in a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal row wins the game. There is a nice adaptation that takes a lot more time to play: players play on a 7×7 grid, trying to place five marks in a horizontal, vertical, diagonal row or a cross.

Links: Check out this blog for some great free templates: 

3. Hex/Blockbusters


The number of players: 2

Rules: These games are played on a hexagonal grid of any shape. Each player is given a colour. Players take turns colouring a single cell within the overall playing board. The goal for each player is to form a connected path of their own stones linking the opposing sides of the board marked by their colors, before their opponent connects his or her sides in a similar fashion.

Links: Download a powerpoint template created by Adam Simpson (Blockbusters), this template (Blockbusters), this template (a hexagonal grid for three players), or search for ‘Blockbusters template’ or ‘Hexagonal grid’ in Google images.

4. Battleships


The number of players: 2

Links: This is another oldie – see the rules and a board on Wikipedia or download a board from here.

5. Ludo


The number of players: 2-4.

Links: See the rules and a board on Wikipedia (you’ll need a colour printer to print this one out).

6. Snakes and ladders


The number of players: 2-4


  • Each group will need a dice and counters.
  • If the student lands on a square with a snake’s head, they slide down to its tail.
  • If the student lands on any other square, they have to pick a card and answer it correctly (if they make a mistake, they return to the square from which they started the turn). If they land on a square at the foot of a ladder and answer the question correctly, they climb the ladder.

Links: You can print the board from British Council website (registration required), from here or you can find boards using Google image search. There’s also a variation called Chutes and Ladders (download a template from here).

7. Game of the Goose


The number of players: 2-4.

This game is somewhat similar to Snakes and Ladders: landing on a goose allows the player to move again by the same distance (see Wikipedia for the rules).

Links: Ursula Dubosarsky wrote a novel for children, The Game of the Goose (Penguin Australia 2000), in which three children find an old copy of the Game of the Goose in a Salvation Army store, and have magically transforming adventures while playing it.The site about the book features a beautiful .pdf board 

8. Other board games

Finally, simply use a blank board template – a simple Google Image search returns lots of sites. I personally really liked this page.

Am I missing any great games? Please share in the comments

Material for the cards: language feedback and Quizlet

As I said, I have mainly been using these games to revise language feedback. Each group has an .xlsx document shared with them via a cloud service (dropbox). Here is what it looks like:


However, the source of questions that is probably a lot more relevant to teachers out there is Quizlet – a site that features a huge number of flashcard sets (Google search ‘quizlet fce transformation‘ alone returns no fewer than 2370 results).

These flashcards can be exported and inserted into Excel in a couple of clicks.

First, open the set in Quizlet, click on More and choose Export:


The site will open the following window. Click ‘Select all’ and copy the data:


Finally, open a copy of the template and insert the data. Quizlet changes the order (storing first the answers and then the questions), so you’ll have to paste the data into some other columns, and then copy the second column into the ‘Questions’ column , and the first one into the ‘Answers’ column. You’re done!


The games shared here have spiced up my classes and saved me a lot of time. I hope you’ll find them useful too. Let me know what you think!

I’m enjoying a Saturday lie-in with Corpus Linguistics for ELT: Research and Practice by Ivor Timmis, a great new book which arrived in my mail just yesterday. It made me think of a quick exercise that can be used as a follow-up to any reading or listening activity. 2015-07-18 17.52.12It’s really simple, but since it takes a bit of technology to create it quickly, I thought I’d write a quick post.

The book overviews the insights into language achieved by corpus linguistics and discusses their implications for the ELT classroom. I’m currently reading the chapter called Corpus research and grammar, and one of the main topics of the chapter is to what extent the frequency of a linguistic feature should influence the amount of time devoted to teaching that feature. The author gives a number of very interesting examples of frequent features that tend to be underrepresented, over-represented or misrepresented in coursebooks (examples include ‘though’, which is often used in speaking to signal soft disagreement, and conditionals, which more often than not do not fall under ‘the zero, first, second and third’ two-part conditional structures, which most coursebooks almost exclusively focus on).

One striking fact mentioned in this chapter comes from an article by Biber and Reppern. Apparently, just 12 lexical verbs (say, get, go, know, think, see, make, come, take, want, give, and mean) account for 45% of lexical verbs used in conversation. Biber and Reppern suggest that, since they are so frequently used in speech, these verbs require more attention in class than they currently do, judging by the coursebooks that they reviewed, and that these verbs should be used more to exemplify various grammar structures.

I’m thinking of giving my students an occasional gap-fill exercise based on the reading and listening texts that we are working on, with these verbs gapped out (their frequency is said to be higher in conversation than fiction, news and academic texts, so probably the task will work best with listening transcripts and informal writing, e.g. forum posts).

Finding and replacing the various forms of these verbs could be time-consuming, but there are tools in which one can make such a gap-fill exercise in one click. The first one is a free nifty little text editor called Notepad++.

notepadThe trick is that the editor uses so-called ‘regular expressions’ to allow you to search for more than one expression at once. So, if you open your text file in Notepad++ and type in (some|any) in the search box, you’ll see all occurrences of both words in your file and will be able to replace them with gaps in one click. The following search will find all verb forms of the 12 verbs mentioned above:


(If you want to know why this expression matches all forms of those verbs, scroll to the bottom of the post).

Here’s how to create a gap-fill using Notepad++ in a bit more detail:

  1. Insert your text into Notepad++, select the text (on my system, by pressing CTRL+A),  and open the search window by pressing CTRL+H.
  2. In the search window, click the ‘Mark’ tab. Ensure that Search mode is set to ‘Regular expressions’ and that the ‘in selection’ check box is checked. Insert this into the ‘Find what’ box:

    Click ‘Mark all’ to highlight all occurrences of these words, so that you can look through them and check how many there are and how they’re used, and that nothing unrelated was accidentally found. In the example below there are 14 matches.

  3. Go to the ‘Replace’ tab, type in ‘________’ into the ‘Replace with’ box and click ‘Replace all’.
  4. Finally, insert the gap-filled text alongside the initial text into a word document. Voilà!

As an alternative to installing Notepad++, use the web-based Find and Replace tool – thanks to Mura Nava for the heads up! It’s even quicker and you don’t have to install it on your computer (one possible drawback is that you can’t highlight and check what you’re going to replace).


I’ve tried this activity with a few transcripts from youtube, and I found it doable and enjoyable. I think I want to try to use it on a regular basis with my Upper-Intermediate students, encouraging them to note down interesting chunks with those verbs.

Let me know what you think.


Biber, D. and Reppern, R. (2002) What does frequency have to do with grammar teaching? Studies in Second Language Acquisition 24/2: 199-208

Timmis, I. (2015) Corpus Linguistics for ELT: Research and Practice. Routledge

A bit on regular expressions

If you want to create your own regular expression searches, you might like to figure out how the one in this post works.

  • | stands for ‘or’. So (say|said) will return all present/past/past participle forms of ‘say’.
  • ? stands for ‘this part is optional’. So, (say|said)(s|ing)? will return all the forms from the previous example, plus ‘says’, ‘saying’, ‘saids’, and ‘saiding’. Only the first two words exist, but that doesn’t matter.
  • Some instances might be ‘false positives’. For example, ‘essays’ contains ‘say’, but that’s clearly not what we need. So, we need a way to show the tool that we’re only looking for full words. This is done by wrapping the search expression into ‘\b’ tags (they stand for ‘word boundary’).

So, in order to find all verb forms, I list all present and irregular forms, separating them by ‘or’, add possible endings (ed|ing|s)?, account for the fact that (e) will disappear before ing (hence, mak(e)?) and add \b at the beginning and the end:


It’s summer and it seems that this blog has gone into a light mode. 🙂 Here’s another short game that we enjoyed playing with a pre-intermediate group a few days ago in order to revise some grammar (past and present simple, future for plans and hopes, second conditional).

Level: strong Pre-Intermediate (for End-of-Course revision) or Intermediate (B1).
 10 minutes for the warmer, 20-30 minutes for the game.
Materials: One class set of quotes for the warmer, a board game for each pair (Worksheet page 1), a grammar task for each student (Worksheet page 2), playing cards (ideally, at least 12 cards – 3 cards of each suite – for each pair). If you teach Business English, check out this version of the worksheet.



Print out a set of quotes (if there are more than eight students, print two sets). Display the quotes around the classroom. Ask the students to get up, look around, pick a quote that they like and get back to their seat with their quote. (Circulate and be prepared to give a bit of help with some of the vocabulary.) Get the students to share their quotes in groups of three, reading them out and explaining why they like them – also invite them to share as a whole group. Finally, ask the students whose quote is about the past. The present? The future? A dream?

First, the students revise questions for past, present simple, future (will or going to for distant plans) and hypothetical questions (Worksheet page 2). After that, hand out, to each pair

  • the board (Worksheet page 1),
  • a counter (e.g. a coin) and
  • playing cards (ideally, at least 12 cards – 3 cards of each suit – to each pair).

The students place the counter at the bottom of the ladder. Each turn, a student whose turn it is to ask a question moves one step up the ladder, draws a card and asks their partner a question of the corresponding type. Encourage the students to ask follow-up questions and chat for a few minutes before moving on to the next question.


The idea behind this game comes from an activity in Teaching Unplugged by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings, and the inspiration comes from Anna Zernova, who mentioned the activity during one of our chats about teaching.

The grid for the board comes from a fantastic post on turning tests into games by Svetlana Kandybovich and Tekhnologic.

Finally, I’m very grateful to Adi Rajan for the idea to use playing cards, and to my colleague Eleonora Popova for the beautiful England-styled pack of cards she gave me.

Happy teaching everyone – and enjoy your summer, if it’s summer where you are! 🙂


Omitting -s in Present Simple sentences (*My dad work at a factory) is one of those pesky mistakes that cause us English teachers lots of grief. The rule is extremely simple and it’s one of the first rules the learners learn when they start out studying English. Yet when it comes to speaking, the learners keep forgetting about it. All of us have heard it in the staff room: an exasperated teacher complaining that the students just won’t pay attention and get that simple grammar point right!

Unfortunately studies show that third person -s is acquired a lot later than it’s taught – not until at least intermediate level (Ellis, 2009, page 44). One reason that I’ve seen in the literature is that a lot of grammar gets acquired from reading and listening, and the third person -s, as a morphological feature that agrees with the subject and doesn’t really change the meaning of the sentence, is a feature that is very easy for the adult brain, which is honed to processes information efficiently, not to notice in the input.

Here’s a simple game I created for my pre-intermediate teenage students to give them a chance to pay closer attention to this feature. In this game third person -s makes all the difference – the players choose who gains or loses points, based on the form of the verb.


Slip: The players can say:
??? get 5 points if *** can say five nouns that begin with ‘s’ in 30 seconds Pete and Tanya get 5 points if they can say five nouns…
I get 5 points if I can…
??? loses 5 points if *** can’t say 5 verbs that begin with ‘i’ in 30 seconds Mike loses 5 points if he can’t say 5 verbs…
Everyone loses 5 points if we can’t say…

We played the game from time to time right before working on reading texts that featured lots of examples of the third person -s – my hope being that attention to the feature would linger and they’d start noticing it in the texts.

Level: pre-intermediate

Time: 15 mins


  • something to serve as points (I use colour paper cut into 1cm squares);
  • a stop watch for each group of 4 students (my students used the ones on their mobile phones)
  • an editable Worksheet (cut-up slips for each group of 4 students; the rules sheet for each student); if you don’t have Microsoft Word, download a .pdf file from Slideshare:


Ellis, R. et al. (2009) Implicit and Explicit Knowledge in Second Language Learning, Testing and Teaching. Multilingual Matters

What I want to share in this post happened quite a while ago. It wasn’t anything new in terms of teaching methodology and I’m sure a lot of people reading this post will recognize what they do in the classroom. But nevertheless, the experience keeps popping up in my head and I wanted to share it, because it was one of the most positive experiences in my early years of teaching.

This happened when I was teaching in a secondary school. At some point, when my first ever group reached strong B1 level, I bought lots of graded readers, brought the better half of my personal library of English books to the school and launched an extensive reading programme, asking the students to read graded readers and unabridged books three or four times a year. As a follow-up to each round of reading, we did various activities, ranging from book fairs to informal chats, but one thing that stayed the same was that I asked the students to give the book they’d read a rating and write a short review. Another thing that stayed the same was that the majority of students hated writing those reviews.

I was taking British Council Learning Technologies for the Classroom course at the time, and so we started experimenting with some (pretty basic) technology and ended up with an approach to writing which was a whole lot more enjoyable and productive.


1. Creating the sense of audience
The first step was to migrate all writing to the class group on a social network. Instead of asking the students to hand in the reviews in handwritten form, I started creating a dedicated thread where all reviews were to be posted before the deadline (the evening before a lesson). This gave the students a sense of audience and made the activity a lot more authentic. We used a social media site (a Russian analogue of Facebook) because all students had accounts there, but as far as I know, many teachers use other free alternatives, e.g.

2. Immediate feedback
Since I now got all the reviews before the lesson, I could print them out, mark them in the morning, and then in class the students worked in pairs to edit their contributions on the group page. Apart from the satisfaction of getting feedback immediately after submitting their piece of writing, there were a number of added benefits:

  • This gave the students a good reason to submit their work on time, and in general the proportion of students who did writing assignments increased as a result. Also, in my experience with teens, the very fact that everyone in the group can see who has submitted homework encourages students to do it.
  • Since I was working with a print-out, I felt at liberty to mark the students’ work more extensively without the fear of ruining it – I now not only used error correction codes to hint at mistakes, but also highlighted all nice turns of phrase that I liked in the students’ writing – so the feedback they received looked a lot more positive.
  • Editing itself became a lot easier – no need to rewrite anything and there were no teacher’s comments in the final draft.

3. Autonomous vocabulary learning

One more important tweak was using amazon reviews as a source of language. We did this using scrible – a wonderful tool that allows the user to save any html page to an online library and then annotate it, changing font sizes, highlighting and adding notes:

A typical assignment looked like this:

_) read a book and give it a rating
a) find a book in a similar genre (google ‘top detective novels’, for instance)
b) read reviews on amazon that give that book the same rating
c) highlight relevant expressions with scrible, _save the page_ and create a permalink to share it
d) write your review using these expressions and _underscoring_ them. Post the review along with the permalink here.

In general, amazon reviews are very well written and are a pleasure to read, and the whole group ended up hunting down some great expressions. Those students who chose to use those expressions (around 75%) were able to use them very aptly in their writing. Here are a couple of samples of my students’ work (big thanks to Ivan Syrovoiskii and Danila Borovkov for allowing me to share them here):

The annotated page:
The review:

On the prowl for something interesting, I happened on Bram Stocker’s Dracula. And when I took an abridged book I actually expected that it wouldl be shortened and generally quite tame in comparison to the original. But what struck me was how they’d oversimplified the whole plot.
I guess almost everyone basicly knows the story – it starts with Jonathan Harker’s arrival to the castle of Count Dracula, the very powerful vampire who’s intimidating the whole of Transylvania. But this edition was so shortened that the whole story of how Jonathan, Arthur and Professor Van Helsing struggled to locate and destroy their nemesis turned just in several pages and the life of vampires which original plot concerns – into several plotlines written in simple English.
In general, I want to say that while I was reading this book I was imbued with the notion that I’m reading just a summary of the original Dracula. On reflection, I reckon I need to add that it might be good as a book for studying English, and it should be treated just as a textbook, without looking at plot.
My overall impression is that if you want to read something interesting – read the original book or don’t read Dracula at all – but don’t bother with abridged books, especially with intermediate level.

The annotated page:
The review:

First of all I have to thank Graham Poll for sharing “Seeing Red” with us. It’s very interesting and a times funny read for people who know something about football and you just can’t put it down.
Every day there are some news about players and managers in the media, but nothing about referees. “Seeing Red” allows you to look behind the scenes of refereeing and to look inside the game.This book shows how young boy, linesman in his father’s match, became the best, world popular referee. I’m sure you will find out something new about referees’ regime, training and how refereeing affects privacy. It also includes many details about famous football players and managers, such as John Terry or David Beckhem or David Moyes. With this book you can participate in famous football matches in many tournaments like World Cup, Premier League or Champions League. After reading I understand how much pressure referees are under, how difficult this thankless but absolutely necessary job is and I have gained a whole bunch of respect for them.

Later on we used all the scrible pages produced by the students to analyze the overall structure of a typical review and put together a google document with useful expressions for talking about characters, plot, the author and so on (a great thing about google documents is that a lot of people can edit the same document simultaneously, so the students worked in pairs, each pair researching a particular aspect of essay writing across everybody’s scribble pages).

While I’m at it, here are some ideas what other genres this approach could be used for:

Closing remarks 

As I said at the beginning of this post, a lot of what we ended up doing is standard practice in many language teaching classrooms. However, I still really wanted to share the experience, because for me and my class those tweaks made a lot of difference at the time. They transformed writing assignments from a frustrating chore that the students used to moan about to something that felt good and was a lot more authentic and enjoyable.

And on that note, I must ask: What were some rewarding, happy experiences in your early years of teaching? 

Thanks for reading!

Here’s a simple needs analysis/goal-setting warmer to do at the beginning of a new module or unit, in order to help the group personalize the topic and take ownership of their learning.

Materials: editable .docx worksheet. If you don’t have Microsoft Word, download a .pdf file from slideshare:


Think about where you might use the topic you’re going to study with the group and create a sample case study worksheet (see my example for food below). Ask the students to read the column on the left and guess the words in the column on the left.

T_ _ _ c Food
Something you’re
pl_ _ _ing to do, h_ _e for or
dr_ _m about
My boyfriend and I might stay for a week in Rome in a rented flat
Sit_ _ _ _ _ _n: Supermarket in Rome
T_ _ing to: buy food to cook breakfast (for myself and my boyfriend)
Pot_ _ _ _al
pr_ _ _ _ _s
I might not be able to find our favourite food and I won’t be able to ask the shopping assistant if I don’t know the English equivalents.
How to
pr _ _ _ re:
· Write the list of things my boyfriend and I typically eat for breakfast and learn English equivalents
· Practice a dialogue with the shopping assistant in class

(Key: Topic, Something you’re planning to do, hope for or dream about, Situation, Trying to, Potential problems, How to prepare).

Now distribute a blank worksheet and ask the students to complete it with a plan, a hope and a dream that might be connected to the topic they’re going to study. In open class, get the s/s to share their plans/hopes/dreams and brainstorm a list of places/situations that might connect them to the topic. The s/s pick some of the places/situations and complete goals and potential problems related to the situations. After that, the s/s discuss action points, either in pairs or in a mingling activity. It’s a good idea for the teacher to circulate and suggest some strategies too! Make sure the students keep the worksheets in order to reflect on the goals they’d set when they finish the module.

P.S. Here are some examples of strategies that could come up.

  • [speaking] The person I’m talking to won’t understand me.
    Strategies: use a dictionary to check the pronunciation of important words in this module; use teacher’s feedback to speaking and writing to identify one frequent grammar mistake you make and do some self-study online; learn six expressions to give examples (e.g. To give you an example,…), check that you’ve been understood (e.g. Does that make sense?), reformulate (I mean,…) and summarize what you’ve said (So, to sum up…). Use each expression five times during this module.
  • [ideas/vocabulary] I don’t know much about this topic, so I won’t be able to chat about it. Also, I don’t know vocabulary.
    Strategy: choose three interesting articles about this topic. Read them, noticing topic expressions. Organize the expressions into a mindmap (see examples here) and then practice telling other people what you’ve read about, using your mindmaps (either find someone in this class to meet with in a cafe at the end of the module, or look for a conversation partner on sites like or
  • [speaking] I will have problem giving the presentation because I speak too slowly.
    Strategy: use 4-3-2 technique to practice: deliver the same monologue three times, each time giving yourself less time to say everything. Use a timer!
  • [listening] I won’t understand the waiter.
    Strategy: revise expressions that can be used to ask to repeat / clarify (e.g. Say that again? Pardon?) and reformulate to make sure you understood (So you’re saying …, is that right?). Use those expressions 10 times in class during this module.

Also check out these great handouts with ideas for activities to do outside classroom that Lizzie Pinard shares with her students.

One of the most exciting sessions of Day 2 of the E-merging Forum 5 for me was Alexandra Chistyakova’s workshop on teaching grammar to kids. Other participants clearly loved it too and after Alexandra’s talk there was a bit of a battle for handouts. Here are the notes that I took during the talk – but also read a post on Alexandra’s blog.  

Alexandra’s teaching experience is very diverse and it taught her one simple truth: we never teach adults and children in the same way. This realization made her look for practical ideas to make lessons with YLs more effective and more fun. As a result Alexandra came up with the idea of Lesson shells.


Shells in the picture provide structure and secure the living creature or the structure. In the same way, lesson shells provide a structure for the lesson and secure the learners. Especially when we talk about teaching grammar to YLs, they need ‘securing’ because a lot of them think of grammar as hard, dull, lifeless, etc.

So, what could provide a structure and the sense of security? Alexandra suggests shaping lessons around stories 

  • to explain grammar rules;
  • to practice them

Explaining grammar through stories

One of the stories that Alexandra shared was called ‘Town of Verbs’:


Verbs were very very happy because they lived only in the present and they didn’t remember the past. Once two little verbs climbed to the attic and found a chest with memories. When they opened it, out of the chest flew the memories of town dwellers. The memories started floating around the town and the verbs got their memories back. Not everyone responded to their memories in the same way. Some just accepted them. Some lit up like candles, delighted with their memories. Some blocked them. Some underwent complete transformation. But little kids didn’t change at all, because they didn’t’ have any memories!

  • Alexandra shared more stories for explaining grammar, and she promised to write another post about them on her blog.

Practicing grammar through stories

  • Turning sorting tasks into stories:IMG_20150313_150531_1As the lesson progressed, this idea was developed and the final ‘test’ took the form of a ‘Lie detector’ (the verbs that the learner remembered ‘went home’ and when she forgot them again, they went back to prison).
  • Hungry octopuses & Jelly fish – getting the learner to feed the correct words to the correct monster.
    If her student made a mistake, Alexandra made some funny digestive noises, which was a lot of fun!
  • Quick Games. Broken Magic Wands.
    The task was to write past tenses of verbs – which would be boring for a YL. Alexandra came up with the idea of saying that crayons are magic wand that makes the learner write the verbs correctly. If she made a mistake, the magic wand had stopped working and she needed to take another one.

Tips for good grammar stories

  • Make the story close to learners’ lives. E.g. in one story Alexandra used the name of the learner’s pet – to arouse interest and to establish an emotional bond with the story.IMG_20150313_145615_1
  • Draw ideas for stories from the environment (the mood of the learner, recent event, surrounding noises, objects that can be used as material) to come up with new stories and establish the emotional bond with your learner.
  • Make the story cohesive – it should sound logical, truthful and natural.
  • If the story is a bit sophisticated, use the mother-tongue – the target is to create a picture in the learner’s mind!
  • Invite learners to help you create the story.
  • Magic is magic – don’t overuse it!


Another very inspiring session. Unfortunately I don’t teach young learners, but hope to come up with a way to sneak some of these ideas into my classroom. 

Update. Thanks for visiting my blog! I was very happy to learn that this post was shortlisted for Teaching English – British Council blog award. If you decide to vote for it, let them know by ‘liking’ the post on their Facebook page:


Last Friday we met together with a group of colleagues at EPAM Systems to share some of the ice-breakers, warmers and games that we use. Here are some of the warmers that we came up with. We teach in company, so many of the activities have a Business English flavour, but the great thing about these warmers is that they can be easily adapted to any topic, no matter whether you teach Business or General English.

Start with a picture

  • Display a picture and get the students to guess the topic
  • Do the same but reveal the picture gradually using
  • Find a clipart shape connected to the topic (Google topic + clipart). Here’s a sample for ‘Presenting’:
    Once the students have looked at the picture and guessed the topic, elicit a few associations they have with the topic (this could be words, events from their personal lives). Ideally, share your own non-obvious association and get the students to ask you a bit about it (mine is ‘Germans’, because my first ever important presentation was at a Russian-German student conference). After that, distribute A4 copies of the clipart shape for each student and allow 2-3 minutes for the students to free-write their associations inside the shape. After that, allow another 3-4 minutes for the students to share their associations in small groups to compare, ask about surprising ones, and chat about them. 
  • A great warmer suggested by my colleague Olga Lifshits was to google comic strips on the topic of the lesson, distribute them and get the students to guess the topic.
  • If you teach a monolingual group, yet another idea for comic strips is to look for their translation into your students’ L1 and get the students to translate the comic strip back into English, comparing with the original.
  • Yet another alternative is to display a few memes to get the students to discuss the topic – see this post for a summary of a talk by Anastasiya Fetisova on using memes in ELT.
    YYRQKTip: have some discussion prompts based on the images ready!
  • In this activity by Katherine Bilsborough, the teacher displays a picture and provides ten answers about it. The students write their questions in pairs. Again, this activity can be easily adapted to any topic.  Here’s a business-related example, e.g. for work-life balance:The_Hoya_office1. A report.
    2. By Monday at the latest.
    3. With her colleague Kate.
    4. Because she’s tired.
    5. Not really.
    6. Yes.
    7. Saturday
    8. Since 8 a.m.

Start with a sound

  • Have you ever led into the topic of a lesson with a sound? Here’s an idea: google ‘free sound effects’ and choose a sound related to the topic (e.g. the sounds of nature for ‘travel’). Play the sound for a minute and get the students to imagine where they are / jot down their associations / or guide them by ask them questions, e.g. ‘where is this? who do you imagine there? would you like to be in that place?’, etc – then get them to share in pairs.
    This is a sound file I found for travel: Maybe I haven’t been on holiday a bit too long, but I really enjoyed listening to that audio and it really jogged my imagination.

Start with a prop

  • For ‘plans’ take out a few things you’ve got in your bag / share a ‘todo list’ written in shorthand and get the students to guess what you’re planning to do.

Play a guessing game

This warmer is my personal favourite.

  • On slips of paper write some words connected to the topic. Get the s/s to explain their words (either working in pairs or in a mingling activity). Elicit the topic.
    For instance, for ‘Decision making’, you could use disagree / discussion / problem / options / argument.

Start with a word cloud

Google an article connected with your topic. Copy the text and insert it into a word cloud maker. Display the text, for the learners to guess the topic and then to race to find as many words as possible connected to the topic in 60 seconds.



  • This is an activity from Five minute activities by Penny Ur and Andrew Wright. Tell the group the topic and get them to brainstorm five or six phrases connected to the topic. After them get them to choose the odd one out and justify why it doesn’t fit. Erase it from the board and repeat until there is only one word.
  • Write cards with concepts/events connected with the topic (e.g., for ‘Business travel’, you could have  things to pack / things that might go wrong / benefits of business travel over teleconferencing /  places / etc). S/s work in pairs: each turn one student draws a slip with the topic and rolls a dice to find out how many expressions connected with the topic they have to come up with. If you don’t have dice, get the students to roll online dice using their mobile phones.
  • Get the group to brainstorm input/contexts to be used later in the lesson for language work.
    Example 1: A pre-intermediate group studying ‘will’ for spontaneous reactions in the context of travel. At the beginning of the lesson I got them to brainstorm places where they can find themselves while on a business trip.
    Business travel
    Halfway through the lesson the students used the spidergram to play a game: one student in each pair (‘the boss’) picked a location from the list, imagined they were having a problem there and complained about it to the second student (‘an assistant’); the second student replied with ‘Don’t worry, I’ll + solution’.
    Example 2: An upper-intermediate group studying conjunctions (provided, unless, etc).  For a warmer, they brainstormed hopes and worries that a recent graduate starting out in their company might have (e.g. ‘I hope I’ll receive support from more experienced colleagues’ or ‘I hope to earn a lot of money fast.’) At some point in the lesson the students returned to the list, responding to the worries using conditional sentences (e.g. ‘Yeah, your colleagues will help you a lot, provided you bring them cookies!‘ or ‘That’s unlikely to happen unless you climb the career ladder very quickly.’)

Start with a quote 

This one is a classic: google an interesting quote related to the topic of the lesson and get the students to discuss it. Some tweaks could be to:

  • Get the students to complete the quote individually or in pairs (e.g. for Teamwork,  When you form a team, why do you try to form a team? Because _______ ; Teamwork is so important that it is virtually impossible for you to ________________). Board the students’ suggestions and get them to discuss them in pairs/groups.
  • Find more than one quote, get the students to match beginnings with endings, then discuss which quotes they agree with / choose one quote they disagree with and try and persuade someone else that it’s wrong / randomly assign a quote to agree/disagree with to each pair and get them to brainstorm arguments and life examples in favour/against.
    “ I love teamwork. It is about bringing out the ambitions of your team.”
    “If two men on the same job agree all the time, then one is useless. I love the idea of everyone rallying together to help me win.”
    “Leadership is not about your ambition. If they disagree all the time, both are useless.”

    As for the source of quotes, I personally quite like


  • Another colleague suggested getting the students to write down 2-3 positive things going on in their life (or 2-3 positive things in their life connected to the topic) and 2-3 negative things. Get them to share in pairs / exchange tips. Works especially well as a lead-in to Problem solving.
  • If the topic is connected so some kind of event, e.g. ‘presenting’ or ‘job interviews’, ask the students to fill the gap in the sentence ‘[Presenting] could be  ____________’ (e.g. time-consuming / important for your career / stressful / a waste of time / a really nice experience / rewarding / …). After that, get the students to share in small groups which of the kinds of experiences with [presenting] listed on the board they’ve had,- encourage them to ask follow-up questions, go into detail and chat! Alternatively, play a guessing game: a student might describe an experience without saying which type of experience he/she is talking about.

Get the students to talk

  • Print out discussion questions on A4 sheets and put them on the floor. Tell the learners that the sheets are ‘islands’. Put on some music: while the music is playing, the learners simply walk around, ‘swimming’, and as soon as it stops, they stop next to the nearest discussion question, and discuss it with other learners who landed on the same ‘island’.
  • Another activity suggested during the workshop was to display 2-3 questions related to the topic, pair the students up and get one person in each pair to talk about the questions and the other one listen without commenting or taking notes. After that the person who was listening says ‘So you said…‘ and summarizes / retells what the first person said.
  • One more option is to group the students in groups of 3-4 and get them to ask ‘Have you ever…‘ questions related to the topic of the lesson. The twist is that they are only allowed to answer ‘yes’ (alternatively, they might only be allowed to answer with a lie). They have to provide a justification for their answer. E.g. on the topic of meetings, the students might ask ‘Have you ever fallen asleep in a meeting?’ and the person answering the question would have to say ‘yes’ and explain why this happened.
  • Another great warmer is ‘Fortunately/Unfortunately‘. Start the class with a sentence, e.g. ‘I was on my way to a meeting with a new customer but unfortunately..’ The students in the group take turns to add one more sentence to the story, each time starting with ‘fortunately’ or ‘unfortunately’.
  • True/False. This is probably something that every teacher has used at some point: get the students to write 3 facts about themselves connected with the topic. Some of these facts should be true and some should be false. Other students in the group need to guess which ones are false by asking follow-up questions.

Start with an improvisation

Since writing this post, I’ve discovered this great workshop on integrating improvisational theatre activities in the business classroom by Christina Rebuffet-Broadus. Some great short, creative, highly adaptable warmers there – please don’t get put off by the ‘improvisational theatre’ bit – I think they’re great for students who ‘would never do theatre’.


Make it S.M.A.R.T

  • If you teach using a coursebook / printed materials, why not let the students look through the material at the beginning of a unit/module and get them to set goals for themselves for the next two or three weeks and share those goals with their group mates? You could support them by providing them with some questions e.g.:
    What do you already know about vocabulary / grammar /skills topics in this module? Do you find these topics easy or difficult? What would you like  to learn?
    What personal experiences related to these topics have you got?
    In what situations might you use the material from this unit in the future?
    What would you consider to be a good outcome by the end of this module?
    How and how much are you planning to work outside class?

Acknowledgement. A big thank you goes to my colleagues at EPAM Systems: to Anna Zernova, who suggested the ‘positive/negative’ warmer, Olga Lifshits, who shared ‘So you said’ and the idea to use comic strips, Evgenia Antonova and Anastasiya Chernetskaya who remembered variations of the ‘Truth or Lie’ game, Iryna
Piatrouskaya who demonstrated the ‘Discussion island’ warmer in her workshop, and Adam Howell for sharing ‘Fortunately/Unfortunately.’

We want more! 🙂
Have you used any other flexible warmers that could be easily adapted to a range of topics? Please share!

Last night there was a great webinar on developing speaking skills by Adrian Doff. Adrian analyzed what language students need for fluency, shared some materials (conversation snippets) that exemplify that language and suggested a number of teaching activities to help students master it.

I teach English in a non-English speaking environment and fluency has been a major issue for a lot of my students, so developing fluency is one of the areas that I’m very interested in. I even picked this area as a focus for one of my Delta Module 2 lessons and wrote a series of posts about my attempts to work on fluency in class.

So all in all, this was a very interesting topic for me – and an extremely interesting webinar. I liked Adrian’s ideas a lot (some reinforced what I’ve already been doing in class, and others were very fresh but at the same time simple and intuitive), and I’m going to bring a lot of what he shared to class.

Below is a summary of the webinar – the recording will be available on CUP blog here: The summary turned out quite long – mostly because the ideas are very valuable and I want to have a detailed record to refer to when planning fluency activities.

The main question that Adrian was addressing: How can we improve speaking skills? ‘Fluency activities’ do help, but how to do that in a more focused way?

In the webinar Adrian


Question for the audience: What language (grammar, vocabulary, expressions) might you need to invite someone to your home? What language would the other person need to respond effectively?

Obviously, functional expressions (e.g. Would you like to come round for lunch? / Thanks, I’d love to. How do I get to your house? / Take the train…), but a typical coursebook dialogues exemplifying those functional expressions might not quite sound like a real, natural conversation – it’s a bit robotic (does the job but it doesn’t really flow).

Adrian went on to compare a coursebook dialogue with a natural conversation:

A: Would you like to come round for lunch? A: Oh, by the way..
B: Yes?
A: I was meaning to ask you – would you like to come round for lunch?
B: Thanks, I’d love to. How do I get to your house? B: Oh.. Oh yes, thanks. I’d love to. Are you sure? It’s very nice of you.
A: Of course.
B: OK, great – How do I get to your house?
A: Take the train to Park Street. Go out of the station and turn left. It’s Queen Street, number 10. A: Well, let me see.. Take the number 15 bus to Park Street then you..
B: OK, the number 50 bus.
A: No, not 15 – 50.
B: Good. B: Oh right.
A: I’ll see you at 6.
B: See you, then.

We see that what’s missing from a coursebook dialogue is Speaking strategies that ‘oil the wheels’ of the conversation (in this particular case, expressions for introducing a topic / responding positively / giving yourself time to think / clarifying / correcting).

Adrian went on to analyze speaking strategies in a number of conversation snippets:

  1. Look, I’m not sure how to put this…
    What is it?
    Well, the company hast to make cuts.. ( Strategy: introducing bad news / softening)
  2. So you press this button – OK?
    B: This button here? (Strategy: checking that you’ve been understood / rephrasing)
  3. Well, anyway.. (Strategy: changing the topic / going back to the original topic / a way of closing the conversation in a polite way: Well, anyway, I must be heading on).

Are these necessarily only for advanced students? No: at lower levels s/s will need at least expressions for

  • Attracting attention (Excuse me)
  • Expressing uncertainty (Er, I’m not sure)
  • Giving yourself time to think (Well)

At advanced levels, s/s will need more advanced expressions.

[Comment: this last remark reminds me a lot the insight that I got from analyzing my own attempts to master German: I analyzed the transcript of my first ever speaking lesson, during which I code-switched to English all the time and my teacher was providing me with German equivalents of the expressions I was looking for. It turned out that the majority of the expressions were not ‘topic vocabulary’ but language for evaluation (it was ok/worst of all was that../it was terrible/ it was challenging), sentence adverbs (unfortunately/ luckily/mostly / also / at least), meta-language to clarify the use of some expressions and manage the lesson (informal/this isn’t used like that/irregular comparative forms/I’ll delete that/cross that out) and a lot of expressions to compensate for lack of vocabulary (this is something like…/the opposite of…/I can’t think of a good English equivalent-word/there’s no equivalent in English). So maybe if we allowed the students to code-switch, a lot of strategies would come up naturally.]

Teaching speaking strategies

Adrian went on to suggest some teaching activities:

Activities for noticing that the speaking strategies are there: 

  • through a gapped transcript of a dialogue – give out a gapped transcript, ask s/s if they remember what’s in the gaps and/or play the recording to let s/s fill the gaps;
  • such tasks are appearing in coursebooks; but anyway coursebook transcripts that are meant to serve a different purpose – e.g. introduce a grammar point – are very often good for exploring strategies too, so explore coursebook transcripts
  • through prediction: play a dialogue line by line and get s/s to guess what is going to be said next (e.g for a phone conversation); play around with with what the possibilities are – great for turn-taking expressions and adjacency pairs (Here you are / Thank you; How are you? / Fine).
    [This is something that I’ve never done and I really look forward to trying this out in class! Especially with language for natural reactions, and telephoning / teleconferencing.]

2. Activities for practicing the speaking strategies
Mini exchanges (all s/s get a piece of news on cards (e.g. Someone’s just stolen your iPhone / You’ve decided to get married / They’ve discovered life on Mars); s/s share their news and practice reacting in a mingling activity (Do you know? They’ve discovered life on Mars! Oh, that’s interesting.)

3. Using strategies in communication

When it comes to freer activity, in the heat of communication learners are quite likely to forget to use the new expressions.

E.g. it’s a common situation when learners have been presented expressions for polite disagreement but in the middle of communication the learners will slip back to their comfort zone. [Yes, this is something that’s been a struggle for me ever since I started teaching Business English, really!]

So what are some possible ways to make them stick?


  • Less is more! Reduce the number of expressions to two to three
  • Empower the students – let them choose 2-3 that they like and want to use;
  • Get feedback After the activity ask the s/s what they used – write them up on the board [Nice!]
  • Make it a game / use an observer (a group is having a discussion, while one student acts as a dedicated observer who notes down what strategies have been used; another example: one student tells a story, other people respond / show interest, the observer gives feedback on how they did this) [I’ve tried this a few times and really liked how it went, so note to self: use this activity more consistently.]
  • (an idea that came up at the end of the webinar during a question/answer session): Have s/s write a dialogue, then put it away and have this dialogue again in speaking (so that it ends up as an improvised – though rehearsed – conversation). [This is something I’ve never had the courage to try, as the activity would take quite a lot of time and because it feels unnatural to write spoken language – but come to think of it, the activity would give students firm confidence that they can use the target language, which would be extremely valuable, so I’ve finally resolved myself to try it.]

Psychological preparation.

How to introduce preparation for fluency activities? In foreign language it’s extremely difficult to think and speak at the same time. Example: let’s say we have a discussion activity: ‘How important it is to have privacy?’ If we just ask students to talk about this, this might run dry: some people won’t have any ideas / some people will be shy etc. The answer: allow students preparation time. How?


Hand out a cline: How important is privacy to you? Mark your place on the line.

Very important 5 ____4____3____2____1 Not very important

Now sit with other students; show them where you put yourself on the line and why.
This activity is a lot more likely to work because the students have had the chance to think.

Another example:

Project an image of a house. Purpose: to get the students to discuss Who lives in this house? / where is it? / …  Preparation stage: Take the class through some questions (don’t get any responses – just ask the questions and allow some thinking time:):

Where is it? Why is it in this place? What is it used for? Now imagine you get into the house: what’s in the house? How many rooms are there? What objects are there? Is this a beautiful house or not a nice place to be? Just get a mental image. Now turn to your partner and exchange what you’ve imagined.

What I especially liked about Adrian Doff’s ideas is that they’re little tweaks or short activities that could be easily used with existing material (or as short warmers) on a regular basis. In my experience it’s such little tweaks (e.g. pronunciation slots/ways to re-phrase instructions/etc) – and self-discipline on my part to apply them consistently – that make the most difference to my teaching. Thanks a lot to the presenter and to Cambridge University Press for organizing the webinar!