Posts Tagged ‘ielts’

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!


Update. I was delighted to hear that this post got shortlisted for Teaching English – British Council blog award. If you decide to vote for it (in which case, THANK YOU! :)), let them know by ‘liking’ the post on their facebook page: .

In this post I want to share a tip that might be an effective and enjoyable way to work on your IELTS speaking, and on your speaking skills in general.

When I first started teaching for IELTS, I came across a great book by Matt Clark on how to crack the Speaking part of the exam, and that book helped my students a lot. The idea that I learnt from Matt Clark was that a lot of IELTS Speaking topic fall into categories, and it’s important to know the common question types and to have a framework for each type. Here are some examples of question types (taken from

  • Frequency. How often do you see (or talk to) your neighbours? How often do you go to a restaurant (to eat)? How often do you use a computer for work / study?
  • Problems. What problems do many young people have? What problems can people have when they change jobs frequently? What problems can result if a teenager has too much money?
  • Solution. How can one (or, how do people) make new friendships? How can people maintain long-term friendships? How can the government encourage more people to use public (mass) transportation?
  • should. Do you think people should have to pay to visit museumsDo you think employers should provide recreational facilities for their employees? Do you think we should obey all laws, all the time? Do you think people should help their neighbours? (Why? How?) Do you think children should be encouraged (or taught) to help others? (How?)

The structure for replying to frequency questions could be ‘It depends’ + ‘case one’ + ‘case two’. E.g. here’s a possible reply to ‘How often do you see (or talk to) your neighbours?’

Well, that really depends on what time of year it is. If I’m on holiday spending time in my summer house, then probably that would happen every single day, because we see each other all the time and we’ve really grown quite close over the years. But on the other hand if I’m here in town, then that hardly ever happens, simply because we don’t run into each other that much.

You can see that this answer could be easily adapted to any other ‘How often..?’ question, and that the linkers in bold hold this reply together, helping to build an extended monologue out of short simple sentences.


IELTS Speaking score consists of scores for the following aspects:

  • Fluency & coherence (speaking without pauses and structuring your speech)
  • Lexical resource
  • Grammatical range and accuracy
  • Pronunciation

As you can see, having ready-made frameworks for some of the question types will help you a lot with coherence – that is, with structuring your speech. That will also make your speech more fluent (by buying you thinking time) – provided you say the linkers fluently (fast) and with correct pronunciation and intonation. This will also allow you to use more complex sentences, improving your grammar score.

The importance of structures is true not only of IELTS and other exams, but of speaking in general. Here’s an extract from Matt Abrahams, an expert in communication, giving a workshop on spontaneous speaking in Stanford Graduate School of Business. In this extract he argues that the key to successful spontaneous speaking is having a structure, because it’s a lot easier for the listener to process structured information than information without structure. He gives two examples of great structures ‘to have in your back pocket’:

problem ⊲ solution ⊲ benefit

What? ⊲ So what? ⊲ Now what?

(NB This video has accurate subtitles – watch it on youtube with closed captions if you need them. The extract starts at 38:37 and finishes at 42:50)

So, how can you use this information to improve your IELTS speaking score and speaking in general? By actively looking for structures and linkers in examples of spoken communication and adapting them to other topics. Nowadays there are lots of talk shows and podcasts that come with transcripts, and it’s quite easy to find them and analyze them. For example, I spent some time today reading the transcript of a programme on Soft Skills and Marketing Yourself as a Software Developer with John Sonmez (an episode of JS Jabber, a great podcast for software engineers), and I could see some kind of structure in virtually every speaker’s turn, simply because when speakers speak at length, they have to organize their thoughts somehow. Here are a couple of examples. First look through each one looking for the linkers, and then scroll down to compare with my version.


I’m not a big person who believes so much in focusing on natural strengths. I know that most of my greatest strengths today are what my greatest natural weaknesses were growing up. And I think that there’s a reason for that. I think that the things that you actually have the strengths tend to be taken for granted. And so, they don’t always get developed to the same degree as the things that you have to work hard to build. So yeah, so I think that there’s some truth to that. So, it kind of gives me… it also, I think if you believe what you believe, if you believe that you lack social skills or that you’re shy or these things, those beliefs can be limiting beliefs which will keep you exactly how you believe that you are. So, a lot of actually what I do, even in the book, is I talk about this idea of lifting those limiting beliefs and really stepping into the role that you want to be. And not allowing what other people have defined you to be to set your limits. You set your own limits and you can choose your destiny and your path. And so, I think while yes, we can look at people and say, “Yeah, this person is socially awkward or doesn’t quite have the poise or the social skills,” I don’t think that’s… I think that could be overcome for most people.

Here are the linkers that I saw:

I’m not a big person who believes so much in focusing on natural strengths. [stating general opinion: disagreementI know that most of my greatest strengths today are what my greatest natural weaknesses were growing up. [supporting statementAnd I think that there’s a reason for that. [opinion phrase + introducing a reason] I think that the things that you actually have the strengths tend to be taken for granted. [reasonAnd so, they don’t always get developed to the same degree as the things that you have to work hard to build. [consequenceSo yeah, so I think that there’s some truth to that. [wrap-up] So, it kind of gives me… it also, I think [introducing one more reason + using an opinion phrase] if you believe what you believe, if you believe that you lack social skills or that you’re shy or these things, those beliefs can be limiting beliefs which will keep you exactly how you believe that you are. [exploring consequences of a hypothetical caseSo, a lot of actually what I do, even in the book, is I talk about this idea of lifting those limiting beliefs and really stepping into the role that you want to be. And not allowing what other people have defined you to be to set your limits. You set your own limits and you can choose your destiny and your path. And so, I think while yes, we can look at people and say, “Yeah, this person is socially awkward or doesn’t quite have the poise or the social skills,” I don’t think that’s… I think that could be overcome for most people. [summary using contrast: mention the opposing opinion + reformulate your opinion]

Now, this structure could be adapted to ‘Do you think … should…?’ questions. E.g. here’s what I came up with for Do you think people should have to pay to visit museums?

I’m not a big person who believes so much in allowing people to visit museums for free. [stating general opinion: disagreementI know that most well-known museums, like Louvre or The Hermitage, aren’t free. [supporting statementAnd I think that there’s a reason for that. [opinion phrase + introducing a reason] I think that running a museum is very expensive [reasonAnd so, you can’t do that if you don’t have a stable income – the quality of your service will suffer and your museum will lose popularity. [consequenceSo yeah, so I think museums have to be paid for. [wrap-up] And also, I think [introducing one more reason + using an opinion phrase] they’re quite affordable anyway. You don’t need to go to the Hermitage every single week – most people go once a year, or only when they travel, and anyone can afford to go once a year. And so, I think while yes, we can look at prices and say, “Yeah, they are too high and they reduce the popularity of museums,”  I think that in fact most people can easily buy those tickets. [summary using contrast: mention the opposing opinion + reformulate your opinion]

2. Here’s another example:

But that’s not necessarily what marketing has to be. Marketing at its core is really just connecting someone who has a need with a product that fulfills that need. That’s the goal of marketing. Successful marketing is, if you didn’t have marketing I wouldn’t know what to do when I have a headache. I wouldn’t know to take an aspirin or Tylenol. I need to be informed of this, of the solution to my problem. So, at its core good marketing is good. It’s a beneficial thing.

Here are the linkers I saw:

But that’s not necessarily what marketing has to be. [disagreement with the opinion that marketing is bad] Marketing at its core is really just connecting someone who has a need with a product that fulfills that need.[stating a fundamental positive fact about marketing]  That’s the goal of marketing. [reformulating the previous statement] Successful marketing is, if you didn’t have marketing I wouldn’t know what to do when I have a headache. [an example, through exploring a hypothetical situation] I wouldn’t know to take an aspirin or Tylenol. I need to be informed of this, of the solution to my problem. So, at its core good marketing is good. [consequence marker (so) + reformulation of your opinionIt’s a beneficial thing. [saying marketing is good one more time]

And here is an adaptation of this framework to the following question: Do you think television has a positive effect on a child’s attitudes towards learning?

Yeah, I guess so. Some people say that TV makes kids stupid because they watch silly series for teens all the time. But that’s not necessarily what television has to be. [disagreement with the opinion that TV is bad] Television at its core is really just providing information to someone who needs that information.[stating a fundamental positive fact about TV]  That’s the goal of television. [reformulating the previous statement] If you didn’t have television, kids whose families can’t afford good schools wouldn’t have access to information. They wouldn’t have the chance to learn from programmes like Discovery channel, or other excellent educational programs, which I’m sure get lots of kids hooked and really interested in subjects like biology.  [an example, through exploring a hypothetical situation] So, at its core good TV is good for children’s education. [consequence marker (so) + reformulation of your opinionIt’s a beneficial thing. [saying TV is good one more time]

These are just two examples, but as I said, basically every single extended speaker’s turn was structured and packed with linkers. (Here you can find a couple of more turns that I analyzed – I’m putting them to a separate file in order not to clutter up the post).

Acknowledgement. A big word of thank you goes to Kirill Sukhomlin, who came up with the idea to look through the transcripts of JS Jabber as we were watching the youtube workshop above.

How to practice using structures?

I recommend the following steps:

  • Go through examples of past IELTS questions for parts 1 and 3 and start grouping them into categories, to get an idea what question types are frequent. Here is a great site with past questions: NB As far as I understand, this website is perfectly legal, because there’s no policy on IELTS that stops test takers from sharing the questions they got asked.
  • Find a podcast or a talk show which comes with a transcript. Here are some links to youtube channels that feature interviews with transcripts. (If you’re in IT, the turns analyzed above come from JS Jabber, a podcast for JS developers. Another source that I’d really recommend for this kind of work is Android Design in Action on Android Developers youtube channel. Click on ‘More’ under the youtube video to load the interactive transcript.)
    I’ve never compiled a list of podcasts with transcripts, but apart from JS Jabber, a quick search on google returned e.g. Freakonomics, Science Session PodcastsThe Guardian Global Development podcastUniversity of Birmingham podcasts, The Creative Penn, and I’m sure there are a lot more.
  • Find an extended reply in the transcript and analyze its structure. Find linkers and try to formulate what kind of information each linker introduces (e.g. general opinion, an example, a reformulation, a summary of the previous point, etc).
  • Copy out the linkers; practice saying them after the video/audio – it’s extremely important that you get their pronunciation right, because research shows that you sound fluent if and only if you pronounce such frequent chunks fluently.
  • Try to reproduce the passage from memory looking only at the linkers – first in writing, then out loud.
  • To help yourself remember the structure, represent it visually, e.g. as a diagram with pictures.
  • Try to adapt the structure to another topic. First do that in writing, to help yourself memorize the linkers, then do lots of spoken practice.
  • Go through past questions looking which ones could be answered using the structure you’re working with.
  • To find examples of a particular type of question, use google search on Examples of search terms: 1) “What problems” site: 2) ‘Do you think * should” site: See this article called How to Google like a boss for tips on efficient googling.
  • Meanwhile, work on memorising those linkers – use mnemonics like Keyword method, flash cards, apps like Anki – whatever it takes to really nail them.

I hope that helps. Happy studying!

Levels: B1 and higher (some activities are suitable for pre-intermediate students)
Type of course: General English/Business English; some activities suitable for IELTS students
Length: Depending on what activities you choose – altogether, there’s material for around two 90-minute classes.
Materials: all activities and pictures are  available in a Microsoft Word document (shared under attribution sharealike licence, so feel free to adapt them); you’ll need a projector to project the infographic.

This is a language point that I decided to introduce at all levels I’m teaching this semester: the elementary group studied it at the same time as they studied comparatives (adding a modifier seemed like a very teachable point, and now, two weeks later, they are actually using the modifiers very confidently! I also noticed that at least some of the times they say something like ‘more cheaper’ they actually mean a lot cheaper, so seeing that they’re trying to convey this meaning anyway, why not teach it immediately?) My Upper-Intermediate+ group, on the other hand, was still not using any modifiers with comparatives, as the warm-up activity below revealed.

Comparatives Edited (8)

I like presenting the four ways to compare (-er/more/less/exceptions) with ‘circles’ – the visual ‘mnemonics’ is that the circles do not intersect, so you never use two ways at the same time, and thus ‘less cheaper’ or ‘more better’ is not allowed.

Stage one: Intro. In order to introduce this grammar point to B1 groups and higher, I asked my students whether they’d ever bough a gadget to replace an older one (e.g. a smart phone to replace a mobile phone) and asked them to chat about

  • in what ways the new gadget was different and
  • whether the old one was still better in some respects.

I listened in and boarded some comparative structures they’d used – some examples that came up were ‘longer battery life’, ‘more durable’, etc. I then told my students that they weren’t using a bit of language I’d hoped to hear, showed them the first part of the infographic above and asked them what information is present in the pictures but missing from the sentences (How much more expensive?); I then elicited a few examples of how to modify the sentence to say how much more expensive the present was (my students came up with ‘much’ and ‘a (little) bit); I boarded the remaining adverbs, i.e. a lot, somewhat, way, and asked them to rank the adverbs (with my Upper-Intermediate group, we also focused on infinitely, marginally and far). I then pointed out the samples of  their language on the board in which they didn’t qualify the comparatives.

Stage Two. Focus on form. After that, in order to encourage the students to study the infographic closely, I handed out sentences with typical mistakes for them to correct (page 2 of the .docx worksheet) – show only the middle part of the infographic at this stage, hiding the examples.

Level: Elementary/pre-intermediateSome of these sentences contain mistakes. Find and correct them.

  1. I find shopping online lot more convenient.
  2. I like this laptop a lot less.
  3. My new laptop has more better design.
  4. This trip lasts two weeks more longer then that one.
  5. The box of chocolates costs 50 per cent less.
  6. This trip is more cheaper.
  7. My day just got a lot better!
  8. My new phone is a bit easier to use then my old phone.
Key:   1 a lot more convenient
2. OK
3. Has better design
4. two weeks longer than5. OK
6. is cheaper
7. OK
8. than
Level: Intermediate/Upper-IntermediateSome of these sentences contain mistakes. Find and correct them.

  1. I find shopping online a way more convenient.
  2. Men generally find easier to read maps.
  3. I like this laptop a lot less.
  4. This trip lasts two weeks more longer then that one.
  5. The box of chocolates costs 50 per cent less.
  6. My day just got a lot better!
 1. way more2. find it easier3. OK4. longer than5. OK6. OK

Having checked the answers, we used the correct sentences to model/drill sentence stress and intonation.

Stage 3. Refined production After that, the students went back to their conversations about gadgets (in new pairs), to find out how much longer the battery life was/how much more durable the new gadget was and so on.

We then briefly revised the rules how the comparative forms of adjectives are formed (alternatively, you could cut up a worksheet with adjectives – there are some in the .docx file – for the students to sort them into four groups) and went on to play a couple of games.

Further stages – games (pick and choose). 

Game 1 (drill) – adapted from Intermediate Communication Games by Jill Hadfield, Pearson P T R (2000) – worked like a spell in all groups!
Course type: any
Levels: Pre-Intermediate – Upper-Intermediate
: a set of cut-up cards for each pair/group of 3 (download a .pdf file from here or use the corresponding pages from the word document linked to at the beginning of the post); ideally, a dice for each pair
Time: 15-25 minutes

Every player takes 6 cards. The first player places one card on the desk and ‘boasts’ (‘my robot is very smart‘). After that, each turn players place one of their cards on the board, comparing the new object to the previous one (e.g. ‘my cat is way friendlier than your robot‘) and then takes one more card from the stack.

Rules: (a) They have to use a modifier – I drew 6 facets of a dice on the board, each one with a corresponding modifier, and each time a player boasted, they had to roll the dice to determine what modifier should be used
(b) Adjectives can’t be reused

Image courtesy: my colleague Eleonora Popova, who's a white board magician. =)

Image courtesy: my colleague Eleonora Popova, who’s a white board magician. =)

Variation 1: players draw the cards directly from the stack and have to find a way to compare the last two objects
Variation 2: each turn, each player in the pair puts one of their cards on the desk; after that each player comments in what way their object is better than the other player’s object

Game 2 A board game in which students share opinions on a range of topics

Target structure:
find [sth] [modifier] [comparative] (I find it a lot easier to… than to …)

Levels: Pre-Intermediate – Upper-Intermediate

Course type: General English or Business English (can be used with exam students, but does not replicate exam format)

Materials: a board with adjectives, for Variation 1 a cut-up set of discussion propts (see below)

Time: 30-40 minutes (more time with higher level students, as they launch into discussions, especially if discussion prompts are used)

Rules: The students work in pairs. Each turn, a player throws a coin (heads = one step forward, tails = two steps forward) and states a true opinion using a modified comparative form of the adjective on the field (possibly giving a reason – again, a dice could determine the number of reasons); their partner either agrees or disagrees (providing reasons) and/or asks follow-up questions – again, this could be decided by a roll of a dice. I made two board games for this game, one for pre-intermediate students, another for higher levels.

Board game Comparatives More difficultBoard game Comparatives Easier (2)Example: I find it a lot less stressful to get to work by car than to use public transport, because I really dislike the underground. There are just too many people on the train in the morning. What about you?

Alternatively, the students can ask questions instead of stating their opinions (see Variation 1).

Setting the game up: 

It’s better to give the students patterns for questions and answers (I boarded a jumbled question and a jumbled answer and asked the students to unjumble them).  In a pre-intemediate group, it’s better just to teach the statements (I find it + modifier + comparative to … than to…), whereas higher levels will cope with questions too.

  • Board one scrambled question (examples here are for ‘would’):
    would what you to be find easier so working in a big team in a small team or?Allow students to unscramble individually and then check in pairs, elicit and board the correct question:
    So what would you find to be [easier], working in a big team or in a small team? 
  • Board the sentence frame under the unscrambled question:
    So what would you find to be
     [comparative structure], verb-ing or verb-ing?)
    (alternatively, make a few mistakes in the frame and ask the students to correct them)
  • Elicit and board a reply (first the structure, but then elicit the reason – I put ‘because’ on the board and circled it in red (Sample reply: I’d find it a lot easier to work in a small company because you always know who is doing what. )
  • Again, board the frame under the replyI’d find it [a comparative structure] to [verb] [than to verb] because..)

Game 2 Variation 1. A board game in which students talk about topics given on discussion prompts

Materials: one of the above boards, cut-up discussion questions (either General English or Business English – see below).

The players shuffle the cut-up discussion prompts and take 6 promtps each.  Having landed on a field, a player asks their partner a question using an adjective on the field and one of their cards (e.g. What would you find to be easier, working in a big company or in a small company?)

Non-cut alternative: Each pair gets the sheet with discussion prompts. Having landed on a field, a player picks a question that fits the adjective (possibly, crossing it over).

Discussion prompts for General English:


Business English:


Game 3 Students talk about topics given on discussion prompts using a wider range of adjectives provided on cards; the game is played in pairs or in groups of three.

Course type: General English, Business English or IELTS

Level: Intermediate and higher


  • cut-up adjectives; an uncut worksheet with adjectives for each student

Time: up to 60 minutes as there are a lot of discussion questions


  • check that the students know all the adjectives: hand out an uncut copy to each student and set a few simple tasks, e.g.
    >>> tick all adjectives you know; check with your partner – is there something you don’t know and they do? class feedback
    >>> in pairs, for each adjective brainstorm two people, things, places or activities that fit  this adjective (e.g. elicit examples for useful, e.g. reading news every day). Rules: 1) ask the pair to write their examples down 2) if they can’t come up with two examples in 10 seconds, they should move on (why not tell them you’re going to snap your fingers every 10 seconds?) 3) at the end of the activity, group the students into groups of four so that they ask the other pair for ideas for the examples they couldn’t come up with 4) finish with a group game in which one pair gives their examples and the group guesses the adjective
    >>> focus on grammar: the students go through the table and count how many comparatives in each row are formed with ‘er’ and not with ‘more’
  • The game. The students deal the adjectives (6-8 per player). Each turn, one student picks two questions, chooses one (discarding the other) and asks the other players which alternative they’d prefer (Would you rather [verb] or [verb]). All players in the group discuss the question using as many of their adjectives as they can. These are adjectives that are often used with the structure ‘I find it [modifier] [comparative], so they are fairly easy to use in this activity.

Adjectives for intermediate learners:


Adjectives for advanced learners (edit the Microsoft Word file to choose only those you’d like to focus on – alternatively, let the students choose!):



As a follow-up, the students could pick a few of these questions and discuss them in new pairs/groups – this time without being forced to use any specific adjectives/structures. They could also choose a few cards and write about them for homework.

As I said at the start of the post, if you’d like to adapt these games, here’s a Microsoft Office document with all materials. Also, I’d be grateful if you let me know if you’ve got any suggestions how to improve this, ideas how to extend these activities or if you find typos.

Update. Thanks for stopping by! I was delighted to hear that this post has been shortlisted for TeachingEnglish blog award! =) If you like it, you can vote for it on Teaching English – British Council Facebook page.
Just a short addition to the previous post in which I described how my B1-C1 students work on fluency by mining texts for related expressions, organizing them into mind maps and retelling the texts several times to different classmates.

I use a very similar procedure with my group of pre-intermediate 7 graders to help them remember functional expressions used in social encounters (and generally in ‘Conversation Strategies’/’Everyday English’ sections of coursebooks).

The general lesson plan is

  • [gist] Students listen to a dialogue from the coursebook and answer gist questions
  • [analysis] The teacher helps them to analyze what kind of expressions are present in the dialogue and sketches a mind map on the board; the students copy the mind map and use the transcript to find expressions in the dialogue to add to the mind map.
    Usually I try to set up the gist questions so as to guide the group towards the structure of the mind map (e.g. ‘How many speakers are there? Who are they?’ or ‘How many questions do the speakers discuss’?)
  • [pronunciation] The teacher models & drills the natural pronunciation of the expressions; students practice pronunciation in pairs, challenging each other to pronounce expressions as fast and naturally as they can; a fun variation is to challenge the students to say each expression on their map twice in under 60-120 seconds – the goal here is to encourage the students to pronounce fixed chunks of language fluently.
  • [practice] The students act out the dialogue from the coursebook without looking at the text, using their mind map instead
  • [recreating the map ] They turn their mind maps over and try to recreate them from memory; after a few minutes, they listen to the dialogue again and add the missing expressions. The students will need lots of support and encouragement the first time they do it – I don’t expect them to remember more than 1/3 of the map when they first reproduce it, but this stage does prime them to notice language while they re-read/re-listen the dialogue and does encourage them to use the expressions during the production stage
  • [improvisation] The students act out similar dialogues (e.g. if the topic is ‘buying clothes’, they change the items/colours/sizes/prices either based on verbal or visual cues)
  • The students repeat the map recreation +improvisation stages once or twice or, time permitting , three times, each time with a new partner. This can be done in an ‘onion’ activity: the students are seated in two circles, those from the inner circle pairing up with students from the outer circle; the inner circle rotates between the stages so that each time each student works with a new partner; the level of challenge can be increased by introducing increasingly tight time constraints
  • They do it again for homework and, finally, again in a later class. 

A few tips:

  • [source] Use complete dialogues. It sounds tempting to organize all functional expressions used in a particular situation into a mind map, but in my experience unless there’s a text to organize the map, it becomes impossible to remember and reproduce. The only thing I add is alternative answers (E.g. ways to say ‘yes’ if the person in the dialogue said ‘no’).
  • [personal experience] Try the procedure out on your own before the lesson.
  • [preparation] Mind-map the coursebook dialogue before the lesson. Choose gist questions to direct the students towards the structure you’ve chosen.
  • [minimal preparation] For the improvisation stage, have students produce the prompts: bring in slips of coloured paper, ask them to brainstorm alternative items that can be used in the dialogue and write them on the slips (e.g. types of clothing on blue slips, sizes on green ones, prices on yellow ones etc), redistribute the slips
    Alternatively, brainstorm situations for students to adapt the dialogue to – board them and ask the student initiating the dialogue to choose one
    (e.g. for ‘buying clothes’: brainstorm ‘how you might spend a day off’ – e.g. in the forest/at home/at the beech/in the opera etc; the students initiating the dialogue choose a situation and buy clothes appropriate for the situation;
    for ‘buying food’ brainstorm a list of animals/meals; students buy food for the animal/ingredients for the meals; etc
    for ‘at the doctor’s’, brainstorm reasons why people get ill or, again, types of vacation
    for ‘having friends over’, brainstorm famous visitors, etc)
  • [personalizing] For some topics, to personalize the improvisation stage, ask the students to think about their favourite item of clothing/dish/place so that they buy a replacement for that item/order that dish/book a ticket to that place.
  • [fueling imagination] Use picture prompts for the improvisation stage: project a picture of a person in a difficult situation and ask the students to buy/order/book something for that person. Compassion is very memorable!

  • [revision] Insist on revision. Take a photo of a good mind map and upload it to the class blog. Tell the students that you’re going to ask them to reproduce the mind map from memory at the beginning of a next class. In my experience, when these two ingredients are in place (there’s a course blog/file where the learners know they can find the language dealt with in class and there’s a test, even a short and informal one, coming up), this does encourage at least around 60% both teenage students and adult Business English learners to revise.

I like this activity more than the more traditional sequence suggested in some coursebooks, in which learners just read the dialogue a few times substituting individual items and then act out their own dialogue using functional expressions given on the page, because when they mind map, it gets much less mechanical (as they are forced to think about the structure of the dialogue and process the functional language deeply), it challenges them and strains their memory and helps them to memorize the expressions much better, as well as giving them the confidence that they do remember them – having tested themselves a number of times. I’ve noticed that when the students improvise, they use the expressions that they put on their maps quite confidently and fluently, but if they choose not to write something down deeming it ‘obvious’, they might have problems with that language.Here are a few examples of mind maps my group has produced and used.

Example 1. This was the very first mind map we tried. It was at the very start of the course and the students really struggled with this one.

We used the following dialogue from our coursebook:

From Touchstone Level 2 by Michael McCarthy, Jeanne McCarten and Helen Sandiford

From Touchstone Level 2 by Michael McCarthy, Jeanne McCarten and Helen Sandiford (CUP)

Based on Touchstone Level 2 by Michael McCarthy, Jeanne McCarten and Helen Sandiford (CUP)

Based on Touchstone Level 2 by Michael McCarthy, Jeanne McCarten and Helen Sandiford (CUP)

Example 2

A few months later – the students coped much better with this one although it’s pretty huge!


Example 3.

The latest one that we’ve been using this week:

Based on Touchstone Level 2 by Michael McCarthy, Jeanne McCarten and Helen Sandiford (CUP)

Based on Touchstone Level 2 by Michael McCarthy, Jeanne McCarten and Helen Sandiford (CUP)


Update 07/05/2014 Since writing this post, I’ve been experimenting with this technique more, trying it with my Business English groups. Here’s a 45-minute lesson for an A2+ group  focusing on talking about advantages and disadvantages.

Talking about advantages and disadvantages
Discussing advantages and disadvantages: teacher’s notes.
Discussing advantages and disadvantages: the worksheet. 
I think I’ll use the same approach with my IELTS students, giving the students ‘narrow’ practice in the same type of question, e.g. pros and cons, comparing the past and the present, talking about differences between A and B and so on.


This is one of the posts in the series of posts on spoken fluency. Click here for the links to the remaining posts

Another one in a series of fluency-related posts – more links here: contents.

One of the most widely known classroom activities that target fluency is Paul Nation’s 4-3-2 technique: students tell the same story (or do the same task) under progressively stricter time constraints. The idea is that students are pushed to perform faster and are forced to restructure the ‘routines’ they use, and so the ‘formulation’ phase of speech production speeds up.

With my B1-C2 level students I use a slightly more complex procedure. Students find interesting articles online in order to share them in class, but instead of just reading and retelling them them to their classmates using more or less what linguistic resources they currently have, they actively mine text for collocations. This tweak to the activity seems to tie in nicely with a lot of insight into fluency described in the previous post. A variation of this technique which I think really does help to teach functional language at lower levels/to students preparing for exams such as IELTS is described here.

The full version involves some homework on the part of the students and takes around 80/90 minutes of classroom time, although there are some shorter alternatives that do not require homework.

Homework stage:

  • Students choose an article on the internet
  • They mine the text for sets of related expressions (big thanks for this technique to Mark Rooney and Ewan Dinwiddie, in whose Delta Module 2 lessons I first saw it) and organize these expressions into a mindmap. For example, in this online article on education, one predictably finds lots of expressions connected to studying (e.g. ‘grant you a college degree’, ‘take a year-long course’ and ‘broaden your knowledge’) and the internet (e.g. ‘without ever leaving your computer’, ‘bring free education to the masses via the internet’ and ‘available under open licences’), but on closer look lots of other related sets emerge, e.g. ‘quality’ (‘top-notch education’, ‘featured courses’, ‘which few you might want to steer clear of’), ‘quantity (‘it can get quite overwhelming’, ‘over 22 universities in the US alone’, ‘courses on tons of subjects’) and so on.

Classroom stage:

  • Students attempt to recreate their mindmap from memory (~10 minutes) and then look through their original mindmap and, ideally, through the text to see what’s missing (~5 minutes) – they won’t remember more than 30-40% at this stage, but this ‘test’ stage primes them to benefit more fully from revising the map
  • Students practice pronouncing expressions from their mindmaps as fast and fluently as they possibly can (this can be tied in with work on connected speech, e.g. they could be asked to look for instances of linking/weak forms and practice pronouncing those)/resolve any queries regarding pronunciation with the teacher’s help (3-5 mins); I also share this resource that automatically transcribes lists of expressions, so that students can check pronunciation at home
  • In pairs, they retell their article to a partner trying to use the expressions from their mindmaps – there’s always some discussion going on, but this is primarily a monologue (6.5 minutes/each monologue for average-length articles)
  • They look at their mindmaps to see what they forgot to mention/what expressions they didn’t use and why (5 minutes)
  • In new pairs, they retell their article (5.5 minutes/monologue)
  • Having briefly looked at their mindmaps again, in new pairs they retell their articles in 4.5 minutes

For this activity students are normally seated in two circles facing each other (so at each stage those sitting in the inner circle move to the next partner). By the end of the activity those students who sit in the same circle haven’t heard each other’s stories, so they can pair up with someone from the other circle and share what they’ve heard/what they liked the most or found the most surprising (this normally takes another 10 minutes or so).

Here are a few mindmaps produced by my students. What I’ve been noticing is that over time students start producing much better quality maps in terms of expressions they notice.





In my experience, for the activity to be a success, the following factors/steps are quite essential:

  • [a shorter version] start with shorter texts or integrate this with jigsaw reading (lists of places to go to/things to do/films to see etc lend themselves to this, e.g. in a recent class, my B1 students read one tip each from 10 Things to Do in New York City, shared these tips mindmapping between changing the partners and in the end decided which of those they’d like to do the most).
  • [introducing the activity: a lesson plan] try the whole procedure out in class, training the students in sub-steps: first introduce the idea that texts contain sets of related expressions and give them practice in identifying these; then give them practice creating mindmaps; then run the whole activity (mining the text for expressions + minmapping + recreating the mindmap + retelling the text) on the same text together – I’ve used coursebooks texts and also the first two paragraphs in this text, which was more than enough material for a ninety-minute class of B2 students.
    I usually try to first draw the group’s attention to the fact that they don’t remember the expressions from the text; to do that, I ask them to close the text and shout out words and expressions that were there; I board their suggestions and then I ask them what sets of related expressions they see – this helps to introduce the idea of lexical sets and a mind mapping; I draw the draft mindmap and ask students to copy it and to complete it with more expressions from the text. Here’s the draft mindmap we created for the text on education linked to in the previous paragraph:
    After that, the students finished their mindmaps – an average one looked something like that:
    online courses final
    Having done that, they recreated them and retold the text to each other, I then split them into groups: these groups read different paragraphs from the text, repeated the cycle of mining for vocabulary/mindmapping/recreating the mindmap etc helping each other, and then they retold these paragraphs to people from another group
  • [collocations – NOT unknown vocabulary] This activity works great with collocations, but only as long as they don’t contain completely unknown words. If they do, I’d suggest using the keyword technique to learn them first.
  • [safety net] I haven’t needed this yet because my students normally do find and read the articles, but probably it’s a good idea to keep a few interesting print-outs to hand. In that case students who come unprepared can read an article to share while those who did prepare are reproducing their maps; I also ask my students to share the links to the articles they’ve found, as well as photos oftheir maps, in a dedicated thread on a class blog – so I know whether they’ve prepared or not
  • [making the activity methodologically meaningful for students] It’s important to let the student know the rationale behind the activity and explain that they need to speak faster and faster – otherwise they will just skip some parts
  • model the activity: tell the students a story based on an article, encourage them to ask questions/interact with me/clarify unknown vocabulary; share sources (e.g.,, for longer articles and lifehacker.com and for shorter/more fun articles and lists)
  • [personal experience] it was very important for me to try out the entire activity on my own first, so that I knew of the likely difficulties and was able to reassure those students who thought it was impossible to recreate the maps; it is impossible to remember more than 30-40% on the first try, but after a couple of retellings it becomes pretty easy. What I did was pretty extreme, as I tried the activity with a 3-page article from New Yorker on a ramble through the city, and although there was no real plot in the article and although there were over 60 collocations on my map, third time I tried I could retell it using a significant proportion of collocations
  • [catering for tastes] some students don’t like mind-mapping – it’s ok to be flexible, as expressions can be organized into short lists, for instance
  • [revision] encourage the students to revise their mindmaps for a few days and store them safely/upload them to a group blog

Some of the articles my students have brought to class (might be useful to get the process started):
3D printers get cheaper, faster – and more mainstream

Apple iPod creator launches intelligent smoke alarm

Dark energy A problem of cosmic proportions

‘My iPad has Netflix, Spotify, Twitter – everything’: why tablets are killing PCs

Why Do Our Best Ideas Come to Us in the Shower?

Brain-to-brain communication is not a conversation killer

Shodan: The scariest search engine on the Internet

Male brain versus female brain: How do they differ?

A few words on why I think this activity makes sense in view of fluency research

In my previous post I wrote a lengthy overview of what factors are known to influence fluency and how these are mapped to the stages an utterance undergoes before being said. To sum it up  very briefly, one needs to

  • conceptualize/macro-plan: come up with what to say and how to structure it
  • formulate: micro-plan the utterance, retrieve vocabulary in chunks (as opposed to individual words), automatize grammatical processing
  • pronounce chunks fluently
  • monitor after saying the utterance

A regular 4-3-2 activity supplemented with mind-mapping

  • promotes out-of-class reading and gives the students practice in discussing some general interest stories, which might conceivably help with coming up what to say
  • encourages students to notice vocabulary in texts, write it down, and test themselves,  and provides students with a cognitively engaging exercise of identifying lexical sets present in the text (I personally don’t feel bored after a whole hour of doing that), all of which improves retention; promotes learning vocabulary in chunks, which leads to fluency gains
  • helps students to automatize grammatical processing through pushing them to perform faster and faster
  • encourages them to pronounce chunks naturally through the pronunciation practice stage, which improves perceived fluency

In the next post I describe how I use this activity with lower levels to help them with functional language used in social encounters.

A few interesting references
To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test – on the effect recalling and subsequently re-reading a text has on retention
Nation, P. Learning Vocabulary in Lexical Sets: Dangers and Guidelines  – Learning vocabulary in lexical sets (e.g. ‘apple, pear, plum’) is counter-productive, learning thematically related words (e.g. ‘frog, pond, green, slimy, hop, croak’) produces the best results.

This is the second post in a series of posts on fluency: it’s about key insights from literature into what factors contribute to (or detract from) fluency; I illustrate most points on a number of real life examples that I used with my students in awareness raising tasks.

I wrote about what motivated me to start ‘digging’ in the first post here – I’ll also add there  the links to the remaining (more practical) posts when they appear.


Working on Fluency. Part 1: the theory

Fluency: what are we talking about?

Fluency is ‘the [person’s] capacity to produce language in real time without undue pausing or hesitation.’ (Skehan, 1996, cited in Thornbury, 2000). It can actually be objectively measured with a number of variables, such as speech rate (the number of syllables per second – including pause time) and the mean ‘length of run’ (the number of syllables between pauses).  However, there’s also perceived fluency (that is, whether the listener considers the speaker to be fluent), which is of course subjective and much less clear-cut, but nevertheless there has been some research into what features of speech influence the listener’s perception of fluency.

There’s also another important aspect of speech, suggested by Michael McCarthy, who calls it ‘confluence’. Confluence concerns the way the speaker maintains (or fails to maintain) the flow of conversation, linking what they say to what the previous speaker said.

Understanding fluency through understanding what we do when we speak

In order to understand where fluency can ‘break down’, its useful to look at a ‘break down’ of the skill of speaking. Here is a model of speech production proposed by Levelt (1989), according to which an utterance goes through the following stages:

1. Conceptualisation (aka macroplanning: taking decisions what to say, which communicative intentions are to be realized)
2. Formulation (micro-planning at the level of an utterance) Retrieving vocabulary and grammaring it up.
3. Articulation, which is pronouncing the utterance
4. Monitoring. Checking that what you said conveys what you meant, with a reasonable degree of precision, and repairing the utterance if need be.

There are two fundamentally different ‘resources’ that we draw upon to carry out the stages outlined above. We draw on our knowledge (e.g. the knowledge of the way conversation is structured in L2 culture, or the knowledge of lexical items) and automatic routines(which include ‘grammaring’ the lexis up and using our speech organs to pronounce the sounds). We draw upon different types of memory, located in different parts of the brain (called ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ memory) and employ fundamentally different processing (‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ processing).  This distinction is important because it provides insight into the limitations of the human brain that are directly related to fluency. By way of a grossly oversimplified summary, in order to formulate an utterance, we use working memory for planning as well as storing lexis; we can only store ~7 items retrieved from explicit memory in the working memory at a time, while grammatical processing does not take up working memory unless one consciously recalls and applies a rule.  The distinction is also important because explicit and implicit processing is developed/automatised in different ways, and thus they call for different treatment in class (see this book for a fascinating summary of recent research; there’s more on explicit and implicit memory/processing in the books referenced in this post).

Getting closer to a fluent speaker’s performance

Stage of of speech production: Conceptualisation

  1. A fluent speaker…
    knows about the socio-cultural conventions for how conversations and monologues of different types are structured, e.g. uses scripts  and the structure of genres. For instance, when we walk into a restaurant, we know what we’re likely to say/what the waiter is likely to say and in what order this will be said – and this might be different in different cultures. In Russia we do not make small talk while buying groceries, so a Russian English language learner might be startled and might fail to respond altogether, let alone fluently, to an amiable English groceries seller.
  2. Implications for learners & teaching I haven’t learnt much on macro-planning yet, but clearly it’s useful to raise learners’ awareness of genre structures and give them a chance to refer to the structure as during planning stages of speaking activities.I also recently came across this presentation by Barry Tomalin: What do you say after “Hello”? Successful networking techniques. His ideas sound absolutely brilliant, I really want to try his framework with students to add some ‘meat’ to classes on ‘socializing’, but haven’t yet.

Stage of speech production: Formulation

  1. A fluent speaker…
    for efficient planning: uses spoken structures, which are much ‘looser’ than written grammar, stringing together a sequence or relatively independent clauses, or using ‘frames’ with slots
    for efficient vocabulary processing: stores in memory and retrieves lexis in chunks (formulaic speech units), which allows them to operate more than 7 words at a time (Nattinger and DeCarrico, 1992, cited in Wool, 2012)
    …formulates thoughts with varying degree with precision, sometimes resorting to very vague language
    for efficient grammatical processing
    …uses proceduralized routines, in contrast to consciously applying ‘rules’Here’s an example from a conversation between Oprah Winfrey and JK Rowling in which some of these features are evident: there are lots of short clauses linked together by conjunctions (and, but) and sentence adverbs/fluency markers (well/obviously); there are some sentence frames (conditional clauses, as well as relative clauses); there are lots of collocations (e.g. ‘a flash of clairvoyance‘) and some vague expressions (like)
    Winfrey: So, didn’t you know?
    Rowling: No.
    Winfrey: Wasn’t there part of you –
    Rowling: Part of me –
    Winfrey: Subconsciously, that knew? Yes.
    Rowling: I + I remember once + and it was like + it was likewell, like + I’m going to call it clash + a flash of clairvoyance now. + Obviously if [it hadn’t come true] it would just be some crazy thought + I had . But I do remember one day+writing Philosopher’s StoneI was walking away from the café + where I’d been working on +
    Winfrey: Philosopher’s Stone + which became Sorcerer’s Stone.
    Rowling: Which became Sorcerer’s Stone, exactly.+ So that’s the first novel. + And I had this moment where + I suddenly thought + It was like another voice speaking to me + and the voice said + “the difficult thing is going to get published. + If [it gets published] [it will be huge.]”
    Winfrey: Wow.
    Rowling: And [that is] + exactly what it was.
    ==================================================The complete 40-minute interview is available here:

    Implications for learners/teaching

  1. Planning. I believe that one important step is for students to become tolerant of spoken grammar and, instead of trying to produce syntactically complex structures characteristic of written language, analyze real speech for typical patterns of reasoning/’frameworks’ and practice using these simple frameworks to structure their own short utterances. For example, when practicing discussions/decision making, a typical argument might be broken down into ‘suggestion + reinforcement (state why suggestion is advantageous) + summary, e.g. I suggest you + (use skype) // which will (save you a lot of money) /make it (easier) (for you) to //so you’ll be able to…).When I was teaching IELTS students, it helped a lot to categorize the typical questions asked in the spoken part of the exam, provide students with a framework for each questions type and train them extensively in using this framework. Below is an example of materials I was using (adapted from Clark (2007)). It felt a bit like cheating at the time, but now I think that this might have mirrored the way skilled speakers micro-plan their utterances, as it allowed the students to plan at the level of a clause, moving ‘from column to column’ concentrating on producing one or two clauses at a time.
    Solutions: introductory sentence Introduce one option Explain what effect this solution would produce Link to another option
    Well I suppose there are a number of actions that could be taken.

    Well, I personally believe that there are [two] possible ways to tackle/address these problems.

    Well I think we could go about this in a number of ways.

    One way to …. would be

    An obvious measure/answer would be to
    One possibility/option is to

    By doing this, we would

    This would enable/help [us] to…

    As a result..

    This would have a huge impact on

    This would have a (profound) effect on

    Another solution would be to..

    A further step to [eliminating poverty sth] would be to

  2. Vocabulary. Noticing formulaic language is tricky because, at some level, it’s ‘obvious’: in contrast to individual ‘new words’, students often understand collocations and thus don’t identify them as ‘new’ language. Moreover, in my own experience this is almost impossible to do on first read/listen/watch: while your brain is totally engaged with meaning, it won’t notice anything that does not pose difficulty in that respect.When I asked my B2/C1 students to identify collocations in the following extract from the interview with JK Rowling, they
     tended to notice smaller chunks and ignore the ‘bigger’ picture (e.g. That was – That was easily the most frightening thing I’ve done in my life.) they identified the expression ‘in my life’ as a chunk, but didn’t notice the frame ‘That was [easily] the most [adj] thing I’ve [V3] in my life.);
    • also, their estimate was that they understood around 90% of these expressions and used around 10%.
  3. An awareness raising task
    Underline fixed expressions that contain the words in bold (suggested answers are in the third column):

    1 Rowling: Yeah, hugely. Hugely. But the odd thing is that that’s just life, isn’t it?  the odd thing is that…
    it’s just life
    2 The books wouldn’t be what they are if she hadn’t died. I mean her death is on virtually every other page of the Harry Potter books, you know?  wouldn’t be [] if
    virtually every // on every other page
    3 At least half of Harry’s journey is a journey to deal with death in its many forms, what it does to the living, what it means to die, what survives death – it’s there in every single volume of the books.  … in its many forms
    every single volume
    4 Rowling: A little. That was – That was easily the most frightening thing I’ve done in my life. Easily. It felt very exposing because this wasn’t me reading-out words that had already been approved. Do you know what I mean? I used to be borderline phobic about public speaking. [easily] the most [adj] thing I’ve [done/V3] in my life
    this wasn’t me v-ing
    public speaking
    5 Winfrey: Wow, really?
    6 Rowling: Yeah. Really. Like shaking so badly I couldn’t – I didn’t know what sentence I was on. So I’ve come a long way. I’m still not – public speaking I’ve got better at but there are things like having to give a speech on T.V. still scares me so much I can’t deal with that very easily.  I’ve come a long way
    I’ve got better at
    to give a speech on T.V.
    can’t deal with [that] [very easily]

    I’ve been trying to ensure students focus on collocations ever since I started teaching – more on that on the more ‘practical’ post on fluency – but some of the techniques that I personally obviously undersuse are:

    > Horizontal alternatives to vertical lists Providing collocations to all new vocabulary
    > Consistently training students to use collocations dictionaries and other lexical resources ( is a recent exciting addition to that list)

  4. Grammar It’s been suggested that in order to achieve automatization, students need to speak under time pressure, as only then are they forced to ‘restructure’ the procedures they currently employ by ‘assembling’ them into larger units. I try to use this insight by regularly giving the students the chance to repeat tasks under tighter time constraints, but one most important lesson I’ve learnt here is that it’s important to  take students on board – that is, make them aware of the rationale behind the activity, as otherwise they don’t see the point in making that extra effort,  cutting corners and meeting the tighter constraints simply by omitting part of the message.

Stage of of speech production: Articulation

  1. A fluent speaker..
    (a)  uses prominence to direct the listener to the words carrying meaning
    (b) chunks their utterance into units (pauses at clause boundaries and not inside clauses)
    (c) pronounces highly frequent chunks, including stretches of function words, such as ‘I’m in my’, fluently (This was what struck me most in all research into fluency – the observation that the listener’s perception of fluency hinges on how fast and naturally chunks are pronounced: ‘It can be stressed that it does not matter how slowly and carefully the rest of the utterance is, or needs to be, constructed. Provided the ‘chunk’ is said fast, the utterance will sound natural; the opposite, a fast message with a slow chunk, will sound completely unnatural and non-fluent.’ (O’Keefe et. al,. 2007)Awareness raising task
    I useed this video to raise awareness of various features of pronunciation (especially fast pronunciation of chunks)

    Students listened a number of times
     first time to respond to the message/understand the gist and talk about their experience with obsolete gadgets
     second time they were provided the gapped text in the first column below with ‘|’ marks showing pauses deleted and asked to mark the pauses; then they listened again and underlined stressed syllables
     then they listened one more time trying to complete the gaps (almost impossible), and one more time listening out specifically for speed (it’s only now that most students realize that the gaps are so difficult to fill not just because the words are ‘swallowed’ but that they’re specifically pronounced much faster than the rest of the utterance;
     they then practiced reading the passage: first time concentrating on the pauses, then on the pauses and stress and finally, having practiced the pronunciation of ‘fast’ chunks separately, all of it;
     finally, they discussed their favourite gadgets – the task was to talk but also to try stress the important words as they talk

    Louis C.K.: Ya, because | Everything is aMAzing right now | and NObody’s happy. | Like | in MY LIfetime | the CHANges _______ world _________ inCREdible. . Louis C.K.:  Ya, because | Everything is aMAzing right now | and NObody’s happy. | Like | in MY LIfetime | the CHANges in the world have been inCREdible. .  /ɪnðə/    /həvbɪn/
    _________ kid ________ ROtary PHOne. |We had a phone you had to STAND NEXT to | _________ DIal it, (yes) __________. |___________REalize how PRImitive, when i was a kid we had a ROtary PHOne. |We had a phone you had to STAND NEXT to | and you had to DIal it, (yes) you know |you know, you ever REalize how PRImitive, /wənʌwəzə//əntə/
    /jənə/  / jəve/ 
    ______ making SPARks _____ phone | and you actually would HATE people with ZEros ______ NUmbers’cause it was more (right) oh, __________ two zeros, | screw THAT guy, ____________, ugh… you’re making SPARks in a phone | and you actually would HATE people with ZEros in their NUmbers’cause it was more (right) oh, this guy’s got two zeros, | screw THAT guy, why do i wanna ugh… /jə     /inə//inðe//ðɪsɡaɪzgət//wʌɪdəʌwənə/
  2. Implications for learners & teaching(a) Learners need awareness raising activities in which they identify prominent syllables and practice highlighting prominent words in while engaging in a communicative task; I think that, as it often said about pronunciation activities, the best approach here is ‘little and often’.
    (b) I notice that my students often make in-clause pauses when they are searching for vocabulary; what they do is produce the ‘grammatical part of the clause’, which, having been drilled repeatedly, is the ‘easy’ bit,  and then drag out the final function word while formulating the rest of the clause (e.g. /I have tooo [pause] get up early/). So far I haven’t come up with any ways to address this (at least practicing the correct pronunciation of the structure doesn’t produce any visible effect, as the students revert to unnatural pronunciation as soon as they concentrate on the message).
    (c) Regarding chunks of function words, McCarthy suggests the students practice saying them over and over again  (He lists the following chunks as top priority chunks, as they are top 20 3-word chunks in Cambridge and Nottingham Corpus of Discourse in English:I DON’T KNOW | A LOT OF | I MEAN I | I DON’T THINK | DO YOU THINK | DO YOU WANT | ONE OF THE | YOU HAVE TO | IT WAS A | YOU KNOW I | YOU WANT TO | YOU KNOW WHAT | DO YOU KNOW | A BIT OF | I THINK IT’S | BUT I MEAN | AND IT WAS | A COUPLE OF | YOU KNOW THE | WHAT DO YOU | AT THE MOMENT

    (McCarthy, 2006)

    Cauldwell(2013:315) lists another list of clusters of 3 and more words commonly squeezed together.

    > To help the students to produce these chunks with natural pronunciation, it might be useful to raise their awareness of features of connected speech and, in particular, the way diphthongs ‘lose’ weak vowels (/aɪ/ in ‘I’ll’ becoming /ʌ/, /əu/ becoming /ə/ in ‘you know’, etc)

    > I think it’s also paramount that students are made aware of the effect non-fluent pronunciation of chunks produces on the listener’s perception (at least if they do aim to sound fluent), and are consistently encouraged to practice fluent pronunciation whenever they study  functional language and formulaic expressions, either in class or on their own – at least my students normally try to shirk at this point of the lesson because they feel extremely self-conscious; in my experience, rationalizing the need for pronunciation work does help> Adrian Underhill repeatedly makes the point of the need for placing a physical demand on top or the cognitive demand  and challenging students to pronounce what they say with maximum fluency and connectedness possible (e.g. Underhill, 2013:215) and for me the way he demonstrates this is an inexhaustible source of inspiration.

Stage of of speech production: Monitoring

  1. What do a fluent speakers do?

     monitor their message after it’s been formulated and uttered
     use spoken structures that are characteristic of spoken language and that mirror the way attention shifts e.g. those olives, how much are they? (the topic is identified first, then the question is added – cf how much are those olives?); my brother, his wife (cf ‘my brother’s wife)  they are nice, those olives (the sentence starts out with the speaker’s perspective, and then gets ‘clarified’ to include the listener). In the interview extract above, JK Rowling freely starts a sentence and then changes it mid-way:  I remember once + and it was like + it was like + welllike + I’m going to call it clash + a flash of clairvoyance now. Language learners, on the other hand, often feel that they have to speak in full, ‘correct’ sentences and attribute their failure to do this not to natural limitations of the human brain, but to their own lack of proficiency – in short, very often they have unrealistic expectations of what they are to produce.
     Uses a range of expressions to signal the need for extra interpretation on the part of the reader (e.g. ‘you know’/’do you know what I mean?’)
  2. Implications for learners / teaching
    For me as a non-native speaker insight into monitoring was the most revealing. I realized that I, in contrast to Levelt’s speech model, was vehemently trying to monitor utterances before uttering them, because I was never sure would be able to finish the sentence I’d started – a fear that, I suspect, was well-grounded, as my speech was lacking all the features of spoken language outlined above.  

Stage of speech production: linking to the previous speaker’s turn

  1. Fluent speakers…
     react to what the previous speaker said (‘yeah’/’no’/’exactly’/’it is!’)
    comment (‘we’ll need to …’/’which won’t be easy’)
    reformulate (‘Was it good?’ ‘Yeah, amazing!’)
    repeat (Winfrey: Philosopher’s Stone which became Sorcerer’s Stone./ Rowling: Which became Sorcerer’s Stone, exactly.);  backchannel to show interest (mmm/really?)
     use discourse markers and sentence adverbs to start turns (‘well, basically’/’actually’/’so’/’right’).Awareness raising task (adapted from one of Michael McCarthy’s tasks in an IATEFL webinar)
    Again, the interview with JK Rowling mentioned above is a striking example of that – here’s a random sample. I asked students to underline look at the starts of turns and compare that to a transcript of A2 students speaking (I couldn’t produce a transcript of the students themselves due to time constraints, but it would’ve been better: record them doing a task, ask them to analyze turn beginnings in the interview, then listen to their recording to see what features are present.
    Winfrey: Are you in a place now where you can accept that you will always be rich?Rowling: No. Are you?Winfrey: Kind of. Getting there.Rowling: Really? I hope – I hope I – that sounds good.Winfrey: Unless I’m a complete fool.Rowling: But that’s it! Unless I’m a fool! And you know what? I’ve never been a fool with money so why worry? But I do. I think ‘God, if I blew this, how could I look everyone in the face?’Winfrey: But, you know psychologically it’s a difficult thing to come to terms with because it’s like saying – not allowing room for never say never.Rowling: Exactly.Winfrey: You know?Rowling: Exactly. And you feel – I feel – I don’t want to get complacent.Winfrey: Right.

    Rowling: I don’t want to take things for granted.

    Winfrey: Correct.

    Rowling: I just – I just – and after all. Well, you do know what, I’m talking absolutely rubbish, aren’t I? I’m talking rubbish. I mean really would have to be very stupid but, yeah, I do still worry.

    Winfrey: Really?

    Rowling: Yeah. Not all the time. I mean mostly I feel great.

    Winfrey: What do you actually think money has done for you? What does it do?

    Rowling: It frees you. That’s what it does. It frees you. That’s why it’s like a super power. You don’t – it frees you. I mean we don’t have to – the luxury of literally being able to sit down and say “where should we go for a holiday?” and not be, in any way, limited.

    Winfrey: I hear you don’t drive.

    Rowling: No, I don’t drive. No. Cars terrify me. I am really frightened of cars.

    Winfrey: So do you have a driver?

    Rowling: I – of – lately I have had a driver. Very lately.

    Winfrey: Is it true that you still take the bus? I read that you still take the bus.

    Rowling: Occasionally. Within the last year I have taken the bus. Definitely, yeah.

    Winfrey: Did you ever imagine your life being the way it is now?

    Rowling: No. Never. And I really, really mean never. It overshot the mark so ridiculously that I – I was so unprepared for it. This is a thing I think I’ve never really spoken about. I was a writer. I had no one near me professionally or personally who could in any way help me when I had questions like “what do you do when the press is searching your bins?” You know?

    Winfrey: Mhmm.

    Rowling: Really crazy stuff that happens. The stuff that makes you feel –

    Winfrey: But that doesn’t happen to most writers, you know?

    Rowling: Exactly. Exactly. So it took everyone around me totally by surprise.

    Winfrey: It’s not like if you’re an actress you could have expected that.

    Rowling: Of course! Of course. You know that if I’m wildly successful that stuff will happen. I’m not going to like it but that will happen. But as a writer there’s no way of thinking “if I’m wildly successful they will want long-lens photographs of me on the beach in my bikini. Never occurred to me in a million years.

    Winfrey: So you weren’t prepared for it.

    Rowling: Totally unprepared. And really running scared for a while.

  2. Implications for learners / teaching
    Again, based on my conversations with B2 learners, it is evident that they have skewed perception of this feature of speech: they felt that fluency markers are ‘rubbish words’/signs of inferior speakers; that adverbs like ‘absolutely’ and ‘exactly’ are too expressive; I personally also feel that we non-native speakers might be feeling the need to prove our linguistic ability by saying something new/driving the conversation forward. My point in that conversation was that if you don’t use those ‘small’ words, your speech does not sound ‘clean’ – it sounds non-native.

    An observations that I’ve made since I learnt about confluence is that I myself completely fail to notice these features, as well as expressions like ‘you know’ and ‘do you know what I mean’, unless I’m paying conscious attention. So reading the transcript of the interview with Rowling (or, more specifically, reading only the starts of turns) was incredibly revealing – even though I’d seen the interview, which suggests the need for explicit conscious raising activities.Another interesting fact is that film English is bad for exploring these features: at least in Friends, a well-known sitcom, these features are drastically underrepresented.

Personal conclusion Looking back up the changes my daily teaching underwent in light of the insights outlined above, I see that I’ve (1) started to use task repetition much more, making sure I inform the students of the rationale to persuade them to cooperate; (2) treat pronunciation of formulaic language much more consistently and (I hope) more persuasively, although prominence and appropriate pausing definitely deserve more attention; (3) see the need to increase learner autonomy in working with lexical resources, although I haven’t figured out how to do this in a systematic way (4) see the need to research typical ‘micro-frameworks’ to help learners with micro-planning. In the next couple of posts I’ll write about some other practical activities that target fluency.


Cauldwell, R. (2013) Phonology for Listening. Speech in Action

Clark, M (2007) IELTS Speaking

Levelt, W.J.M (1989) Speaking. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

O’Keeffe, A., McCarthy, M. and Carter, R. (2007) From Corpus to Classroom: Language Use and Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press.

McCarthy, M. (2006) Explorations in Corpus Linguistics

Quaqlio, P. (2009) Television Dialogue: The sitcom Friends vs. natural conversation. Studies in Corpus Linguistics

Thornbury, S. (2000) Accuracy, fluency and complexity. English Teaching professional, 16 (available for download here).

Skehan, P (1996) ‘Second language acquisition research and task-based instruction’ in Willis, J and Willis, D (Eds) Challenge and change in language teaching  Heinemann

Underhill (2013) ‘The Inner Workbench: learning itself as a meaningful activity’ in Arnold, J and Murphey, T (Eds) Meaningful Action. Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching. Cambridge University Press

Wray, A. (2005) Formulaic Language and the Lexicon. Cambridge University Press

More resources:
cognitive bases

McCarthy, M. (2009) Rethinking Spoken Fluency


Level: Intermediate+
Length: 90 min +
Focus: speaking (discussing news that matter); listening (gist, detail and decoding practice); time expressions to talk about the future
Materials: Worksheet

Stage 1. To introduce the topic of news, board a few words that collocate with ‘news’ and ask the students to guess the missing word (one collocation/one guess); start with less obvious ones, e.g.

  • old ______
  • two pieces of ______
  • get the ______
  • unwelcome ______
  • keep up with the ______
  • a ______ story
  • break the ______  to someone (if the students haven’t got it by now, find more here: (

Stage 2:  Once the students have come up with ‘news’, ask them do discuss the following questions:

1. How do the people you know keep up with the news?

watch the evening news on TV
read newspapers/get the local paper
go on their favourite online news source/research some news stories online
hear the news by word of mouth
see the news on social media in their news feed

2. What about you – how do you get the news? What kind of news and what for? Are your news sources reliable? 

3. Is it really important to keep up with the news, or is that a waste of time? What are the benefits you personally get from keeping up with the news?


Stage 3: Board ‘The Long News’. Tell the s/s, ‘We’re going to watch a video about a project called ‘The Long News’. Come up with one or two ideas what might be the central idea behind this project.’ Give the s/s time to discuss and board their suggestions. The s/s watch the first part of the video (until 01:21 – ”sooner or later this particular recession is going to be old news’) and decide which prediction was the closest.

NB I’m embedding the video here, but it’s much better to play it from the site because there you can load the transcript (show transcript > English) to click the sentence you want to re-play:

Pair-check/ class feedback.

Stage 4. Hand out the mindmap and tell the students that the presenter is going to mention several pieces of ‘long news’ in each category. Ask the students to work in pairs and predict which events that have happened over the last decade might have made it to the list – make sure that they do write their predictions down as they will need them for the discussion task later on. Allow around 10 minutes.


Stage 5. Ask the students to listen to the rest of the video (it’s better to turn off the projector at this point, as the stories are summarized on the screen) and
(optional step 1) count how many news items there are in each category
(step 2) check whether some of their ‘long news’ has been mentioned
(step 3) add these items to their mindmaps

Stage 6. [optional] If the students are having trouble with detailed understanding (my strong intermediate+ students could not catch anything in the ‘science’ section), use the feature that I mentioned above that allows users to replay separate sentences and give the s/s listening decoding practice, e.g. decoding these two sentences:

‘Someday, little robots will go through our bloodstreams fixing things. That someday is already here if you’re a mouse.’ 

Tell the s/s that in speech some syllables are more prominent (louder/higher pitch / longer) than the others; tell them that you’re going to replay just two sentences; ask the s/s to close their eyes and count how many prominent syllables they hear; FB; ask the s/s to take an A4 sheet, listen again and write down these prominent syllables (but spread them out on the sheet); FB: board the syllables the students have caught; replay again – the students try to fill the gaps; board all suggestions they’ve got (aim to put every single version in the class onto the board and do not comment on the versions just now); replay again – s/s decide which of the versions on the board are correct (if they still can’t catch it, one useful technique is for you to repeat after the speaker mimicking their speed and pronunciation, and then repeat the utterance several times more and more slowly; once the students catch it, reverse the process: repeat it faster and faster several times). Finally, ask the students to listen again and mouth only the prominent syllables with the speaker (replay a few times); after that ask them to mouth the complete utterance. 

I learnt this technique from Nick Hamilton, one of the incredible teacher trainers at IH London under whose guidance I had the privilege to study last summer.

Stage 7. Replay the rest of the video bit by bit to help the students catch and write down the rest of the news.

Stage 8. Refer the students to the transcript (page 3 of the worksheet) and ask them to predict what should go in the gaps. Replay the beginning of the video for the students to fill the gaps. Ask the students which of the expressions refer to more distant future.

We are drowning in news. Reuters alone puts out three and a half million news stories a year. That’s just one source.

My question is: How many of those stories are going to matter __________? That’s the idea behind The Long News. It’s a project by The Long Now Foundation, which was founded by TEDsters including Kevin Kelly and Stewart Brand. And what we’re looking for is news stories that might still matter 50 or 100 or _________________?. And when you look at the news through that filter, a lot falls by the wayside.

To take the top stories from the A.P. this last year, is this going to matter _________________?? Or this? Or this? Really? Is this going to matter in 50 or 100 years? Okay, that was kind of cool. (Laughter) But the top story of this past year was the economy, and I’m just betting that, _________________, this particular recession is going to be old news.

So, what kind of stories might make a difference for the future? Well, let’s take science. ___________________, little robots will go through our bloodstreams fixing things. That _________________is already here if you’re a mouse. Some recent stories: nanobees zap tumors with real bee venom; they’re sending genes into the brain; a robot they built that can crawl through the human body.

Elicit and board the answers:
in the long run
10,000 years from now
in a decade
sooner or later

Ask the students to draw a timeline and put these time expressions on a timeline; with a stronger group, ask them to suggest more time expressions (alternatively, suggest a few more yourself and ask them to put them on the timeline:
in a couple of years
within the next 15 years
in a decade or so
in our lifetime

Stage 10.

[option 1] Take a few minutes to board all the ‘Long News’ items that the s/s came up with during Stage 3. Ask the s/s to discuss, either in the same pairs or in new pairs, what these events might lead to in the future – in order to encourage the use of target language, ask them to put these ‘consequences’ on their timelines.

After that ask the students to choose, individually, five events that they consider the most important and then agree on the list of top 5 events in new pairs.

[option 2] The same but without boarding: label the students A and B and have the As hold on to the mindmaps they produced during stage 4 while Bs migrate from partner to partner once every 5+ minutes, discussing and adding more and more potential consequences to their timelines; monitor to notice bits of topic-related language that can be upgraded

Content FB; language FB.

For Homework, you could encourage the students to do more decoding practice with this clip.

Stage 11. [optional] If you have a lot of time, do  a more detailed language focus: hand out the mindmap on page 4 and ask the students to put the time expressions on the map. After that, s/s do the task at the bottom of the page in writing; Language FB, then discussion in pairs.