Posts Tagged ‘monolingual classes’

As I mentioned in the previous post, it transpires from Second Language Acquisition (SLA) literature that learning occurs when one notices a bit of language in input that they understand. This is not only true for explicit knowledge (e.g.  the knowledge of individual lexical items or awareness of turn-taking strategies), but also for implicit knowledge (that is, noticing grammar in input helps to develop automatic grammatical processing). For the magic to happen, two ingredients have to be in place. One needs to

  • interpret the bit of language correctly in input
  • consciously notice that this bit of language was used

It might appear that ‘noticing’ goes on more or less automatically, but actually I’d say that by default it does not happen, because all attentional resources (which are extremely limited) are devoted to comprehending the message. So, if you wait a few moments after the learner has heard an utterance, for it to stop being replayed in their phonological loop, and then ask them to repeat what was said, they will probably report the message using their own lexis and employing their own grammatical processing routines and they are likely to be at a loss as to what expressions and grammar was used. For me, one striking example of this occurred when I was at school. My English teacher mostly spoke English during the lesson but occasionally said something in Russian. When I began to understand her more or less easily, I began to notice that I often could not recall whether the last sentence had been said in English or in Russian.

The implications for me as a language teacher are that, if I want my students to learn autonomously, it is not enough to motivate them to go and use English. I need to actually

  • tell them that they need to both understand and notice
  • do something in class to help them to understand + notice

In order to approach this in a more consistent way, I ask myself four questions: What steps could the students take in order to understand more?  What steps could the teacher take to help the students understand more? What could the teacher do to help students notice? What can the students do to notice language?

In my experience, the most important principle regarding promoting any strategy for autonomous learning is to try out the strategy in class at least once.  As for the principles specific to the four questions above, here are some of the techniques that I’ve come up with and tried out (but, naturally, I’d also love to hear what you do, because there are bound to be efficient approaches missing from the list).

  • What steps could the students take in order to understand more?
    1. Read and listen in L2 on familiar topics.
    2. Watch films they’ve already watched in their mother tongue (L1).
    3. Read news stories in L1 and then L2 (some news sites provide the same article in several languages, e.g.
    4. Re-read/re-watch the same text/film more than once.
    5. Fully concentrate on the message first time they listen/read/watch. Trying to pay attention to meaning and form at the same form is bound to affect comprehension. So much so that, according to some studies, students understand less if some grammatical structures have been highlighted in the text.
  • What steps could the teacher take to help the students understand more?
    1. Promote learning high-frequency vocabulary through the key-word technique.
    The students could either use a list of high frequency words to locate gaps in their knowledge – I like Longman Communication 3000 – or use a lexical profiler to find out which words in the subtitles to films they watch and the articles they read are high frequency words that are worth learning.
    2. Consistently work on pronunciation in class. If students consistently mispronounce some words, they might also fail to understand them in speech.
    3. Use authentic materials in class – as my CELTA tutor Simon Brown repeatedly told us, ‘Grade the task and not the materials’ (e.g. elementary students could listen to the news and say: how many news items did you hear? who is each item about?)
    4. Help the students to cope with natural pronunciation of high-frequency chunks and functional words. High-frequency chunks often get distorted in natural speech (no one bothers to pronounce every single sound), so to prevent the situation in which the students ‘know’ a chunk but cannot actually understand it in speech, the teacher could teach such chunks through listening passages (introducing them through a gap-fill). Incorporate the work on natural pronunciation into every single grammar focus session and provide the students with lots of samples of target grammar in natural speech. For example, there are ‘learn grammar with films’ youtube videos, which could be made into a gap-fill exercise targeting weak forms of function words. Here’s an example of a video for am/is/are (there are more links in this post):
  • What could the teacher do to help students notice?
    1. Give the s/s an overview of grammar without expecting them to produce all of these structures in their speech. Make sure they do remember the forms and the ‘rules-of-thumb’ of use and provide them with practice in identifying + interpreting the structures in textsImage
    2. Research typical problems for learners with your students’ mother tongue (L1). Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other Problems by Michael Swan is a good source. Analyze what features of language the students with that particular L1 fail to acquire even at higher levels and give the students an overview of these particular features; find a good text/video that exemplifies these features and provide practice in noticing.
  • What can the students do to notice language?
    1. Most importantly – re-read/re-listen/ re-watch everything. First time you read or listen it’s almost impossible to pay attention to anything but the message.
    2. Direct their attention:
    > Consciously pick an aspect of language to notice; do not limit yourself only to grammar or only to lexis: pronunciation, the structure of a conversation, the way topic shifts, what people do to sound friendly and formal/informal etc and even body language and facial expressions are worth noticing (come to think of it, it might be a good idea to give the students a mind-map of ‘features worth noticing’ and then conduct monthly follow-up sessions in class in which s/s could report on their findings – see this post for more on how to mind map genres)
    > Pick out a high-frequency grammar structure and listen out for it for five minutes
    > Choose a scene in a film and try to figure out which grammar structures occur frequently
    > Choose a scene in a film and listen out for rising and falling intonation or stressed or unstressed words or the words that are pronounced slowly
    > Depending on the content of a scene in a film, listen out for vague language or ways to express politeness or interaction patterns, etc (warning:I’ve read that films are bad for exploring back-chanelling – characters don’t tend to ‘uh-uh’ as much as they would be expected to in real life)
    > While reading news items, look out for groups of related expressions (here’s a mindmap produced by one of my students based on a newspaper article) :
    3. Students could also compare their own production with the input:
    > On the third/fourth etc watch, predict the line and then compare it with the actual line; notice any differences
    Translate a paragraph of text/subtitles into their language, then translate it back and notice any differences.
    > A strategy that worked wonders for me when I started out learning English: regularly ask yourself ‘Is there anything in this sentence I’ve just read/heard that I myself wouldn’t be able to say?’

I’d love to hear what you think about the strategies suggested in this post – which ones have you used? which ones are, do you think, unworkable? Also, any other ideas on how else to help students notice language are highly welcome!


A mind map of this post:

input = acquisition



I’ve taught English for over 4 years now, and I’ve only recently worked up the courage to teach my students the phonemic chart. Here’s why I did that:

  • I wanted to enable my students to learn vocabulary autonomously. Some researchers, e.g. Paul Nation, argue that for high frequency words (top 1000/2000/3000 words) the best strategy is to learn them in a decontextualized way using translation and the keyword technique based on visual associations, and then get the feel for these words through exposure. I’ve experimented with the keyword technique learning German and it worked for me, so I decided to teach it to my students. However, it would be useless if they were unable to get the pronunciation right. While there are talking dictionaries online (e.g., in my my opinion there’s still a case for teaching the students the phonemic script. The main reason is that it might be tricky to actually hear the sounds if you’ve already got an idea of how the word should be pronounced. In my case this was actually ridiculous – I’m not a native speaker of English and I learnt that ‘chocolate’ and ‘different’ are not actually pronounced as /ˈtʃɒkələt/ and /ˈdɪfərənt/ from Cutting Edge coursebook while teaching an elementary group of students. Another example is the /eə/ diphthong in words like ‘pair’ and ‘where’, and the final syllable in ‘considered’. I remember the moment when I first saw the phonemic transcription of these words. That moment was a revelation. I’d always felt that I must be pronouncing them incorrectly, because they didn’t ‘feel right’ in the mouth. The most striking thing about seeing  the transcription was seeing the number of sounds. Before that, I’d always tried to say something like /peɪr/, /we/ and /kɔ:nsɪderet/, and when I heard them I didn’t notice the way there were pronounced – or maybe I did notice but didn’t trust my ear. Another important reason why it’s worth spending some time teaching the students the script is that most students won’t bother going to the talking dictionary so unless they have a record of how the words are pronounced will end up learning the wrong pronunciation. By the way, if you have a list of words for the students to memorize in an Excel file, it’s very easy to produce a list of phonemic transcriptions in a matter of seconds using this excellent resource:
  • With my B2 teenage learners, I needed them to learn the chart so that they could develop listening skills by learning the language to formulate what it is they’re hearing before looking at the transcript/subtitles, and in this way build up an understanding of their individual listening weaknesses – more about that in a separate post.

This was the why, and here’s the how.


Level: any, but with A1-A2 it helps if you speak the students’ L1
Length: 50-90 minutes (lower levels need more time to learn to pronounce the sounds)


  • A phonemic chart 
  • A set of 36 cards for each students (each A4 sheet can be cut into 16 biz card-sized cards)
  • A print-out of the table with associations (below) to remind you which associations to suggest to students
  • Optionally, a print-out of words written in the phonemic script for Stage 4
  • Optionally, texts written in the phonemic script for homework.

This procedure for memorizing the symbols was modified from the procedure I learnt in Advance club in St. Petersburg during a 2-day workshop on memory development. The trainer, an exceptionally inspirational educator Nickolay Yagodkin taught us to read the Korean alphabet in around 30 minutes using letter-word associations, and it was an incredibly joyful and gratifying experience.

Here are the key things to remember in this lesson

  • The focus of this post is helping the students learn the symbols. However, you’ll need to teach the students how to pronounce the sounds (especially the vowels) before teaching the symbols; I use the procedure from an amazing workshop by Adrian Underhill (see the video below)
  • it’s best not to assume that some consonant sounds, like /k/, are ‘trivial’ – the students will have all kinds of misconceptions about the phonemic chart, e.g. they will assume that there’s a /c/ sound in ‘cow’ or that /j/ sounds like the first sound in ‘jeans’. So it’s better to treat the whole chart in a systematic way and teach even those sounds that seem ‘obvious’; also, in some languages that use the Latin alphabet the letters are pronounced differently (e.g. ‘r’ is pronounced as /h/ in Portuguese).
  • to learn that many symbols in one go, it’s a good idea to use mnemonics
  • you’ll need to make sure that the students learn the symbols in batches of around 12 symbols. They will need the chance to revise each batch and then practice reading simple words for a bit before going on to the next batch. I personally start with vowels and then provide the students with lists of words to practice on, like /pʊl/ /pɔ:l/ /pɜ:l/, which I know they’ll be able to read even though we haven’t practiced these consonants yet. I’ve only got experience with Russian students, but it might be that the lists of ‘safe’ consonants may depend on the students’ L1. 

Here’s the procedure.

  • Stage 1. Teach the students to pronounce the vowels
    As I mentioned above, I use Adrian Underhill’s procedure. By the way, all videos of his workshops that I’ve seen online were remarkable and uplifting, and this one is no exception. Actually, it is such a treat that it’s worth watching even if you’re not going to teach anyone the phonemic chart. Do check it out.

    Some notes that I took of ideas I personally found particularly valuable:
    1. The vowel part of the phonemic chart is actually a picture of a human mouth: the number of the row shows how open the jaws are, the number of the column shows the position of the tongue + the shape of the lips
    2. Before watching this video, I used to explain how to produce the problematic sounds ‘from scratch’. However, it’s much easier to help a student who’s mispronouncing a sound if you can figure out how they should adjust the current position of their tongue/jaws/etc in their mouth. In order to do this, mimic the sound they’re producing, then pronounce the ‘right’ sound – play with the two sounds to figure out what the physical differences are
    3. In a similar manner, some troublesome sounds are easier to explain starting from an ‘easy’ sound that’s ‘close’ in the mouth (e.g. /r/ can be explained through /l/; /ŋ/ can be explained through /k/ – ask the students to pronounce /k/ and feel where the root of the mouth is; after that ask them to prepare the mouth to pronounce /k/ but pronounce /n/ – an ŋ will come out; /k/ is also useful when explaining the position of the tongue in /ɒ/ – get the s/s to practice with ‘cot’ and ‘cut’). But as I mentioned before, there’s much more in the video than these ideas, so do check it out.
    Another useful technique that I learnt from Anne Thompson, my Delta Module 2 tutor, is to use your hands to illustrate for the student how to adjust their articulators: show the roof of the mouth with you left hand and show them how to adjust their tongue with your right hand:


  • Stage 2. Teach the students the symbols using mnemonics.
    The idea is visualize each symbol as part of an image – a word that contains this symbol. For example, ʌ looks like an umbrella or a cup turned upside down.
    There are two important rules here.
    1. It’s vitally important that the students do visualize the association and not just try to memorize the associated word. This really is the key element of this technique, because there are much more neurons involved in visualization than in any other type of processing and thus it’s actually possible to memorize hundreds of images in one sitting. So while they won’t be able to remember 32 ‘symbol + word’ pairs  by the end of the lesson, the studnets will be able to remember 32 images containing the symbols – and thus, the symbols themselves.
    2. As you work on each symbol, the students put the symbol (and only the symbol) on one side of a small card and the word on the other side. ImageAsk the students not to draw their associations (and try not to draw anything on the board). Visual memory will kick in much more powerfully if the students visualize the images for themselves. Using L1 might be a good idea at this stage with lower levels, because there’s quite a lot of teacher talk involved, and using the students’ L1 you can encourage the students to add detail to the images (‘an old dusty bottle in a pirate’s chest’ will work much better than ‘a bottle’ here). I provide ideas for associations below – these are the words that we used with my groups, but actually it might be better to ask the class for the words – this will make sure that the vocabulary is right for their level. The only difficulty that might arise is that you might not be able to instantly come up with visual associations for each symbol, but if this happens you can always fall back one the ideas you prepared beforehand.
  • i: Imagine a piece of cheese with i:-shaped holes ɪ If you circle it, it becomes a pig’s snout
    ʊ Turn it upside down and it becomes two legs, each one with a foot u: A moon. The dots are two stars.
    e an egg ə this is a picture of a relaxed half-open mouth saying this sound!
    a flamingo
    ɜ: bird
    third (ɜ: looks like 3)
    ɔ: A very unhappy smiley face which is Lord of the rings who’s lost the ring.
    æ an apple ʌ An umbrella
    A cup
    ɑ: a tongue
    a bulging arm? 
    ɒ A hot frying pan
    p a pen
    a pillowa page in a booka price tag?
    b A bottle
    A bag
    t Complete it to an upside town number ‘2’
    time (two hands of a clock)
    to type (with a finger)
    a talon
    (with a spade)a dalek! 😀
    f Complete it to a 4
    The index finger
    v vote
    θ A thumb or a theatre (the rod is the stage)
    or this could be the picture of the mouth when it’s saying θ
    ð A pointing finger: ‘this’
    A leather bag
    m moustache
    n draw letter nine over it
    ŋ a long ‘n’ h A house (with a chimney)
    ʧ A chair turned upside down
    A chicken?
    ʤ A jar of jam (ʒ is the jar, and d is a spoon to eat it with)
    k Add an oval at the top and it becomes a key
    A cow (with horns)
    g  glasses
    s Complete it to a six
    A snake
    z Zorro
    a zip
    ʃ The heel of a shoe ʒ A television (TV-set) with an antenna
    l a leg r a piece of rope
    the stalk of a rose
    w a wave
    add a femail head -> a wife
    add two heads – twins
    or maybe windscreen wipers?
    j A bottle of jogurt (the dot is the cap)
  • Stage 3
    The students revise the 12 cards they’ve just written. They start with the words and try to remember the symbol. Having revised all 12 cards, they revise in the opposite direction: from the symbol to the word. Repeat this 3 times.
    Board words for the next stage while they’re revising (unless you’ve got print outs) – fast finishers can go on to stage 4.
  • Stage 4 – board or print out some transcriptions for the students to read, e.g.
    aɪ ɪər iːt et tiː tɔɪ eɪt ˈtuː ɪt teəz
    teɪk tʊk keɪk kʌt kʊk ˈkɪk tɪk keə kaʊ kiː kæt kɒt
    puːl pəʊl pɔːl piːl pɪl pæl paɪl peɪl pəʊl pɜːl
    [option 1] S/s read phonemic transcriptions individually while T circulates and helps. After that, in pairs, one student reads one word and the second guesses which one this was.
    [option 2] Work as a whole class. Each time, allow 5 seconds thinking time and then either signal with your hands that you want the whole group to pronounce the word or nominate someone.
  • Stage 5 – Repeat the procedure for another 12  sounds; provide more reading practice
    (This could be turned into a game: challenge the students to brainstorm words that contain 2-4 specific consonants (e.g. only p and l) and any vowels; each student writes down the phonemic transcriptions; after 5 minutes regroups the pairs – the students in each pair challenge each other to decipher the transcriptions).
  • Stage 6 – Repeat the procedure for the remaining symbols.
    For Homework:
  • Ask the students to revise the cards for four days. This won’t take them longer than 5 minutes a day, and yet this is essential because this is the way memory works. Quiz them in the next class.
  • If you have something like a group blog, you could share links to these resources:
    An interactive phonemic chart:
    Videos for each sound (the can look closely at the mouth + repeat words after the speaker)
  • Print out these texts written in the phonemic script for the students to practice.
  • Here are some more web resources that I found, but most of them were above the level of my false beginner students.
  • Also, you could organize a tongue twister competition using Voxopop is a free tool that allows you to create ‘discussion threads’ – students can record messages and add them to the thread. As the site shows the duration of each message, it’s easy to set a competition: the student with the shortest message that contains no mistakes is the winner!
    Here’s what a discussion looks like: Discussion » The story of three free fleas. And here are some tongue twisters to practice problematic sound pairs:

Please feel free to comment! All suggestions how to improve this lesson /ideas for additional games or activities for homework and links to resources are highly appreciated – as always.

Here’s a lesson plan to teach students of Intermediate level onwards some informal spoken expressions.

The lesson is based on the pilot episode of Futurama.

Materials & preparation:

  • Futurama season 1 episode 1 and the equipment to play it in class
  • (optionally) some prizes for the students who cope with the main task
  • A print-out of the subtitles with information where you’ll need to pause the video
  • A print out of Task 1, Answers to Task 1 for each student (careful – unless your students know Russian you’ll need to adapt it! The task is to match English expressions with their Russian equivalents. You’ll either need to translate the expressions into your language or provide explanations in English. If you do, please share the file in the comments!)
  • (optionally) File Dictogloss for stage 9
  • If you want to do a revision session, print out and cut up a set of expressions and one dialogue opening for each pair of students

Time: approximately 80 minutes + optionally 20-40 minutes at a later date to revise the expressions

Lesson plan

Stage 1 Lead-in – to introduce the idea of formal and informal registers

Ask the students in what contexts they use English/ will use it in  future. Hopefully they’ll come up with both formal and informal contexts. Ask them how their English will change in those contexts (e.g. elicit ‘I’ll contact you’ and ‘I’ll get in touch with you/I’ll drop you a line.’) Say that the lesson is going to focus on more informal language.

Stage 2 Tell students a few characters’ names (e.g. Leela, Dr. Solberg, a robot, Fry) and elicit that you’re going to watch an episode of Futurama.

Stage 3 Say that the main character, Fry, isn’t enjoying his life.

Set the following questions:

What year is it?

What does Fry do?

What bad things happen to Fry in this short extract?

Play the first 2 minutes, elicit the answers. At least for the first … stages, don’t switch on the subtitles.

Stage 4 Hand out Task1

Students match the expressions with translations/explanations, then check in pairs. Before you hand out the answers, ask them

  • which expressions are very informal
  • which ones are offensive
  • which one is quite formal

Hand out the answers.

Stage 5 Tell s/s that one of the expressions was not in the episode and that at the end of the lesson they will need to hazard a guess which one it was. I teach at a secondary school, so at the end of the lesson s/s handed in slips with an expression and the ones who got it right got an A. Alternatively, you can come up with some prizes.

Stage 6 Students rewatch the first 2 minutes to see which of the expressions have already come up. After that, they continue to watch up to the line

00:03:49,840 –> 00:03:52,360

Cool, just like in Star Trek. Ow!

Stage 7 Explain that you’re going to stop the recording and the students will need to supply the next line out of the list of expressions that you handed out during stage 4. As you react to s/s’ suggestions, highlight which ones are possible in the context and which ones probably aren’t, but don’t say if the answer’s right. It’s a good idea push s/s to look for alternatives even after the correct answer has been supplied.

For this stage, it’s crucial that the subtitles are switched off.

Stage 8 For a while, students just watch ticking off the expressions – or you could set some comprehention question, e.g.:

Why does Fry get into the booth?

Stage 9 Dictogloss The aim of this activity is to highlight some features of informal speech, e.g. the abundance of adverbs like ‘really’, ‘just’, etc. It will also help s/s to incorporate some of the new expressions.

Set a comprehenstion question:

You’re going to watch a conversation between Leela and her employer. What does he want her to do?

Play the video from

00:09:30,360 –>

This is unacceptable,

up to

Life is good.

conduct feedback.

Now tell the students that they’re going to watch this dialogue again, after which they’ll work in pair to reconstruct the dialogue from memory.  While they watch, they’re allowed to write down up to 6 words. Allow up to 5 minutes for reconstruction (make sure each pair actually writes the dialogue down). After that, either project the file Dictogloss and elicit what’s wrong/missing or have a pair to write their dialogue up on the board for the class to edit. You’ll probably need to replay the video again for s/s to pick up all the missing bits.

Stage 10

Basically, from this moment on, s/s just watch the episode and tick off the remaining expressions. With my groups, we watched about 5 minutes without subtitles and then switched them on.

Stage 11 SpeakingAt the end, each student hands in the slips with the expression they think wasn’t in the episode. The ones who got it right are rewarded. There’ll probably be a lot of incorrect answers – read them out from s/s’ slips and ask the group to describe the moment from the episode when the expression was used (either as a class or in pairs + front-class feedback).

(Optional) Stage 12 Discussion

  • Do you agree that being forced to do the job you’re best at is ‘tough’?
  • What profession would you probably be assigned?
  • Is there anything that you do extremely well but hate doing?


For homework, I assigned watching several minutes of the episode and correcting all the mistakes in the srt file.

Alternatively, students can write a summary of the plot using as many of the new expressions as they can.


Revision session

Hand out dialogue openings and sets of expressions. S/s spread out the slips face up.

Ask s/s to continue the dialogue, using at least one expression on a slip in each line. As they say an expression, they place it under the opening, building up a dialogue skeleton. The objective is to use at least 10.

After they’ve finished, they dry run the dialogue again and finally each pair acts their dialogue out and the group votes which one was the best and which pair managed to use the expressions most naturally.

Note. I’ve tried this activity twice. The first time it was a complete flop and the second time it really worked (with a weaker group!), so I can say with certainty that you really have to make sure that students don’t just read out the slips but actually speak using the expressions on them.

Demonstrate the idea using a contrived partial dialogue (sth like ‘broke’ ‘Are you having me on?’). Pairs can compete in coming up with the most natural short dialogue incorporating these two expressions, before proceding with the main task.


I’d love to hear how this lesson went! Please drop me a line – what worked? What didn’t? What bits did you change? Hope to hear from you!