Posts Tagged ‘using ICT for homework’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image source:

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

1. Watching short clips for fun

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

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

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

2. Using songs

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

Some ideas for tasks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

E.g. with the following video the learners could

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

4. Micro listening: focus on grammar

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Vox pop videos for word hunt or micro listening

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

I’ve found several sources of such videos:

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

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

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

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

6. Watching the video without the sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Authentic listening (and speaking) out of class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below I outline ten ideas for tasks based on TED talks

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


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

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

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

Mind map the talk

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

Intro lesson:

Choose a (short) TED talk.

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

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

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

Finally, the learners

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

A sample mind-map:


At home

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


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

Take notes using Cornell note-taking grid

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

Intro lesson

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

At home (instructions for the learners):

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

Follow-up lesson

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

Evaluate your level using a CEFR descriptor

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

At home 

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

Follow-up lesson

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

Notice and learn key lexis in the talk

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

Intro lesson

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

At home (instructions for the learners):

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

Follow-up lesson 

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

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

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

At home (instructions for the student):

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

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

Follow-up lesson:

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

Classroom alternative: 

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

Improve your listening and pronunciation by shadowing the speaker

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

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

Practice listening intensively with TubeQuizard

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

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



Follow-up lesson

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

Analyze the speaker’s accent using TubeChop

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Mark these pronunciation features on your paper:


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


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

Explore the talks on learning languages

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

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

Intro lesson:

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

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

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


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


Upd. Here’s one more option, suggested by Ron Morrain:
Read an article related to the topic before listening to the TED Talk. Discuss (in a group) the answers to some questions related to the topic before listening to the talk.

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

In this post I’m sharing with you TubeQuizarda new free Youtube-based service that makes it possible to (1) find Youtube videos that contain a large number of examples of target grammar and vocabulary and (2) automatically create listening quizzes that allow learners to practice catching this language in authentic speech. It also features a collection of over 80 ready-made Grammar for listeners and Pronunciation for listeners quizzes.

I’ll also

  • briefly explain the rationale behind the service and explain why I think listening practice belongs in grammar lessons
  • explain how to look for videos using the service and share some tips how to consistently incorporate receptive grammar practice into your course
  • share six key questions that I ask myself when deciding if a video that I found through this service will provide good input for my learners.

What are listening decoding skills and what do they have to do with grammar?

So to start with, if the term ‘listening decoding skills’ doesn’t sound familiar, here’s a quick recap. Listen to this short extract from an interview with Daniel Radcliffe (2 min 16 seconds to 2 min 39 seconds) and notice the way the words highlighted in the transcript are pronounced:

I’d rather know eight reason why you’re a terrible boyfriend.
Okay, I can do…
We don’t have to do eight.
I was going to say eight is like… I want to give myself somewhere to go in the public’s
estimation like… I can come up with a few.

You could notice that can was pronounced very close to /kn/, was to /wz/ and don’t lost the /t/ at the end. According to research, these and other features or real life pronunciation (very weak pronunciation of the schwa in functional words, the loss of /t/ at the end of a word, etc) tend to make it very difficult for the learners to catch –decode – the words that contain them. I myself discovered well past reaching C2 level of English that what I wasn’t catching in British and American series were very ‘basic’ words like ‘cn’ (can) and ‘thz’ (there’s), ‘ut’ (out) and ‘dosy’ (does he). What is more, not only are these features challenging, they’re extremely frequent – for example, it is difficult to think of a grammar topic at A2 – B2 levels that isn’t associated with one of these features. For instance, regular verbs in 2nd and 3rd form lose ‘-ed’ ending, past continuous contains weakly pronounced ‘was’ and ‘were’, and so on and so forth.

How to make sure the learners can catch these words despite their pronunciation? Awareness raising is one important step, but it’s not enough because decoding these pronunciation features in real time is a skill that needs to be practiced. The books on teaching listening (notably, Listening in the Language Classroom by John Field and the Real Lives Real Listening series by Sheila Thorn) make a strong point that learners need intensive decoding practice, i.e. short exercises during which they transcribe decontextualized phrases that contain the same feature. My own and my learners’ experience convinced me that intensive practice is indeed extremely efficient – the learners report that they feel progress after decoding about a dozen instances.

This is why I feel rather strongly that whenever we cover a grammar feature with my learners, I really ought to give them a chance to listen to this grammar feature in authentic speech, focus on the way it’s pronounced and then practice decoding this feature.

Basic functionality of TubeQuizard

Now, what material can I use to give my learners listening decoding exercises targeting features of grammar? John Field recommends simply reading out sentences for the learners to transcribe, but that doesn’t really work with my learners because they generally understand my accent too well. Also, the coursebooks that I use don’t feature any listening decoding tasks (although there’s at least one coursebook that does – check out Nagivate!) This is why about three years ago I started creating intensive listening decoding quizzes from scratch using free audio editing tools like Audacity to locate and cut out 2-5 second extracts with target language. As you can imagine, those first listening decoding exercises took me ages to create.

Around that time Kirill Sukhomlin, a software developer at my company, offered to help me automate this work. What followed was almost three years of collaboration that resulted in a service that we dubbed TubeQuizard. Below is a video demonstrating its basic functionality: looking for words and expressions in Youtube subs. You’ll notice that our service is similar in concept to a variety of other services out there:

  • Ted Corpus Search engine, which searches for words and expressions in TED videos (both on and on TED youtube channel);
  • YouGlish, which searches for words and expressions in Youtube subs;
  •, which  searches for words and expressions in popular TV series.

What I am lacking in all those services is the ability to exploit them for listening work by looking more than one word / expression at a time and creating listening gap-fills.

So as you will see in the video, TubeQuizard allows one to look for and play

  • individual words, e.g. someone saying awesome
  • expressions, e.g. I’m not sure 
  • alternatives, e.g. someone saying awesome or amazing
  • any word using * as a wildcard, e.g. a * of will return a whole range of expressions, like ‘a lot of‘, ‘a bit of‘, etc.

You can also tick the ‘Create a quiz’ box to generate a listening gap-fill that will look something like this:


Looking for examples of grammar structures using TubeQuizard

Combining alternatives and wildcards one can find a variety of grammar structures. For example, the following search will return lots of examples of questions in present simple: (do|does) (you|they|I|he|she|it|we) (want|mean|know|think). However, in my experience new users find it quite difficult to formulate such searches, so we’ve been working on filters – click on ‘Grammar filters’ under the search field to pick a grammar structure you’d like to find. Just like in the example above with present simple questions, we use lists of top frequency vocabulary for the filters, so the resulting quizzes can be meaningfully attempted even by lower level learners (I normally start at A2).


Incorporating focus on decoding grammar into your teaching using TubeQuizard

So now that I can look for examples of grammar features, what can I do with them? I think there are at least three options:

Option 1.

Supplement regular video-based activities (e.g. video-based discussions) with a focus on decoding skills (either in class or done for homework). In order to make this easier to do, we’ve created a feature that can be accessed under the Train with your video tab. If you have a subtitled Youtube video, insert a URL and we’ll automatically run it through all our filters and generate the quizzes for you. I always check one of the quizzes to make sure that the subs are in sync with the video. Below is a video that demonstrate this functionality – you can check out these quizzes here.

Just in case you don’t know how to look for subtitled videos on Youtube: run your search, then click on ‘Filters’ right above your search results, choose ‘Subtitles/CC’.


Option 2.

Provide the learners with fully decontextualized practice of target grammar – i.e. during a lesson on, say, past simple, get the learners to spend around five minutes doing a video-based gapfill without working with the videos in any other way. It’s true that one has to think twice before doing decontextualized work, but I think there’s a case for using this type of exercise provided that it’s kept brief and provided that the teacher uses it to encourage the learners to notice the features of pronunciation associated with the grammar structure – in this case, elision of the /d/ and /t/ sounds at the end of the verbs.

Option 3.

Find a video that contains a lot of instances of target grammar and build a whole lesson around the video. This is the most time-consuming option and it’s rather tricky because, as Chris Jones rightfully pointed out on twitter, a random video would not always engage the learners.

To make it less time-consuming to find the right video, we’ve implemented a few filters, accessible under the channel tub. You can specify the topic, e.g. Business / Entertainment / Films (trailers) / News, etc. You can also look for short videos and specify a minimum number of instances of the grammar structure in the video. For example, in the screen cast below I’m looking for videos that

  • contain at least five instances of modals (can|could|should|must) * and
  • are no longer than 3 minutes

Some key lessons I’ve learnt about choosing the videos and working them

A while ago I posted a lesson plan based around the video that I found in the screen cast above. I think it took me less than 5 minutes to find the video – although creating the lesson plan itself was a lot more time-consuming. The lesson was based on the following video of a speaker talking about the features of his favourite mobile browser. It went really well with my learners (and the follow-up which allowed them to talk about technology that they can’t stand worked even better :)).

Generally, I’ve been using a lot of video-based activities lately, now that I can easily find video snippets that exemplify the language that I want to target. Below are six key questions that I ask myself when planning a video-based lesson.

1. Does the video that I’ve found provide a useful model for a task? In other words, are the speakers doing something that my learners might want to do?

The video above was a useful model for my learners who sometimes need to explain why they like / chose to use a certain technology.

2. Would the challenge presented by the video lie in the features of pronunciation or in the language used in the video? In other words, would the learners have trouble reading the transcript?

If the video contains too much vocabulary and grammar structures above the learners’ level, it won’t be appropriate. Unfortunately, with lower levels this eliminates most Educational videos.

3. Is the speakers’ accent clear enough for my learners to cope with it?

This is based entirely on intuition and experience. As a rough pointer, in my experience Pre-Intermediate learners need a video like the one above: one speaker talking extremely clearly, preferably filmed in a studio. B1-B1+ learners will need something a bit less well-articulated, but still something that generally sounds very clear to me, like this video. I feel that the majority of talks on channels like Talks at Google and TED Talks fall under this category. For levels B2 and higher, it actually becomes rather difficult to find videos that will be challenging for them to transcribe because most talks and interviews are too clear. The video in this post and this interview with Elon Musk are good examples of the level that was right for my B2 – C1 students. Also, the videos in the Entertainment and Films categories tend to be quite challenging.

4. Is the grammar feature that I want to explore through the video essential for the task that is suggested by the video?

For the video in the example above, the answer was yes, modals are key to talking about the features of the browser.

5. What other language features in the video are key to the task?

The video above contains a lot of expressions for listing – key to enumerating a number features, so we focused on this language too.

6. What scaffolding will the learners need?

Here are my top tips here.

First, the beginning of the video is crucial. Often that’s where the speakers set the context and explain what the video is about, and if the learners don’t get these few sentences, they will be lost and won’t cope with the gist task. Unfortunately, the first sentences are also the most challenging, because the learners haven’t got used to the speaker’s accent yet. Possible task types:

  • give the learners the print-out of the first few sentences with gaps, to listen and fill in before watching the video
  • scramble the sentences – the learners unscramble and then listen and check. To make it less challenging, don’t scramble into individual words – keep chunks, e.g. 
    hi / one of the / I’m / my name is Leland / user experience designers on Android
  • get the learners to transcribe the sentence

Second, what comprehension tasks can I give to the learners? I normally try to replicate the real life experience – i.e. I don’t give the learners any questions in advance. Instead, they watch the beginning, predict what they will see and then check their predictions.

Third, what scaffolding do they need with the meaning, form and pronunciation of target grammar? I won’t go into meaning and form here, but I’d like to comment on pronunciation. As I pointed out before, I feel that these authentic videos provide me with a crucial opportunity to get the learners to notice what sounds are missing from the natural pronunciation of target grammar and train catching them in real life. On the other hand, I’ve observed a good number of lessons and I notice that a lot of teachers tend to scrap pronunciation work altogether. So my top tip is to make sure that there is focus on pronunciation, and also that the learners do a listening decoding quiz during which they tell you what target language sounds like in authentic speech. I also focus on pronunciation of any other useful language that we explore. In this lesson, we were looking at expressions for listing, like one of the things I like / another thing I like / the last thing I like this language naturally prompted focus on sentence stress.


Phew, I wonder if this was the longest post on this blog? I do hope that other teachers and learners of English find this service useful. Let me know what you think I myself can play with it for hours on end and have learnt an incredible lot about English discourse, the use of lexis, pronunciation and what not. And I can’t express how grateful I am to Kirill who has invested hundreds of hours of his free time into creating this tool.

I might write more posts about how I’ve been using the service in the next few weeks. I’ll also be doing a workshop for IATEFL Business English Special Interest Group on 10 December about the ways I’ve used it with Business English learners. If you’re interested, you’re very welcome to join!

Hey all,

I’m preparing a session on using technology in ELT and I wanted to ask my fellow English teachers what technology you use on a daily basis. The variety of tools and services out there is absolutely daunting, and I wonder which ones you find useful across a broad range of topics, levels, groups and learners, and which resources you often recommend to your learners.


Here’s my current list of top tools:

  • A file sharing  service (I use dropbox) to share all kinds of files with the learners. I have a dedicated folder for every group and basically upload everything that we’ve used (audios, videos, presentations, the documents that were created in class and so on) to that folder for them to access at home or on the go (all documents are automatically synchronized and accessible from any device anywhere). The learners occasionally upload there their homework, e.g. audio recordings.
  • A way to share links and get in touch with the learners out of class. I teach in company, so I use instant messaging, since all my learners have Skype accounts. So I create a Skype chat for every group – it’s used to remind the learners of the homework, share useful links related to the topic of the lesson, and so on. The learners use it to ask occasional questions, post their writing homework there before class, so I can print it out and come to the next class with marked assignments. As an alternative with teens, I used social media (when I was teaching groups in which all learners had an account) – this did wonders to their motivation to do writing assignments. Not sure what I’d use with learners who don’t all have accounts on the same service.
  • Microsoft Excel to maintain a log of learners’ emerging language / language feedback and to generate revision cards.
  • Google image search to look for pictures. Occasionally, Windows Snipping tool to instantly copy those images. Microsoft Power Point to show those images in class.
  • Youtube videos. My own tool Hydra to look for youtube videos with target topics / grammar / lexis (unfortunately, it’s not working properlyl at the moment) and as a corpus of spoken English when questions about usage arise in class.
  • Online dictionaries, especially Oxford Learners’ Dictionaries to help write definitions for worksheets. A collocations dictionary to check my own writing and to show the learners how their word choices could be improved.
  • A laptop to have access to all of that in class.
  • My wordpress and twitter feeds and especially Teaching English – British Council web page to get new teaching ideas.

When I was teaching teens, I also used to use

(This is all that came to mind, but if I think of more, I’ll update the post.)

So, could you possibly share your favourite tools that you would recommend to teachers who are starting out?

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!

Memes – by analogy with genes – transmit information, carry cultural ideas, symbols or practices. They self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures. In her highly dynamic session, Anastasia Fetisova made a very strong case that memes can be a highly motivating teaching tool.

Possible uses of memes:

  • Introduce vocabulary / slang through memes. Students will be motivated to ‘crack’ the meme in order to get the pun!
  • Introduce grammar
  • Explore cultural norms – e.g. the fact that they didn’t understand this picture, set Anastasia’s students on a webquest
  • To spark discussion – e.g. on internet addition
  • Get the students to create their own memes – to try out language (they’ll do lots of editing) or to give you feedback in a fun way

Sources: and are teacher and student friendly

You can also create them using online meme makers, e.g. using keepcalm-o-matic (also teacher-friendly).

 Hit meme types

  • One doesn’t simply – e.g. to introduce class rules.
  • What I really do  is a great springboard for discussing pros and cons of different careers.
  • Chemistry cat – could great for ESP
  • Terrible teacher – to look at ourselves from a different perspective. =)

A very inspiring session!

Zhenya shared his tips for running an online course. He has done this twice, running a writing course called My First Preprint (online) at Higher School of Economics Academic Writing Center.

Course description:

  • Completely online (first delivered through wiziq, but then they switched to anymeeting, which is free of charge), group size: 20 s/s
  • Learning by doing – working and re-working their own texts. A product-oriented course
  • Very intensive with strict schedules (writing a paper within a 3-month period – a challenge, but a manageable one)
  • Peer review
  • ‘One size fits all’ approach (people from a range of fields, e.g. economics, logic, linguistics)

Technology stack (all free of charge):

  • Anymeeting to deliver webinars
  • Skype for one-to-one meetings and group discussions for peer feedback
  • Schoology – a platform where they created virtual classes – discussions, threads, materials. Zhenya recommends creating an account because this will allow you to transfer all your materials to another course.

Structure of the course

Six 180-minute webinars – each covering one part of a paper (Intro/literature overview / methodology & results / findings / … ), led by two different tutors – interlaid with homework done through schoology. Between webinars, 1-2-1 proofreading sessions with tutors or native speakers, distant proofreading, online peer correction with a tutor.

Potential problems and some tips

Creating webinars:

  • Webinar preparation is time consuming (It took Zhenya up to 4 hours to prepare a one-hour class)
  • Requires clear structure. Plan well ahead and know what you’re doing – you can’t ‘go with your students’, since they can’t even see you
  • Show consistency – let each webinar follow the same structure, because you’re also educating s/s to work with you
  • Should be entertaining! Zhenya’s rule of thumb is ~1 slide per minute. To add interactivity, get the s/s to type their answers in the chat box – works a lot better than online converstation because headsets normally don’t work, there’s echo etc

For a successful online course:

  • To avoid high drop-out rates, make the structure of the course crystal clear. S/s need to know what happens when, what the rules for attendance are, etc.
    Start each webinar by reminding what has been covered, when you meet next, etc
    Send the s/s a reminder 3 days before each deadline, so that they don’t lose track and don’t start procrastinating. On Zhenya Bakin’s course drop-out rate was ~35%
  • Be prepared to support s/s with technology – they’ll have technology issues, be ready to come up with tips what to do
  • Show enthusiasm. Online teaching is like fairies: they die if you don’t believe in them. Give people support.

Check out Zhenya’s group and his website or email him at

In the previous post  I wrote about some difficulties I’ve been facing in tailoring Business English courses to the needs of my students, who are IT professionals. As I mentioned there, the main problem is that it’s difficult to pinpoint what language is used in workplace communication in IT but under-represented in BE coursebooks.

To address that issue, I started using, a web concordancing tool to retrieve concordance lines from, the main forum for IT specialists. Therefore all examples here can only be directly used with IT groups, but there are professional forums for almost every profession out there, so I hope that this might be useful in other contexts too. (If you clicked the link and the tool is not loading, just check it out a bit later: it is down sometimes, but when it stops working it generally goes back online in a few hours).

concordanceI’ve been using the forum for three weeks now and lessons that use this material seem to be giving my students exactly the language they need. Students especially at lower levels find this very motivating. It’s also been a lot of fun for me, because I enjoy exploring the language so much.

So far I’ve used the tool and the forum to

  • follow up on lexical and grammatical areas presented in the coursebook by exploring how it’s used on the forum
  • focus on grammar structures the students tend to confuse (e.g. should, must, have to and be supposed to) by supplying them with lots of examples from the forum and asking them to figure out the difference in meaning
  • provide the group with grammar drills contrasting two or more structures
  • look for discussion topics that would appeal to my students

Here are some examples.

Vocabulary area >>>>> specific vocabulary, patterns and contexts

Here is an example of an area we looked at with a pre-intermediate group. With the coursebook we’d looked at the topic of change: we started off by looking at some simple verbs like fall and rise, matching them with graphs and discussing the changes the students have noticed in the amount of traffic, prices and so on in the past ten years.

After that I elicited some modifiers (e.g. considerably and slightly, which had come up in on-the-spot feedback) and focused the group at the  word ‘dramatic’. We looked at concordance lines from stackoverflow and noticed the expressions containing the word ‘dramatic’ in the first four lines (a dramatic speed difference between … and; might be causing the dramatic increase in time; a dramatic increase in server response time).










The students underlined the expressions in the remaining lines (I monitored encouraging them to look both to the left and to the right of the word) and then we organized these expressions into a table (initially working as a whole group, and then the students completed their tables individually):


Finally, the students

  • tried to reproduce their tables from memory – when they were stuck, I referred them back to the worksheet with lines
  • wrote two or three examples from their own professional experience using target expressions and then shared those expressions in a mingling activity without looking at their notes
  • for homework, wrote a few more examples and emailed them to me.

Another search (e.g. ‘cause [a|an] [*] increase‘) retrieves other adjectives commonly used in this context.

The big advantage I see here is that all grammar and vocabulary associated with the situation comes up. A similar search on an accounting forum ( might well return the same verbs used with ‘dramatic’, but there’s no question that the last column will be different. I think that that is the vocabulary this language needs to be practiced on (to me this looks much more natural and useful than describing graphs, a task this language is practiced on in quite a few BE coursebooks – unless the students do need to describe graphs).

Chunks containing a structure >>>>> Patterns and contexts

We tried the same procedure with B1 and B2 groups with the chunk ‘it’s supposed to’. Again, it is clear from the concordance lines that there are distinct recurring patterns.


We ended up with the following table:





Again, after the students underlined expressions in the concordance lines, organized them into a table and reproduced the table, they shared a few examples from their work experience – this time talking about situations when something wasn’t working the way it was supposed to and sharing what this led to and how they overcame the problem.

Grammar presentation: topics and texts

Because webcorp allows pattern matching, it can be easily used to find forum threads that contain a lot of examples of a specific grammar point. As on forums each page is centred around just one question, it might be possible to choose a general enough question, centre the lesson around that topic and use the forum thread for grammar presentation and/or grammar exercises.

For instance, this search [was|were|am|are|is|be|being|been] [*]ed returned several pages that have more than 10 instances of the passive with regular verbs (the question is too technical to centre a lesson around, but so I’d use this page for follow-up exercises).


On stackoverflow it’s also possible to search for questions that received a lot of replies and are thus clearly appealing to wide audience: returns all topics with 100 to 1000 replies.

There are quite a few questions there that are general enough and can be used as a warmer or a lesson topic and they might naturally call for certain grammar, which will be evident from the replies.

For instance, here’s a topic in which people share ‘the toughest bugs they’ve ever found and fixed’.  This particular page features dozens of instances of ‘would’ used for past repeated action:


Grammar drills 

I’ve also used concordance lines with an elementary group, simply to give them some practice in using correct auxiliaries (we focussed on ‘are’ and ‘do’). The group told me that they go to the forum and read it using google translate, and they were clearly motivated because they understood quite a few lines. Also, the task exposed the students to some very relevant vocabulary. In the next few weeks I hope to get the students to produce such exercises for themselves and do them autonomously.



If you teach in an IT company and would like to use or adapt some of these materials, here is a Microsoft Office document with these concordance lines and tables.

Some tips

I’ve found it useful to

  • look for the typical patterns containing target language before the lesson, using the ‘show collocations’ option at the bottom of the page and then running a few more searches to see how typical these patterns are
  • don’t forget to delete the http:// part of the url when you specify the site to search; use the word filter if the word/structure you’re looking for comes up in someone’s signature on every page they comment on – this will exclude those pages (e.g. in the following search, the pages containing the word ‘loud’ will be filtered out).
  • retrieve concordance lines a day or two before the lesson as webcorp is sometimes down for a few hours
  • edit the lines: make sure that all typical patterns are represented with enough examples; proofread for mistakes in target language
  • use pattern matching and keep a record of the queries.  Here are some sample queries:
    [have|has] [[*]ed|known|done|seen|been] – to retrieve examples of present perfect
    [was|were|am|are|is|be|being|been] [*]ed – passive with regular verbs
    [am|is|are|was|were] [*]ing –
    continuous tenses

Some issues

Ideally what I’d like to be able to do is use in my setting the approach suggested by Michael Handford in his book The Language of Business Meetings. He analyzed 64 business English meetings from Cambridge and Nottingham Spoken Business English Corpus by

  • identifying and categorizing potentially important linguistic features, that is, words and clusters that are more frequent in business meetings than in other contexts (e.g. we’ve, customer, if, which; and then; you know, sort of, the rest of it)
  • understand the specific meaning and use of those items in their contexts (he finds that chunks have varying meaning, depending on who’s using them and the context, e.g. that in external meetings  you have to rarely expresses any sense of obligation, ‘with speakers instead offering non-face-threatening and sometimes general advice, as in Mm. what you have to do is get the paper and twist it round)
  • infer what discursive practices they realise and what goals they serve (e.g. and then is used for linking; sort of, for softening)
  • interpret what communicative activities are enacted through these linguistic features (page 39)

Right now I’ve got little idea how to find language that features more prominently in IT related communication and therefore need to be focussed on as a supplement to working with the coursebook, and the task does seem daunting. Running searches and looking for recurring structures on specific pages is a lot of fun, but it’s unlikely to produce comprehensive results; I’m going to look into WordSmith Tools but I don’t expect it will be easy to figure out how to use it with a huge forum, which is not a neatly cleaned up corpus.

Also, while some chunks clearly tend to occur in patterns, others don’t. This makes it even more time-consuming to look for language that can be explored in this way.

Over to you. It would be great to hear some other ideas how to use webcorp and forums in teaching. I’d be also greatful for pointers to other useful tools, as well as for suggestions what other chunks and lexical areas to explore and how to approach this in a more systematic way.

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.



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.