Posts Tagged ‘using the coursebook’

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

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

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

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

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

In the webinar Adrian


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching speaking strategies

Adrian went on to suggest some teaching activities:

Activities for noticing that the speaking strategies are there: 

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

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

3. Using strategies in communication

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

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

So what are some possible ways to make them stick?


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

Psychological preparation.

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


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

Very important 5 ____4____3____2____1 Not very important

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

Another example:

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

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

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


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

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

The general lesson plan is

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

A few tips:

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

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

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

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

We used the following dialogue from our coursebook:

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

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

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

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

Example 2

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


Example 3.

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

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

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


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

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


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

I’ve heard from two unrelated people today that they found my mind-maps posted a while ago useful. On the one hand, it’s great to hear that those notes are helping, but on the other just a word of caution: that post was written for a friend who’s doing a Delta Mod 1 course right now and the purpose was to share a strategy and a sample of notes that worked for me. It is in no way intended as ‘ultimate knowledge’ about the exam. I hope that people who liked those mind maps research past exam reports and create their own ones based on Cambridge guideline answers.

I am very enthusiastic about this particular way of organizing notes, though, not only because, for me, it is an incredible memory aid (provided that I recreate the maps and not just draw them once), but also because it creates a sense of clarity and really helps me to see structure in complicated data that is difficult to make sense of.

Here are a couple more of my Mod 1 mind maps. Again, I hope that they can be useful as models / for overall structure, but definitely no more than that. I can see now that the P2T3 mind map is slightly illogical, as the ‘what/how’ section seems to overlap with the ‘change’ section. Dividing the considerations into ‘people’-oriented and ‘backwards/forwards’-oriented helped me a lot, though, as the structure is simple enough to remember and use it when I glance over a coursebook page before a lesson, let alone sit down and put it all down in writing in ten minutes.

Please feel free to comment / correct / point out better ways to organize this material / post your own maps in the comments.


P2 T3 Sample mind map2

This was written back in September – I’ve been meaning to finish it, but never got down to writing up anything, so here goes.
The first week of post-Delta Module 2 teaching has gone by! I don’t think I’ve taught a single lesson that I would’ve done the same before the course.

  • I make sure I formulate a very specific aim for the lesson – a learning outcome – and keep it in my head while planning and teaching the lesson; I use it as the main basis for post-lesson reflection – you can’t reflect how well the lesson went if there’s nothing specific you wanted to achieve!
  • I don’t expect anything to magically happen anymore. For example, if I want the s/s to speak faster during a task repeated with less time given, I specifically ask them to try and speak faster and not leave out any information. If I want an A2 class of teens to ask me questions in English, I make a massive effort to teach them these questions, display them on walls in all classrooms we are sent to (3 so far) and stop the class to help reformulate & board whenever someone shouts out a question in Russian that they could’ve easily adapted from one of the questions on the wall.
  • As a result of trying to ensure things do happen, I’ve become extra slow. Trying to not let things go – stop and deal with them. No idea how bad it has become, how I could speed up and what the s/s think (yet).
  • I’ve become more frank with s/s (and also in general, for better or worse).
    Both in class – talking about stuff and making personal comments – and after the lesson, daring to bring up what happened in class and why things went the way they did.

I wanted to write a summary of new things I did/tried that week – but ended up writing up only the following procedure (I’ll write a separate blog post about two more interesting things that happened that week).

What Why
For a listening task, I asked the students to

  • (1) write questions for the listening passage (this I had done before); boarded some of their questions and asked the group to concentrate on the ones on the board.
  • (2) After the first listen + pair check, I asked the group which questions were answered (exactly a half of the questions on the board), ticked them, removed the rest from the board and then asked them to nominate a few more questions that were answered in the passage. S/s nominated another 4 or 5 qs.
  • (3) While s/s listened again, I noted down the times when sections relevant to each question started in the recording.
  • (4) While s/s were checking in pairs, I listened in to hear where there are multiple versions. During feedback I accepted all answers, pushing s/s for alternatives and boarding them, and then replayed the relevant sections for everyone to check.
Overall impression of the technique: it made the listening task more meaningful for s/s than just answering questions from the coursebook. Also it was more life-like: s/s approached the passage with questions in mind, and these were not ordered in the order they’d come up in the passage.The questions nominated after the 1st listen covered the passage in sufficient detail to thoroughly check understanding.Accepting all answers and replaying the relevant sections ensured that the weaker s/s heard the answers in the end. The weaker students are also helped by the boarded answers (stage (4) turns into a discrimination exercise).

Also, one of the sub-aims for this lesson was to revise question formation, focused on in the previous lessons.

I’ve tried this procedure a few times since then. A variation that might break s/s’ shyness could be to ask s/s to test their partners’ comprehension and then pool their questions (in this way it could also be used for a reading passage).

Benefits: This procedure could be used for authentic videos/articles – makes the teacher’s life much easier!

One pitfall I’ve run into: If the level of the audio text is not quite right, students might end up hearing some things they consider to be ‘obvious’ and thus not worth asking, and fail to come up with any new questions in (2). I guess in this case the teacher should provide the questions. The procedure worked well with a pre-intermediate group listening to an audio from a pre-intermediate coursebook, but broke down somewhat with a group of (self-critical) teens watching an authentic video.

A general reservation: this procedure is definitely more time-consuming than ‘going with the book.’