Mobile Mini Sagas


I’d like to thank Ursula, our first guest poster, for this very interesting lesson on using mobile phones in the classroom.

This is a lesson that enables the students to use their mobile phones in a useful way in the classroom to practise intelligible pronunciation and speaking in ‘chunks’.

Language Level:  Intermediate and higher (lower levels are possible, with simplified texts)

Time:  60 minutes

Activity:  Recording a short story on a mobile phone, listening to and writing down a story from a partner’s phone.

Skills:  Reading, speaking, listening and writing

Materials:  A selection of mini sagas, the students’ own mobile phones.

Optional warmer: Show a picture of Princess Diana and elicit who she is. Play an extract from one of her speeches (from 24-46 secs on this link works as a brief example).  Ask students what they notice about how she speaks (elicit lots of pauses, clear speaking).

Choose a selection of ‘mini sagas’ (stories with exactly 50 words). These from English File Upper Intermediate work well, and there are others online (some nice ones here). Take one story and pre-teach any potentially difficult words.

Give all the students a copy of your story and give them time to read it. Explain they are to listen to you reading it and mark where all the pauses are. Read it again and ask them to underline the stressed words. After feedback, ask the students to practise reading the story, incorporating all the pauses and stressed words.

Give each student a different mini saga.  Give them time to read it and think about and mark the pauses and stressed words.  They then record themselves on their mobile phones.

Students swop phones with a partner, listen and write down the story.  They then compare their written version with their partner’s original text, circling on it any words which weren’t clear or they misunderstood. They discuss and compare what they heard.

Each student then looks at their original text and the words their partner circled, and practises saying the words more clearly.  They then record themselves again on their phone.

The students keep their text and change to a different partner.  They swop phones and repeat the process, using a different colour pen to do the circling.  There should be fewer misunderstandings the second time around.


Spelling doesn’t have to mean Test


UPDATE: Very pleased to announce that this post won the British Council’s Blog of the Month Award for May.

Are bureaucrats dangerous?

I want to tell you about how I adapted my advanced students’ favourite spelling activity for lower levels –all the way down to beginner.  The original activity called Three in a Row is available free on Johanna Stirling’s spelling blog here.  The original version can be challenging – even for teachers. Just try thinking of ‘something dangerous’ with the spelling ‘eau.’  But the activity itself is great, which is why I created the lower level version.


Lower Level  ‘Three in a Row’

Time   45 minutes


  • The board with spelling topics is here. You’ll need 1 per four-six students. I recommend laminating them.
  • You will need 1 coloured pen and paper or a mini-whiteboard per team of 2.
  • For pre-intermediate students you can add vowel dice or cards.

Play   (these rules were created by my students)

  • Students play in teams of two or three with two teams per board.
  • One team chooses a topic square and then the other team chooses a word related to the topic.
  • Both teams try to spell the word without looking at each others’ paper.
  • The team which spells the word correctly wins the square and places a cross in the square. A draw means no one wins.
  • When a team gets three in a row they score 1 point.

*For pre-intermediate students you can add vowel dice to make it more challenging. The word they choose must also contain the vowel thrown.

*I have also played with three teams per board –just add an extra coloured pen.


Continue reading

Mystery Mini Dramas

Mini scripts
Mini scripts

An ideal activity  for both teachers and students who usually avoid drama in the classroom. Low-risk fun for all ages and levels.

Quick Version

  1. Pre-teach any vocabulary necessary.
  2. Tell students they need a very small piece of paper.
  3. Ask students to write AB down the side (see right).
  4. Dictate dialogue (students can write or draw pictures).
  5. Students practise dialogue in pairs.

Wednesday’s #eltchat session on paper light classrooms prompted me to write up this Iatefl session. You’ll find the detailed version of the activity below along with my take on Colin Granger’s dramatic delivery of the session.

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Arian Underhill on Jazz not Pron.

Adrian started by asking who always planned lessons, sometimes planned lessons, and never planned lessons. Not many hands went up for the last one! Then he asked if we followed the plan and if we didn’t did we still manage to give good lessons. The conclusion, ‘By planning and not following it you give good lessons!’

Improvisation is not planned and also the part of the lesson that is often not assessed and it is this that Adrian calls the ‘dark matter of teaching’.

He then suggested some rules for improvisation – and if you were wondering where the jazz comes in – this is it. As playing jazz includes improvisation, he argues that the same rules for jazz impro can be applied to teaching impro. Here they are:

  1. Skilful knowledge is required (but he warned against being too eager to teach).
  2. Accept the offer – respond to what the student says or does
  3. I can either accept the offer or refuse (keep on plan)
  4. If I accept it, is my response fresh or clichéd (habit – students soon notice habit)
  5. Listening -The queen of skills – I need to see/hear the offer
  6. The Ace – In order to hear it, I have to be available and present

Fun activity followed. In pairs, one person starts talking about a recent event (journey to IATEFL) and the other person throws in random, unconnected words which the first person has to then incorporate into their story.

He then demonstrated ways of using questions when collecting answers in feedback. This, he says, is where you can see improvisation happening. He’s promised to upload his slides of the questions so they should be on the demand high blog soon. There was real evidence of his demand high approach in action here, too. In a recent conversation Hugh Dellar said, ‘Going through the answers is when much of the real teaching can/ should occur’. I have to agree, but for that to happen, we have to do it well. So, thanks Adrian for some extra tools to help us on our way.

Unfortunately the session recording isn’t available on the IATEFL or BC site so no chance to watch it again but Adrian has written a paper on the subject and here is his post talk interview.

*** I almost forgot, something that also came up was the suggestion to video yourself and look for improvisations. The recording yourself was something which kept coming up in various sessions. I think I’ll start with audio and work up to video.

Lesson objectives not met = ineffective teacher?

I’m so sorry guys about missing out on our yearly ISI inspection. Really, I am ;). I read the report and recommendations though. The one which rings alarm bells is about each individual lesson plan including procedures to evaluate students’ progress. Does this mean testing? Certainly sounds like more paperwork, less teaching. One of the reasons I left Adult Learning (state sector).

It gets worse. According to the report (my interpretation) if students achieve measurable objectives within a lesson, I can be assessed as an effective teacher. Really?  So, if all my students can use the present perfect or pronounce comfortable with three syllables rather than four by the end of the lesson, my performance will be deemed ok. Fortunately, those observing us have a more informed view of both teacher and student assessment. They know, as Donald Freeman pointed out in his recent talk, that learning as a direct cause of teaching is a myth. Our wonderful senior TT says she would prefer us to be spending time thinking about how to incorporate creative activities into our lessons rather than writing detailed plans. Continue reading

IATEFL Day 1: Trojan Horses and Mouth Gymnastics

Donald Freeman opened the conference with a thought provoking talk re-examining what he referred to as ‘myths’.

Myth 1:  Teaching directly causes learning.

Donald:  Teaching influences and provides opportunity for learning.

Myth 2:  The teacher is solely responsible for what happens in the classroom.

Donald:  When you teach you have to manage what you can’t control.

Myth 3:   Proficiency as a goal.

Donald:  Proficiency brings with it the Trojan horse of nativeness.

If you’d like to read an uncondensed version of his talk Lizzie Pinard has done a great job here or you can watch it here.

Roslyn Young’s workshop on using the silent way with advanced learners came with the promise of a practical class demonstration but unfortunately there wasn’t time in such a short session.  There is, we were promised, a video clip of her working with a class on the pronsci website.

While it’s unlikely that I’ll ever have the chance to use the silent way in its full form, charts and all, Roslyn’s methods for improving students’ pronunciation are definitely worth exploring. (Plenty of teaching aids and lessons are available on the pronsci downloads page.)

After teaching the room a few vowel sounds using the charts, she soon moved onto debunking the myth that blowing on paper helps students understand how the plosive /p/ is aspirated.  I have to admit that I’ve never had great success with that one.  Making the whole room stand up, she got us to feel where the air comes from when saying /p/.  The answer: somewhere around the pelvic area.

Next she compared learning a new language to learning a new sport.  Different languages have different articulatory settings and so students need to ‘feel’ their mouths, she says. By using what she calls ‘mouth gymnastics’ she trains students to use their muscles differently.

Roslyn argued that the listen and repeat model of drilling is flawed because by asking students to imitate they are using their ears and not their mouths. ‘They have to feel it.’  This does make sense.  I remember never being able to say the French /r/ sound until one day finding an explanation of what I had to do with my mouth to make the sound.  Further proof of this came in Luke Medding’s session when he was showing us how to imitate the Queen, which he did by showing us what to do with our mouths.

An added bonus was watching how deftly Roslyn used her fingers to aid pronunciation (ask me about the word ‘variety’).

I have to admit, teaching pronunciation has never been a strong point of mine to the point that I was once asked by an observer ‘Do you do pron?’  I put it down to lack of confidence in my own skill and knowledge and maybe because I’m also stress deaf. However, when presented with a pronunciation page on my return to work I have to say that compared to previous pron sessions, it rocked!  And the students loved my queen imitation. Thank you Roslyn and Luke.

My very brief summary of IATEFL 2015

Ignoring all advice (Jill, you were right) I tried to pack in as much as possible.

This is some of what I took away.

  • Teacher’s salaries should be quadrupled.’ (David Crystal a.k.a Papa Noel 2015)
  • Mouth gymnastics are good for improving pronunciation.
  • Spontaneity and improvisation in the classroom should be encouraged and reflected upon.
  • Teachers shouldn’t be the only ones asking questions.
  • Creativity and grammar are not mutually exclusive.
  • Textploitation is not an illegal activity.
  • Drama can be messy and messy can be good.
  • Pinterest activities have pedagogical value and look like the kind of thing my advanced students might like.
  • Self-publishing definitely has some appealing advantages over publishers.
  • Recording yourself seems to be a good idea.
  • The debate about native and non-native teachers continues (but seems to be slowly moving in the right direction)
  • Teaching might not directly cause learning but good teaching definitely has an impact.

On reflection my IATEFL seems to have focused on pronunciation and creativity. Individual posts and links to sessions will follow. Also, check out the new softer, stronger and longer Blog Roll.