Saving time on lesson plans

Language teachers know that often the best lesson plans are those they develop themselves.  Course books are fine used in moderation, and there is a wealth of ready-made lesson plans that can be found all over the Internet.  But nearly everything needs at least some tweaking, if not a full scale adaptation if its going to suit the personality of the trainer and the specific needs of the learner.

But the big issue is time.  With all the best of intentions its not easy to set aside time to develop new materials.  This is where automated text analysis tools come in handy, and can save you time when creating reading comprehension activities.  One such example is  They are newly out of beta, and it looks like there are still a few wrinkles that need ironing out, but it’s well worth a try.  Although it is not possible to upload your own text for analysis, there is an extensive database of recent news articles from a variety of sources, and it is fairly easy to find something topical and appropriate.

The process is quick and easy:

  1. Choose your article and level.
  2. Highlight difficult or topical vocabulary (just select the number of words, Lingle highlights a list automatically, which you can save).
  3. Automatically create exercises (grammar and vocabulary gapfills, word matching, word ordering, sentence ordering, or free text options where you can invent your own exercise).
  4. Create a glossary for difficult or topical words. The list is automatically populated with definitions from one of two online dictionaries, or you can add your own.
  5. Create a usage list – a list of sentences with the focus vocabulary used in context (taken from the Lingle corpus – unfortunately the sentences are not always especially relevant, and sometimes too short to give sufficient context).

All of these tools are fairly customiseable, and if you you don’t like any of the words or expressions selected automatically for the gapfill exercises you can delete them and add your own with a little extra effort.

The goal of Lingle is to serve as a platform where you can build up your own collection of lessons, that your students can actually access and use online, so it lends itself well to creating self-access homework exercises.  It is also easy to print .pdfs. But as with any automated tool, you may want to do some cutting, pasting and tweaking before you’re entirely satisfied with the result.  As their user base increases the tool is only going to improve, and at 40€ for a year’s subscription it’s not bad value, and they have a free 30-day trial to take it for a spin.

Lingle lesson plan screenshot

photo credit: blisschan cc

First language class adapted for live online teaching

To teachers and students who are new to live online language learning, I often say that anything you can imagine doing in a real classroom, you can also do in a Virtual Learning Environment, or virtual classroom – except better!  Well, perhaps a slight exaggeration, but it is quite true that there is no shortage of ideas for adapting language teaching material to the online environment.

When it comes to ideas for language teaching, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Most language teaching activities and methods are just adaptations of old favourites that have been circulated in various incarnations for years, and are easily personalised with a tweak here and there. However, teaching live online does require a little originality to adapt activities to the virtual environment.

So over a few blog posts we’re going to look at some of the classic favourites for first classes, and see how we might adapt them to a virtual learning environment.

Wordling Me.

I think I am indebted to Karenne Sylvester for this idea, and I have used it for many first classes.

Object: introducing the teacher
Language input: practicing various question forms
Skills input: oral fluency

Think of about 15 words or short phrases that illustrate an aspect of your life. For example, you may choose « peanuts », « 14 » and « Somerset Maugham », if you happen to be allergic to peanuts, you have been in your present job for 14 years, and Somerset Maugham is your favourite short story writer.

For best visual effect in a virtual classroom, make a Wordle of your list of words/phrases. Remember that to ensure that words belonging to the same phrase don’t get separated, you need to connect them with a tilde (~). Once the wordle has been created you can modify it to your liking using the font, layout and colour menus. Although it is possible to save a wordle to a public gallery with a link, I generally find it easier to create a .pdf using the print menu, or simply to make a screenshot. Once you have your image saved somewhere convenient for easy access, you can easily upload it to whatever virtual classroom you are using, or share it over Skype or by E-mail. A recent example of my own is at the top of this post.

Timesaver tip:

With visuals I know I am going to use again, I generally insert them into a powerpoint that I can add other materials to for a ready made class. It’s great to be able to upload all the materials you need in one go, rather than having to create individual slides each time you prepare for a class.

Once you have introduced the task, your student needs to begin asking you questions until they manage to elicit from you the exact answer. Take « peanuts », for example:

Student: Do you like peanuts?
Teacher: No. (It generally takes a few tries before they realise that of course closed questions are not going to get them anywhere)
Student: Hmmm. What is your favourite food?
Teacher: Pizza.
Student: OK, what did you have for breakfast?
Teacher: Cereal. (At this point you might offer a clue – « Actually, I really don’t like peanuts).
Student: Oh, OK. What food don’t you like.
Teacher: Brussels sprouts 🙂
Student: Or, what food are you allergic to?
Teacher: Peanuts!

The above example conversation would be for Intermediate level students and above, but the exercise can be adapted to any level, and you can decide as the teacher what level of accuracy you are shooting for.

The exercise easily leads into work on the grammar of question forms, so if your wordle is already in a powerpoint you can just add slides with your question forms exercises and you have a reusable class all ready to go.
It can also be extended into an oral fluency exercise by asking the students to create their own list of words or phrases, and having their partner question them in the same way.

5 news sites for authentic language-learning

There is no end to language-learning possibilities that are available to us through the Internet news media.  Things might be getting dire for newspaper companies, but the general appetite for current affairs continues to encourage the launching of news sites of every flavour.  Here are five you might like to try, as a teacher or a learner, each with a practical suggestion for a learning activity.  The focus is on learning English, but the same ideas can be applied to other languages.


1. Google News Timeline is still fairly new and has loads of potential for language learning to be discovered.  It’s very configurable.  You can set it up for whatever newspapers, magazines, blogs etc. you prefer to focus on.  Specific search queries are also possible.  Type in the query « Ford » for example, and you can trace back articles and events related to the carmaker for as many years as you care to go.

Idea. For a  self-access activity, have learners research the main headlines on the day of their birth, the day of their parents’ birth, their grandparents’ etc. (if they know it).  Interesting conversations ensue about what was happening in the world the day they arrived, leading into how things have changed since. (Level: Pre-intermediate and above)

We have also looked at how to set up Google News for language-learning.

2. BBC Learning English has a bbc-words-in-the-news1vast range of English-learning tools that are so well known that they hardly need mentioning here.  Although have you come across the BBC World Service « Words in the News »?  It’s primarily set up for listening and vocabulary activities, but each report contains a link to a corresponding print article that is different to the audio report.  This provides a wealth of possibilities for integrating reading and listening: predictive activities, gap fills, writing summaries.  They put the prescribed vocabulary to be studied in bold – not ideal as it doesn’t allow much latitude for tailoring to your learners’ particular needs.  Some adaptation is usually required.

Idea. Use the prescribed vocabulary list as a predictive lead-in activity. (Level: Pre-intermediate and above)

3. Breaking News English
is a language-learning site, not a news site.  It has been a great standby for teachers on those days where all the best intentions of preparing a super lesson go out the window and you need something ready-made.   Breaking News English takes interesting news articles from a variety of sources and subjects, adds language points, discussion ideas and other activities, and puts them all together in an easily downloadable and copiable format.  Just what you were looking for, right?

Idea. Running out of time to prepare lessons is hard to predict, but if you can see ahead of time that you’re going to be running, E-mail the article you choose to your learners before the session.  It avoids the problem of extended reading in class feeling like « down time », and encourages learners to read in their own time for pleasure.  This saves time, gives the learners confidence and allows you to get more juice out of the article during the session. (Level: Pre-intermediate and above)
4. Disinformation. Claims to have access to « hidden information that seldom slips through the cracks of the corporate-owned media conglomerates. »  You’ll find the fringe, the bizarre, the extreme and the intriguing mixed with more mainstream articles sourced from all over the Internet news.  Suited for more advanced students.

Idea. For an extensive reading activity, to practice fast-reading for gist, choose a provocative article.  It works best with stories that are not too obscure, and that give a new slant on a known news headline.  Set the learners the task of  searching the Internet for two other articles, preferably originating in different countries, which give alternative views or explanations of the stories.  As a follow-up speaking activity the learner could present the different points of view in the article and then discuss which arguments seem the most plausible.  A good lead in for a debate activity, as long as it’s a subject learners have opinions about. (Level: Upper Int., Advanced)

5. Euronews. One of the unique features of Euronews is that it is a truly multilingual newspaper, with the same headline articles in 7 European languages (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian) and Arabic.  It almost seems to be designed with learners in mind, with it’s very succint articles supported with video footage.  If you’re looking for in-depth reporting, this isn’t your site.  However, it opens up a number  of possibilities for activities where comparing L1 and L2 can be advantageous.

Idea. For learners needing to improve translation skills into their L1,  select 4-5 articles (they are generally short, 120 words or so) which deal with a particular lexical area needing work (there’s a good tabbed menu enabling easy navigation of the different categories of article so not too much hunting involved).  Compare the articles in the L1 and L2 and study how the key words in the chosen field are translated.   The discussion the follows could include which words were translated differently in different articles, which was the most unexpected translation, which words could have been translated alternatively, why did the translator choose a particular word etc. (Level: Intermediate )

EFL writing lessons that work

1013331_sunset_silhouetteTeaching writing effectively in a general EFL class is not only possible but also rewarding both for learners and teachers. But for me it wasn’t always that way.

Of the four skills taught in the EFL classroom, writing was probably the one I most neglected. For years I loved the idea of teaching writing, but there seemed to be so many obstacles. I resigned myself to waiting until the day some director of studies would hand me my first specialist writing course, and hoped in the meantime that my students wouldn’t notice the suspicious absence of writing from my weekly offerings.

Course book writing activities never seemed to work for me. It didn’t matter how well the activity was presented, I would always end up with a group of learners chewing their pencils, rolling their eyes and sighing conspicuously. Writing lessons would be hastily cobbled into speaking activities, and I would resolve not to try again until I was sure the learners had forgotten their previous underwhelming experience doing writing with me. I seemed to be up against a number of factors I had no control over:

  • Learners who naturally enjoy writing seem to be a rare breed
  • An ESL learner who suffers from writer’s block is just as likely to struggle with writing in his native language. The skill of writing does not seem to correlate with one’s level in a given language: proficiency in one is no guarantee of success in the other.
  • Writing activities are often too time-consuming for the limited hours allotted to the EFL classroom.
  • Having been nursed into English teaching on the milk of the communicative method I was allergic to any activity that required long periods of silence and learners working on their own.
  • Many learners struggle with a sense of « why do I need this? » Speaking more fluently is held up as the benchmark of language-learning success, and learners can’t see how writing activities might advance that goal.

So what changed? Observing my own children learn has had a surprising influence on the way I teach adults. They taught me something which is so fundamental that I don’t see how I could have missed it, namely that when learning cognitive and communicative skills, progress in one area benefits all the others. The application of this to the EFL classroom is that becoming a better writer will also make you a better speaker, reader and listener. My lack of success teaching writing was largely due to my tendency to separate writing from all the other skills. I needed to approach writing in a much more holistic way.

I have Mario Rinvolucri to thank for an activity, which launched me into teaching writing holistically. I was amazed the first time I tried it to observe a group of (adult, upper intermediate/B2) learners sit down for about an hour, and happily write 300-word texts that were genuinely interesting to read. The key was in the preparation:

1. In the first class I explain that in the following session we will be working on fluency in writing. They need to choose a topic to write about such as:

  • a childhood memory
  • an interesting story I have been told (true or fiction)
  • an exciting experience I had recently (e.g. while on holiday) etc.

The activity works better if learners choose a subject that is not well known to their classmates

2. Learners then produce a mind-map of their story. For me they get the concept more easily if I first demonstrate mind-mapping a story that is well known to the class:mindmap

This goes a long way to addressing the problem of writers’ block.

3. Once they have a strong mental picture of the story they will be writing, I ask them to write 8-10 comprehension-type questions about the plot. They then exchange their questions with a classmate, who reads them and seeks to write answers to them based on what he imagines to be the content of his classmate’s story. At this stage look for fluency over accuracy. The teacher should supply language as necessary, but not correct unless asked to. This has multiple benefits: apart from preparing better written fluency through prior practice in useful language structures, crafting questions also enables focus on the overall flow of the text, and exercising the reading skill may supply useful vocabulary.

4. The next activity absolves the communicative teacher from his guilt over having a silent classroom: learners swap their answers to the questions with their partners. More reading, usually a few laughs, and then lots of speaking practice as learners correct their partner’s answers or confirm them as they narrate to them the story that they will be writing about. This enables them to practice the flow of the story in preparation for writing, and further anchors the different elements in the memory.

This way, when the actual writing activity begins, learners have 3 documents to support them: the mind-map, the list of « comprehension questions » and their partner’s written answers to the questions. Generally I have found that by this time the writing just flows, learners are satisfied with their work, and you end up with a large corpus of written work to serve as a base for all kinds of follow-up activities.

The whole activity usually takes about 1 ¾ to 2 hours, which can be divided between two sessions.

This illustrates the combination of reading, writing, listening and speaking holistically in a meaningful activity that, while specifically intended to improve written fluency, gives learners the opportunity to practice all the skills simultaneously. And not only that, it’s fun.