Category Archives: Teaching ideas

Assessment for learning

Recent talks with colleagues working in the public education sector in the UK about SATs (Suite of Assessments), and my own experiences tutoring on pre-sessional courses, have given me a first-hand insight into the exhaustive measures some institutions employ to ‘promote’ learning through continuous formative assessment. The term they have coined is ‘assessment for learning’. Experience has demonstrated to me that the learning gains are limited compared with the time taken to prepare for the testing, the testing process, and of course the marking and feedback sessions.

A typical writing test could include learners being given several extracts from source texts to read and make notes on a week prior to the actual test. On test day, these notes are not permitted into the classroom and a new set of notes is given with a question to analyse. In my humble opinion, while learners will have read the texts and have a deeper understanding than seeing them for the first time, the test is in fact an evaluation of memory where they are desperately digging deep in their brains to retrieve the information about the points they deemed worthy of remembering. The question is analysed in groups, a draft plan is drawn up individually, and finally a 90-minute test is undertaken. Learners are notably exhausted after a testing process, which has essentially been drawn out over an entire week.

As an experiment, I tried an alternative approach where I gave learners 4 short extracts. In pairs each learner read 2 different texts and made notes. The notes were swapped with their partners who used them as a springboard to understand the 2 texts they did not read. Each learner proceeded to read the texts to accompany their partners’ notes to discover if they had identified all the key themes. A group discussion was held, a question was given, and learners wrote a short piece of discourse with a 40-minute time limit, to answer the question referring to the key themes identified previously, and citing as necessary. When the writing was completed, learners exchanged their scripts with a peer, and it was reviewed for content, accuracy of answering the question given, coherence, cohesion, stance, and argumentation. Another group discussion was held, and at this point I also participated with language support and academic guidance. This ‘think tank’ approach appeared to be effective and the feedback I received from the class this was tested with was positive. Including comments such as ”I learnt from my friends so it helped me feel confident to write”, “she was able to notice some additional points I didn’t see”

Cambridge First, Cambridge Advanced & Cambridge Proficiency listening exams

I recently read an interesting article about listening: “Listening for needles in haystacks: How lecturers introduce key terms” (Martinez R, Adophs S, Carteer R, ELT Journal, vol.67, issue 3 (2013) pp. 313.323). As a teacher and trainer for the Cambridge exams, I meet teachers and learners alike that comment regarding the complexity of the listening part of the exams, and they ask for strategies to help them develop stronger listening skills to produce better outcomes in the exam. While I clearly suggest high exposure to audio texts in the form the plethora of free podcasts and radio programmes available on the internet, I became aware of the fact that what exam candidates need are strategies to identify where the answers are in the audio script and how to recognise them.

Here are a few ideas that I have tried recently that I have found work for specific parts of the Cambridge First, Cambridge Advanced, and Cambridge Proficiency exams.

Listening Exam Parts 1 & 3 (Cambridge First, Cambridge Advanced, Cambridge Proficiency)

All the options offered in the multiple-choice question are often mentioned in the audio text and can often distract candidates from selecting the correct answer. Identifying conjunctions like ‘but’ will help learners notice when the information is being contrasted and the right answer is being given. The same exercise can be done with ‘because’ and ‘besides’.

To practice this in class, you could play practice tests to learners and get them to stand up when they hear ‘but’, and sit down when they hear it again. This highlights the importance of conjunctions and becoming aware of their use in the audio texts enables learners to pick out the correct information. You could also record your own audio texts, ask students to record their own, or play short audio extracts to practice this and introduce a fun kinaesthetic activity into the classroom.

Listening Exam Parts 2 & 4 (Cambridge First, Cambridge Advanced, Cambridge Proficiency)

Often the content of the listening extracts are contain topics or lexis that candidates are unfamiliar with, so a good way of helping learners with this is to take questions from the exam and use them as class discussion points.

Give learners the question and allow them time to think about language that they may hear or that could be used in a discussion about the topic, they can also look up new lexis they would like to use therefore broadening their lexical range. Allow them a limited time to discuss the topic and practice the lexis. This is an effective way of using an integrated skills approach to listening where learners focus on lexis in the listening questions by using a speaking activity. In the same way, the listening questions from Part 1 can be used as starting points for classroom speaking and extending learning and identify question type patterns. For example:

Why is he/she talking to…

Who is he/she talking to..

What is he/she doing?

How does he/she feel?

Another useful strategy to share with learners is that the verbs used in the listening extract will often indicate the tense. For example ‘warn about…’ is used for something in the future. This could help learners with the correct selection of an answer if it contains answers that refer to the past.



Differentiation, dictaphones, and decision-making


This week I have been talking about the best strategies for developing turn-taking skills for the Cambridge exams. It has been an interesting insight on many levels, but specifically into how other teaching professionals deal with the challenges of a mismatch of pairs when candidates have different levels of proficiency. Differentiation is a very common issue in the classroom and not one that I feel is given enough consideration. While we can do our best to mix students when carrying out different activities, what I have really realised is that the students that are less proficient really need extra support and scaffolding to help them progress so changing their partner in class regularly isn’t necessarily going to solve this problem.



I often suggest to both teachers and learners that voice recordings using mobile phone dictaphone apps can be a very quick and easy solution to confidence building. By making short recordings on the dictaphones, and listening to themselves, learners are able to become familiar with how their voice sounds and feel less inhibited to speak. I then suggest that by playing back short recordings several times, it is possible to identify weaknesses in pronunciation, and the features of connected speech but also whether the task requirements of the exam task have been met. Part 3 of the FCE, CAE and CPE is designed to evaluate candidate turn-taking skills by assessing a two-way conversation between them. Candidates are assessed on their ability to maintain a conversation, suggest ideas, and respond accordingly to the other candidates’ ideas. All of this needs to be achieved in a time limit of 2 minutes, in addition to fulfilling the requirements of lexical resource and a varied grammatical range. By timing and recording their practise runs, students are able to refine and focus their answers in order to meet the task requirements.



The final stage of part 3 in the speaking test is a decision-making question where the candidates need to reach a decision regarding the discussion just taken place during the previous stage. A common error for candidates is to choose the most ‘important, urgent, greatest effect etc’ during the first stage, which often results in them repeating themselves during the second stage. To avoid this I encourage learners to only answer the question in the diagram for the first stage and nothing more. I have found this to be the best strategy to avoid the aforementioned. Again, timing and recording themselves has proven to be invaluable especially considering the 1-minute time limit given.

Freedom for students to choose their own materials Part 3

Continuing with the theme of freedom for students to choose their own materials, here is another insight into one of my students.

I asked an advanced general English teacher that is a web designer and coder what he would like to learn. Much to my delight, like me, he is keen on technology and science fiction. So, in addition to the deep conversations and debates we have had about AI and ethics and the possibility of sustaining life on Mars we have shared YouTube clips, films and series that we both find fascinating.

This student is keen to widen his lexical range and to know if his colleagues are speaking correctly when they converse in English (because he works in a Danish company in Barcelona, so the “lingua franca” is English). To help him broaden his lexicon, I have suggested that once a week when he is reading journals and literature for work, that he focuses on the language, and pays special attention to the lexical items he understands from context, but that he wouldn’t be able to define in English or in Spanish. I steered him towards a free Spanish English dictionary app that stores the words looked up in “recientes” an option at the bottom of the screen. This is a great way to revise lexis which has been consulted in the dictionary and can be used to review and retrieve to ensure lexical items become a part of personal lexicon. The student has started to do this and is so far sticking to it! Bearing in mind that lexical items need to be used no less than twelve times it will take time to see drastic changes however gradually he will be able to build up his working vocabulary.

Another useful tool that we discussed doing was writing notes on his smartphone while talking to his colleagues (it is now considered professional etiquette here in Spain to use your phone while engaging in conversation with somebody) to help him remember what his colleagues have said. The idea is that he will then have more time to reflect after the conversation to ensure what was said was correct. This may seem an odd strategy, but the student is worried that his English is being “dumbed down” by less proficient colleagues. Recording progress on this is understandably more difficult.

Freedom for students to choose their own materials Part 2: Mindfulness

Freedom for students to choose their own materials

Part 2: Mindfulness

I had mentioned mindfulness with a business class before the summer. They have returned to their office after the holidays with several organisational changes that they are not particularly enamoured with, so they asked if they could learn about mindfulness at work. After the class the students said it was all good and well what we had learnt about mindfulness during the lesson, but asked for suggestions about how to continue practising and incorporating what we had learnt in the lesson in their day to day. I therefore suggested two apps which I use which find help me engage in mindfulness.


Headspace: Guided Meditation and Mindfulness


This was perhaps one of the first free websites and apps that came on the market and introduced the general public to the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. It is a good way for students to be exposed to authentic listening material and in addition they are reaping the rewards of a calmer state of mind. In class the students agreed they are going to listen to and engage with the app once a week at home. They are going to discuss which meditation they listened to, if they enjoyed it, and how it made them felt, the following week in class. So by doing this we will be bringing mindfulness into the classroom every week.


Mindful quotes


This app sends daily mindfulness quotes for inspiration. It is a good way for learners to read something authentic in English every day, despite being short. The students have agreed that if there are any quotes which they especially like, or if there is any language they are unfamiliar with or want to discuss, we will also dedicate class time to that once a week.

Listen ear! Ted Talk listening & speaking activity and Presentation & Cambridge Exams practice

Recently I’ve been prompting learners to use the dictaphone function of their smartphones to help them develop their listening and pronunciation. Here are a range of activities that I have found to be particularly effective.

Listen ear! Ted Talk listening & speaking activity

  • Choose any Ted talk from the category 1-6 minutes and watch twice. Take notes of the key points while you are watching.
  • Present the main ideas of your talk to your partner, they must take notes.
  • Your partner will now give a 60 second presentation of the key points from your presentation and record this using their phones.
  • You do the same with their talk.
  • You both listen to the voice recordings/video, and the original Ted Talks.

This activity can help learners develop listening skills in any context. I have used it in Cambridge exam preparation classes and EAP classes.

Presentation & Cambridge Exams (speaking paper) practice

  • Using the dictaphone of their smartphones learners can record part or all of their presentations or part 2 and/or 3 of the Cambridge Exams speaking paper.
  • During playback learners make a list of 2-3 features they liked and disliked about their recording. This could include: pronunciation; intonation; stress; pausing; signposting; voice projection; articulation, hesitation.
  • Students re-record themselves working on the features they identified they wanted to improve. Playback can be individual or in pairs for peer feedback.
  • If a class IM group has been set up, students can send the recording to the teacher for on the spot feedback and pronunciation support.

Pronunciation is one of the aspects of speaking students from both my EAP and Cambridge Exam classes. My students have found this quick turn around and instant feedback strategy extremely beneficial. Here is some feedback:

  • We learn to express our ideas clearly
  • Each recording is easier
  • The recordings make me feel more confident to speak in front of others
  • I realise giving presentations is difficult
  • How to control your time and speed of speaking to a time limit


Get them reading on the move!

This post is inspired by a shout out from Hugh Dellar to find out how we encourage our learners to read. After just finishing an intensive FCE course, where I tried to no avail to encourage my students to read in their own time to increase their exposure to language, I have given the subject some thought, and next course I’m determined I’m going to “Get them reading on the move!”. I’d like to motivate students to make use of those idle moments on the bus/train/metro when they are usually involved in less cognitive activities and encourage them to read. All my students complain that they “don’t have time to read”, so this is my action plan to encourage students to consider their smart phones as a reading tool by making them aware of MALL.

  1. Ask Ss what they are interested in and guide them towards online magazines and websites which they can access on their smartphones. Ensure  10-15 mins class time is dedicated to share and compare  when students can feedback to each other about the article/s they’ve read that week. Without an in class follow up activity, the chances that Ss will actually take the time and/or effort to read in their spare time are slim.
  2. I often set up a Whasapp group with my classes. By uploading  short texts or articles to the group, students don’t need connectivity to consult it, so have no excuses! They can then feedback in the group and/or write a summary of the key points, which will encourage them to read for content and not only gist.
  3.  Another way of exploiting uploaded a texts to a whatsapp group, is to encourage learners to trawl the text for adjectives, noun/verb collocations, verb tenses to get them analysing the language and not just seeing it without considering its formation.
  4. Synonym searches are another useful activity. Ss are given synonyms of key words in the uploaded text to find. This ensures they reading for comprehension and not gist.


As always, I’d love to know if you try anything and how it worked!





“I think he’s gonna eat Gary” M&M Eat the hostage Commercial Script writing activity

When I saw this M&M Eat the hostage Commercial on YouTube before my selected song came on, I couldn’t resist using it in class for a fun script writing activity. Here are the steps I followed for my M&M Eat the hostage Commercial Script writing activity:

  1. Write hostage on the board, elicit its meaning meaning, other forms and synonyms: To take hostage, To hold hostage, Prisoner, Victim, Captive.
  2. In groups students discuss any hostage situations they have seen on films, and the motivations for them.
  3. Feedback open class and board any emergent language.
  4. Tell students they are going to watch a 30 second hostage situation clip without the sound, and ask them to concentrate on the events so they are able to recount together what happened.
  5. Play the M&M Eat the hostage Commercial without the sound.
  6. In groups the students discuss what happened in the advert.
  7. Open class students share their ideas to ensure all students have the information and the stages of the hostage situation can be boarded.
  8. Play the YouTube clip again without sound, for students to check back their ideas.
  9. In groups students write the script for the M&M Eat the hostage Commercial, and rehearse together.
  10. Students perform their hostage commercials with their own script in turn open class.
  11. Non performing groups and teacher enjoy the viewing!
  12. Play the original M&M Eat the hostage Commercial for students to hear the original script.


WeChat, do you?

These past few weeks I’ve been teaching a pre-sessional course at a UK university and have heavily experimented with using the instant messaging app WeChat in class. The predominant L1 is Mandarin, but with Thai and Arabic speakers too, it has been the perfect context for testing. The outcome has been surprisingly positive and a great learning curve for both the students and me.


Here are some activities I trialed:


Free chat WeChat

As a warmer at the beginning of class after a free study period and lunch break, I asked the students to chat about anything they liked. They chose food, the trip they went on at the weekend, and I spurred them on with questions. Admittedly the answers were very short, but it helped them feel comfortable with chatting open class and with the teacher.


Synonym race

This activity worked really well. I selected academic lexis the students had learnt during the course to date, and it was a novel and quick way to refresh the lexis and push the learners for more than one alternative way to say something. On other occasions I have made it a group activity where one phone in a group of four students is used, and a point is awarded for the first answer with an additional point if the synonym is spelt correctly.


Lecture summary and peer correction

I asked the students to consolidate their notes in groups of four, for a lecture they had attended that morning. The task was to compile a 100 word succinct summary of the lecture covering the main points. Once this was uploaded, the groups peer corrected the texts for content, language and grammar mistakes. Each text was read aloud open-class, and peers shouted stop at any point to correct the mistakes. The students enjoyed reading and correcting each other’s work.


Free writing assignment – out of class

I wanted to see if the quality of writing changed if the task was to be completed in students’ own time. I gave the students some questions to introduce them to the topic, then asked them to write a 100 word summary using information from their answers to help them. Some wrote as they would speak in chat style, but others continued to write in a clear and convincing academic style. When I asked the students how they felt about completing a writing task like this, they all agreed they enjoyed it because it gave them the freedom to manage their own time and complete the task when it was convenient for them.


If you try any of the activities above, I’d love to hear about it!

Learn English with Bennet Miller & Little Miss Puffytail

Although Bennet Miller films are not my taste they are acclaimed and there is no denying that he is a good director. I actually prefer is adverts to be fair, especially Little Miss Puffytail which is one of a series of three 30 second toilet paper ads that he has recently produced for Quilted Northern.

I recently used the Little Miss Puffytail video in class, to draw learner awareness to intonation and its relation to attitude when speaking. My students have a habit of talking in long monotone stretches of discourse, without pausing or chunking, so I also wanted them to consider these features.

Here are the stages of the activity:

  • Show the first frame of the advert on pause. Students describe the picture using as much specific vocabulary as possible, with the teacher providing any unknown lexis. (This is particularly useful for the Cambridge speaking test part 2 where students are asked to describe 2 pictures).
  • Students predict what they think is going to happen in the video, where the video was shot, and for what purpose. They can also talk about the plot and any other characters they think may appear.
  • The first playback is silent for students to see if their predictions were correct. They usually detect that it is an advert. I get them to script it out using their imagination!
  • The second playback is with sound – subtitles can be turned on if desired. Once it has been viewed, the students brainstorm adjectives for how Miss Puffytail is feeling. I get them to think about why she is feeling this way, and how they were able to detect this . This highlights the point that they were able to discover the feeling from her solemn intonation.
  • Open class, attitude, intonation and pausing are discussed, and the teacher boards phrases from the ad with the intonation and pauses marked in red.
  • The students do the same to their scripts, but they do it firstly for feeling sad, and secondly for feeling happy and enthusiastic. Teacher monitors to help with doubts.
  • Students practise both versions of their scripts together in pairs and record one sad and one enthusiastic version using their mobile phones.
  • The students playback the recordings to listen for the differences in intonation in the two attempts – hopefully there are some!

I found this was an interesting and useful activity for the learners to make them aware of the significance of intonation in the delivery of what we say, and to encourage them to vary their intonation when they speak. It created a lot of interaction and emergent language.