Six original topical teaching ideas for February

Photo from Morguefile.comTo help get you through the winter blues and those cold February classes, try one of these ideas this month!

1. Teach your students about Black History Month. Many teachers have probably overdosed on Obamamania with their students already (studying the victory speech, talking about the election etc) but you could use this month to look at other famous black and white people from American history that put Obama’s victory in historical context.  February 4 is the birth anniversary of Rosa Parks. February 12 is Lincoln’s birthday. February 22 is the anniversary of the Montgomery Boycott Arrests.  Any one of these could be a good subject for a reading, as during the Obama presidency people will begin to hear more references to the American Civil Rights movement than before.

2. Talk up the Credit Crunch! The world’s financial woes are the perfect fodder for your lessons on money. It’s beginning to spread to Hollywood too, with a new movie The International that focuses on the big banks as the enemy in a thriller (starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts, looks very ho-hum) . Some ideas for conversation questions about money here. Plus keep an eye out for the February Learning English section of the Guardian Weekly, I’ve got a column there on credit crunch class ideas.

3. Do some drama! It’s Carnival time, so a good excuse to pull out some drama activities. I mentioned in an earlier post  that Ken Wilson has a whole book of these out now. I also find that the following site has lots of potential inspiration for English classes. I really must do a top six favourite drama activities – they are so much fun.

4. Celebrate the Superbowl! For anyone outside the U.S. you may be forgiven for NOT knowing that February 1st is the 43rd Superbowl of American football between the Steelers and the Cardinals. Use this event to talk about sports, to teach sports idioms or expressions relating to football (quarterback, sack, scrimmage etc). Sounds unbearably dull? Remember that during each Superbowl there are premium advertisements, these are usually going to be the best the American advertising industry can muster and are sometimes hilarious. Do a youtube search for top ten superbowl commercials to find them. If you don’t believe me, look at the 2008 ones here

5. Read some Dickens! February 7 is Charles Dickens’ birthday. Find an excerpt from one of his books to do with students. Yeah, you may think that reading and understanding a piece of Great Expectations or Tale of Two Cities sounds boring and old-fashioned but you’d be surprised how many adult students might find it motivating. 

6. Study superstitions! This month has a Friday the 13th. Use this to talk about superstitions in various countries and cultures. I was looking for a good internet page on superstitions but the Wikipedia one seemed disputed. You can try this one for some material but I’m not sure how good it is. A side note: they are rereleasing the film Friday the 13th (the original) this month too. This is what is called a “series reboot” in the film industry and could be the topic of a different class on films.

Of course, the big language class favourite this month will undoubtedly be Valentine’s Day. I leave that for others to “do” on the web… plus I get the feeling that most teachers have their own tried (tired?) and true activities for this special day. 

Have a good month! The school year is half-over and spring is here soon!

Published in: on January 31, 2009 at 3:24 pm  Comments (5)  
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Hall Houston’s Six novel ways to introduce a topic

thecreativeclassroomI’ve long believed that one of the keys to a good lesson is the beginning (like a film, or piece of music). I was really happy when Hall Houston, the author of The Creative Classroom (pictured left), offered to do a list based on how to introduce a topic at the start of a lesson. I’d agree with him 100% when he says that “Ideally, a good introduction should get students thinking about the topic BEFORE they open their course books. It should help students consider what they already know about the topic and present some useful vocabulary.” Sounds like a tall order? Well, here are six ways on how to do exactly that.

1. Using a dictation. Dictate 5 sentences that hint at the topic without revealing it. For example, if your lesson is about a country, you should read out some facts about it. It’s best to start with harder clues and gradually work towards easier ones. Check the dictation by having students write the sentences up on the board. Point out any errors. Now ask students to guess the topic.

2. Using images. Tell the class your topic. Show a few photos that have some connection with your topic (project them or hold them up) and ask 6 students to stand on the left and right sides of the board (3 on each side). Tell them to write some vocabulary related to what they see in the pictures. They should leave the middle of the board blank. Next, put the photos away. Ask six different students to come to the board and collaborate on a drawing, based on the words the other students wrote.

3. Using a sentence. Write the topic in big letters on the board. Read out a short sentence related on the topic. This can be part of a text they will read later, or something you wrote. Put students into small groups and ask each group to expand the sentence by adding 4 words. After a few minutes, invite each group to read out their sentence.

4. Using sounds. Play a sound collage of several people talking about the topic without actually saying what the topic is. Invite several students to guess the topic.

5. Using the students’ mother tongue. This next activity is best suited for monolingual classes. Announce the topic. Ask a student to give a 2-minute lecture or tell a short anecdote related to your topic. BUT, the student will speak in his or her native language. After the student is finished, put students into small groups and ask them to write 3 test questions in English to ask you about the lecture. When everyone is finished, ask each group to give you one of their questions, and do your best to answer (This can be quite amusing for the students if you are not very proficient in their language!). Finally, get the class to decide on your grade for the test.

6. Using a previous topic. Tell the class your topic, and ask them to recall a topic you covered 2 or 3 lessons ago. Write both topics on the board. Put students into groups of 3 or 4 and ask them to find 2 similarities and 2 differences between the two topics. After a few minutes, ask each group to read out their ideas.

Published in: on January 29, 2009 at 9:25 am  Comments (4)  
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Six teaching ideas for Australia Day

River Tree, Wellington Point Brisbane by Jennifer ReneeSorry but this post is actually a little bit LAST MINUTE because I got distracted by the whole celebrity thing (see the last post) and forgot this one. However, I did receive a request about this and being a fellow Commonwealth citizen thought I’d suggest some ideas. Here are six ideas to coincide with Australia Day which is celebrated on January 26. Use any of these for a class this week.

1. Do an Australia Quiz! This is the easiest and most straightforward activity. If you can’t think of questions beyond kangaroos and Crocodile Dundee then check out the official Australian citizenship test for more information. Either that, or get students to do the research on the internet and make their own quiz.

2. Talk citizenship! At the Australia Day site there is a section called My Two Cents. This has a lot of small texts by people talking about what it means to be Australian. You could take one or more of these, let students read them and then ask them to make a similar text about citizenship in their country.

3. Teach Australian words and expressions! Go to this site to find a list of Australian popular slang expressions. I’d take some of these and make them into an activity as follows. I’d give each group of students some of the words and definitions. They make two or three alternative definitions for each of the words and then present them all to another group who has to guess the correct definition.

4. Listen to some Australian accents! If you are Australian yourself then skip this one – they hear you enough already! However, I found the following site of world voices. It’s basically a place for voice actors to leave a clip (like an audio calling card). You can download samples for free. Maybe use some of these as a dictation, or play them along with other accents and ask students to see if they can spot the difference. 

5. Find out about Australian Aboriginal art! Find and print some images of aboriginal art (I used this site) and ask students to do a “compare and contrast” speaking exercise about them. Don’t tell them where the paintings come from, ask them to guess and speculate about the meaning behind them. Once they’ve finished, you could provide them with this information about Australian aboriginal art and the concept of Dreaming.  

6. Watch trailers  from films that feature Australia! If you have an internet connection you could get students to watch trailers of different films that feature Australia. Examples could be Australia, Crocodile Dundee, Gallipoli, Priscilla Queen of the Desert…Ask students to find out what the trailers have in common, i.e. what elements of Australia are they “fronting”. How is Australia being packaged? This could also be assigned for homework if you didn’t have the connection. Alternatively you could set up a “trailer treasure hunt” with these films. Make questions like “Which film is about WWI? Which film stars a man with a big knife?” etc

Published in: on January 26, 2009 at 9:23 pm  Comments (2)  
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Six overexposed celebrities in ESL/EFL coursebooks

First came my magazine cover, dare I dream of being in an ESL/EFL Coursebook?

 Ahhh, the coursebook celebrity. Whether it’s John Travolta with his plane parked in his garage, or the English football celebrity who fell on hard times, or the Hollywood kids, or Johnny Depp as a pirate, many EFL/ESL coursebooks just love a celebrity. Actually, I’m pretty darn fed up with celebrities in coursebooks now (even though, gulp, as a coursebook writer I’ve used them myself on one or two occasions). But for all those who haven’t noticed, here are my top six celebrities who are just too overexposed in the world of language teaching materials.

1. “The Queen of Pop” Madonna – number one with a bullet of coursebook celebrities; I personally think that English teachers, coursebook authors and publishers should get a cut of Madonna’s royalties for all the free publicity she has got off EFL over the past twenty years. Madonna’s constant reinventing of herself means that she is a good vehicle for present perfect. She almost always has a song somewhere in the top 40 which can be trotted out and used in class. She’s collecting marriages and divorces too now, which means she could be used in a text next to Liz Taylor to teach relationship vocabulary.

2.“The English Chef”  Jamie Oliver – The English celebrity chef who launched a programme of healthy school lunches. Attractive to English coursebook writers who want to bust the myth that all English cooking is basically awful. Fortunately for us Jamie is still churning out stuff and hasn’t overdosed on drugs or anything like that. He is becoming fat though.

3.”The Nice Scot who travels”  Ewan McGregor – When the new Star Wars trilogy came out and was due to last a few years we started seeing images of Ewan in coursebooks as Obi Wan Kenobi. It was the trips across the world in motorcycle (Long Way Round) though that caught the eye of more than one coursebook writer and meant he warranted a whole reading passage of his own complete with glossy photos of him and his mate on bikes. Ewan seems a nice enough guy too, and serves as the token Scot.

4.”The Beau” Brad Pitt/Tom Cruise/George Clooney. OK, I collapsed these three guys into one category. Any of these men can be used to liven up a page or appear in a unit on films. Plus the majority of teachers and students of language classes are women so these three are an obvious draw. I expect that Tom Cruise will be more and more absent as his scientology stuff and childish antics might not sit so well with coursebook authors and editors now. The BIG problem with these guys is that you just can’t depend on them to keep the same relationship for the length of time it takes a coursebook to get published. That’s why you might still see old books with Cruise and Kidman or Pitt and Aniston. Coursebook authors that have featured Clooney as the hottest single Hollywood star are still fevertently hoping he stays that way. A big mea culpa here, I’ve included Clooney in a text once.

5. “The sports celebrity” Tiger Woods/Maria Sharapova The sports celebrity often pops up to decorate a unit on sports or be the subject of a life story text. Tiger Woods because he’s black and can even out the racial balance in a book (people in coursebooks tend to be too white) and Maria Sharapova is Russian and Russia is a big market for international coursebooks. She also gets in because she’s good-looking, I guess. And both are talented sportspeople. Of course.

6. “The blonde” Nicole Kidman/Naomi Watts/Cate Blanchette The token Australian good-looking blonde, so useful to balance out a unit on nationalities. Meant to keep the Australian teachers happy. Finally, each of these actresses have starred in films that coursebook authors probably like. Nicole Kidman’s star is on the wane I think, I’d be looking out for Watts to take her place as the resident Australian film star in books now.

Just like the celebrities themselves, this list is ephemeral and ever-changing. I expect to see the following celebrities appearing in 2009-11 titles: Lewis Hamilton F1 driver (to replace Tiger Woods); Spanish sports figures (Fernando Torres or Rafa Nadal) as Spain has had a bumper year in Sport and is a big market for ELT; Hugh Jackman and Craig Daniels as the new beautiful men in photos; and Kylie Minogue (who will run stiff competition with Madonna but Kylie had cancer which is more text-worthy than Madonna’s divorce). Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and their huge brood of children might become the new favourite choice to use for family, possessive s and nationalities all in one unit. I seriously hope there is no author out there who would dare make a text about Paris Hilton but anything is possible in this business. Remember, you read it here first!

Are there any celebrities that you feel are overdone in books? Post a comment.

Published in: on January 25, 2009 at 9:18 am  Comments (20)  
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Six weird and wonderful emails to Onestopenglish

It’s time for another guest list, and I’ve managed to get none other than the editors-in-chief  of the biggest resource sites for English teachers in the world to share something! Actually, this came up once in an article I wrote about Onestopenglish for a local newsletter in Canada. I asked them if they ever received any strange requests or emails. “If you only knew…” they told me. Well, now I do and so do you! Read on…



At onestopenglish we get hundreds of emails from teachers all over the world. There are entries for the Methodology and Lesson Share competitions, anecdotes, diaries and letters which we publish in the Magazine, as well as a vast number of questions about grammar, pronunciation and teaching.

We endeavour to answer as many of these as our small team can cope with. Many are published on the site. Some, for reasons which will become apparent, are unpublishable. Here are six of the best:

1. The Lesson Share to teach us all a thing or two

Imagine the source text most likely to lead to eye-watering embarrassment and widespread speechlessness among your students. Well, here’s a good idea: how about a reading comprehension on the Kama Sutra? Yes, we received a totally serious lesson plan detailing the tantric sex preferences of Sting, the history of the G-spot and suggestions for increasing the size of your penis. To the author (you know who you are), thank you. The lesson plan will be published on XXXstopenglish.

2. The (present) perfect Methodology Challenge

One teacher sent us a Methodology Challenge entry to help students unravel the sequence of tenses in English. The story starts simply enough, with Mr Past Tense who lives in the kingdom of Main Clause. However, by the time Prince Future in the Past, Duchess Present and Miss Present Perfect become involved, you’re wondering if you’ll ever find your way out of this nightmare grammar world! Thank you to Claudia, who assures us she has been bringing this fairytale world alive for her students for six years.

3. Interesting ESP requests

We get lots of interesting requests for English for Specific Purposes, some of which we’d love to commission if only we could find the specialist authors to write them. Among the best are: English for health and beauty, make up, manicures and massage (ESOL); English for Tibetan monks; or English for dental hygienists.

4. From the Forum

The onestopenglish Forum is a place where teachers can go to talk about their teaching, air their frustrations and offer advice to fellow teachers. It also provides an opportunity for users to tell us what they think about our content, and we were delighted to read this lovely comment about the onestopenglish soap opera, The Road Less Travelled, in the Forum:

My students in Japan are enjoying this series immensely. They are all adults and mostly very proper middle-aged Japanese ladies. They were shocked at the incident in the car park. We can’t wait for the continuation of the series.

It feels rather naughty to think that we’re providing high drama and scandal to these ladies in Japan!

5. When grammar questions go wrong

We receive a huge number of ‘Ask the experts’ questions from teachers with (sometimes very specific) grammar queries. Some of these leave us completely perplexed. Here are two favourites:

I’m a Communication Coach. However I’m having difficulty if this is correct. You’re very much welcome.

Could you tell me how to use and explain what the meaning of below sentence?

Having + someone + Present Perfect

Having me dumped unexpectedly on her for a while obviously caused logistical problems.

We just wouldn’t know where to start …

6. Our funniest ever anecdote

Every teacher has a funny/embarrassing story to tell and we really do receive some great anecdotes for our Teacher anecdotes competition. It was sent in by a business-English teacher in Paris who had used a clip from the Wallace and Gromit film, The Wrong Trousers, with his class. He’d prepared the room so that only one student could see the television and had to describe what was happening to the other students. We’ll let him take over the story from here …

It was all going really smoothly until we got to the part where Wallace is lying in bed, Gromit pulls a lever, the bed rises up, Wallace slides off the bed through a hole in the floor and into his mechanical trousers.

There’s a lot of describing to do here and my student had a really good stab at it, but said, “The dog pulls the man’s knob and he comes in his trousers”.

Thank you Kevin Faux; we couldn’t publish your anecdote but, rest assured, it had us rolling around for hours …

clairelucyClaire Pye and Lucy Williams, Onestopenglish Editorial Team

Published in: on January 22, 2009 at 3:36 pm  Comments (10)  
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