Six ways to subvert tests

Some teachers are lucky enough to be able to dispense with grades and tests all together. I’m currently teaching a course where this is the case. But for the majority of teachers and learners around the world the test is an unfortunate fact of life. I was involved in a lively discussion on whether or not marks can ever be motivating to learners on Kalinago English (I argued they could be… but that’s another discussion!). However, I do feel that tests – many tests at least – are torture. And when I think about all the things we do in class: encouraging pairwork, comparing answers, using dictionaries etc it all can come apart when test time comes. What can the teacher do to counter this?

You may have to wait a bit until the education revolution arrives and sweeps away all tests in its wake but in the meantime here are six ideas I’ve tried on how to make tests a bit more bearable for students – by subverting the traditional test itself.

1. Open book/web test

Assign your test, but allow students to have access to books or internet for part or all of it. This could mean tweaking the test slightly to make it more challenging but it’s good real-life practice. This is not the most original idea, but it makes the test less stressful.

2. Institutionalize cheating (1)

Set the test and tell students what units/material will be covered. Tell them the day of the test they can bring one sheet of paper to the test. On that paper they can have as much written as they want (you know, like cheat notes). Have the test the normal way. I did this with a group of 11 year olds. At the end I asked them how much they referred to their notes. Not a lot, they said. That’s right, because making the cheat notes was a good way of studying. I know this from times when I made cheat notes and never had to look at them because I could remember what I had written down!

3. Collaborative marking

Give a writing test in a normal way. Then give the students the marking criteria for the writing. They mark their own writing using the criteria. Then you mark the same piece of work with the same criteria. Take an average of the two marks. That is the student’s mark.

4. Institutionalize cheating (2)

Before the test, give each student a ticket (a coloured slip of paper will do). Tell them this is good for one free answer from you on the test. If they don’t use it, they can accumulate it with another one for the next test. When a student asks you a question in the test (this happens all the time to me) tell them you can give them the right answer but it will cost them the ticket. Giving away ONE answer doesn’t affect the overall mark that much, but it does make students feel better. Interestingly enough when I did this with a group of kids they became more interested in collecting as many tickets as possible!

5 Repeat the test

Give a test in the normal way, and then correct it all together in class. When you’ve finished tell students that the test was in fact revision for the real test, which will be exactly the same and will occur the following week. Then give the same test the next week.

6. Test buddies

In a mixed ability class situation, set up groups of three or four students of different abilities. Tell them the general areas of the test and ask them to review these areas together. Explain that all the students in the group will get the same mark on the test. This mark will be the average of the group’s individual members’ marks (if I’m making this clear). This means the group has to work together to make sure they all do as well as possible. During the test the group will have ONE chance to consult with each other for a period of one or two minutes (to help clear up any doubts). This hopefully means that stronger students will be motivated to help weaker students both in the revision and test situation.

There are some other ways of course (e.g. I didn’t mention take-home tests and variants) and I should mention here that a whole bunch of these and other ideas are included in a book I wrote some years ago with a champion subversive teacher Luke Prodromou (you can see the book here).

Are you stuck with tests? Do you have control over how they are run? Obviously the above ideas won’t work for huge state-run school leaving tests but how do you help stressed out students cope? Post a comment here!

Published in: on September 25, 2010 at 6:51 pm  Comments (14)  
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Six favourite five minute activities (that aren’t really five minutes)

Disclaimer: this post was not sponsored or solicited by anyone! I’m blogging about one of the classic teacher resource books which happened to be one of the first ones I owned and used until the pages almost fell out.

Even though I’m doing a fair bit of travelling, I’ve managed to land some teaching hours this fall and I’m currently preparing my classes. After choosing the main texts and activities we were going to do I pulled down off the shelf my battered old copy of Five Minute Activities, the classic resource book from Cambridge University Press written by Penny Ur and Andrew Wright (the newer cover you can see on the image above).

Looking through it, I remembered when this (and Grammar Games by Mario Rinvolucri) were my only two resource books. I’ve used so many of the activities in here that they feel like old friends. There are two things about the activities in this book that I’d like to mention: 1) they are very sensible and doable in almost all teaching contexts and 2) they often last longer than five minutes. Both these are compliments, I hastily add! I love elastic activities that could be five or twenty five minutes depending on the level and interest of the students. I thought I’d share half a dozen of my favourites:

1 Adjectives and nouns

Students suggest adjective and noun combinations such as a black cat, an expert doctor. You write these up on the board and add some yourself. The students then have to use these words to suggest different combinations (e.g. a black doctor). If someone makes an usual suggestion then they have to justify it.

2 Delphic dictionary

Students suggest some typical problems, which you write on the board. A student chooses one of these problems, and then is asked to open an English-English dictionary at random and put their finger on the page. The word they indicate has to form part of the solution. I let students choose a word on the page, in case they really fall on a really hard word.

3 Match the adjectives

Another adjective activity! This time you write three words on the board e.g. important, heavy, dangerous. Students have to suggest a word that goes with all three (e.g. an army, a car, a plane…). There is a really good list of groups of adjectives to go with this. What, for example, could be small loud and fat (no nasty comments here about directors of studies please!)

4 Odd one out

Write a list of six words on the board from a lexical set. Students have to decide which one is the odd one out. They must explain this. Once they have, then challenge them to nominate another one which could be the odd one out for different reasons. Great for lateral thinking. The variation is great too, where every time they argue one is the odd word out you cross it out and they repeat the activity with the words left until there are only two words. Far, far longer than five minutes for my classes. Sample lists are provided in the book.

5 Spelling bee

This is hardly a new activity, a spelling competition. And it usually takes longer than five minutes in my experience. But my classes have had lots of fun with this, and they often consider it useful. The best part is the authors have listed a whole bunch of words that are commonly spelled wrongly at various different levels. Priceless little resource to have at hand.

6 Wrangling

I love this activity. Write a two line dialogue on the board. My favourite of the ones suggested is

A: Still, I think you’d better tell them.

B: Oh, no, they’ll kill me.

Students have to say the lines together, as an argument. They can repeat the lines as many times as they like but they cannot add anything else. They must vary stress, intonation and gesture to convince each other. After a few exchanges I’ve seen students really get heated up and in fact their delivery of the lines becomes much better. Leads on to a good discussion of what the context and who the speakers might be (again, longer now than five minutes).

There are many many more in the book that are just as good, it was hard to choose only six! A little footnote to this post: last year at the IATEFL conference Penny Ur explained a reading activity during a talk, and she used me as the subject of the activity. Wow. Call me an ELT nerd if you like (do it quietly please), but it was a bit like having your favourite singer suddenly belt out a song with your name in it during a concert. Thanks Penny!

Does anyone else have a favourite five minute activity (from this book or your own)? Go ahead and share! And if Penny Ur or Andrew Wright are reading this, I wonder what their favourite activity is?

Published in: on September 19, 2010 at 8:34 pm  Comments (22)  
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Six villains in English language teaching


Every profession has its bad guys. For doctors, it may be the evil pharmaceutical companies. For soldiers, it’s the enemy army or the “top brass”. What about English teachers? Well, I think there are six kinds of villain that are invoked at our conferences, in our methodology books, during workshops and especially on blogs. Here they are, in no particular order.

1 The old-fashioned teacher

Curious that the first villain is actually a teacher. Now, of course I don’t mean teachers like you dear readers. Never. No, I mean the infamous “old-fashioned” teacher. The kind of teacher that bores his/her students. That punishes them for no good reason. That beats students (thankfully these teachers are not so common now one hopes). That humiliates them. That is inhuman (as opposed to the good “humanist” teachers). And even more unforgiving, the kind of teacher that uses old-fashioned methods. Recently, this villain could be the kind of teacher who refuses to incorporate technology into his/her teaching. That old-fashioned teacher is one who we love to hate or, at best, pity.

2 The backpacker teachers

Our second villain is another teacher, but this time of a different ilk. The spectre of the backpacker teacher is often raised as part of the lament of lack of professional standards in English Language Teaching. And many of us have met (or, gulp, were) backpacker teachers in the past. The worst kind of villain in this category is the teacher with no qualification, no teaching experience who will give classes for just enough money to cover beer costs. Needless to say, this kind of teacher is favoured by villain number 5 below.

3 The publishers

The ELT publishers, and especially the really big ones, are always a good target in a blogpost or general rant along the following lines: They’re commercialising education! They’re moving in on “our” social networks like Facebook and Twitter! They’re giving away too much (flooding us with junk!) They aren’t giving away enough (why can’t I have another ten sample books and CDs to pilot?)! They put on a practical workshop at a nice hotel, gave a free lunch and then had the sheer audacity to try and… sell us a book at the end of it! They ignore too much raw talent (especially true if you’ve been turned down). The publishers are sometimes viewed as bottomless pits of money, making “billions”, and really just out there to hoodwink honest-to-goodness hardworking teachers and the poor students. They are our very own version of Big Tobacco, the Arms Industry or Big Pharmaceutical. Choose your metaphor!

4 The coursebook authors

These are more a villain of the lesser kind, perhaps only lackeys to the real culprits above. The more villainous the coursebook author is tends to be in direct proportion to how successful they are. Which means that the authors of books such as Headway or Interchange are sometimes thrust in the role of arch-villain in our ELT pantomime. Their work stifles teachers’ creativity, imposes a foreign world-view on classrooms around the world, or are simply out-of-touch with students’ reality and needs.

5 The private language school owners

The small-time crooks of our profession. They are really just interested in “bums-on-seats” and make huge gobs of cash by fleecing the students and cheating teachers at every opportunity. This is combined with trying to sell fake visas (if they are based in the UK) or evading tax (if they are based anywhere in the world). Finally, they don’t really know anything at all about education and tend to neglect or exploit the raw talent that works for them (when they aren’t trying to get in bed with them).

6 The grammar syllabus and exams

Not human, these twin evils are more akin to monstrous demons that control language courses everywhere. They frog-march publishers, coursebook authors, teachers and students through their all-powerful totalitarian system and make us dance to their tune. Like death and taxes, they are the inevitables in our world. And are often loathed for it.

Now, are there any villains I’ve left out of our pantomime? Education ministers perhaps? The Common European Framework? Certain kinds of student? Post a comment!

Published in: on September 12, 2010 at 8:15 am  Comments (67)  
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Nicky Hockly’s six favourite teaching online activities

Back to school with another guest post! I’m starting up the guest sixes here with half a dozen of the best activities for teaching online. These come from none other than one of my great mentors, Nicky Hockly. Nicky co-founded The Consultants-E, an online consultancy specialising in education and trained me as an emoderator over seven years ago. I now do the occasional course for them as a trainer, and can really say they are a great bunch to work with. Enough background already though, I’ll hand over to Nicky…

To celebrate the launch of our new book, Teaching Online (from Delta Publishing), Lindsay Clandfield and I decided to write a guest post on each other’s blogs. Our posts each describe six of our favourite teaching online activities. This way you get 12 cool online teaching ideas – 6 from me here, and 6 from Lindsay on my blog!

Here are my six favourite activities (Lindsay forced me to write six!). They are aimed at language learners, but with a bit of tweaking they can be easily made to fit other contexts, such as teacher training.

1 Sounds of me

This activity can be used at the beginning of an online course. It helps learners to get to know each other a bit. Choose four or five songs which are significant to you in some way, and add them to and online play list (Grooveshark is a good one). Provide a link to your playlist (e.g. in a forum in your online course, or in a blog). Include why you chose each of the songs, and why they are significant to you. Your learners can listen to your playlist, and then respond to your posting with comments or questions. Learners then create their own online playlists, and post a link and explanation each. They listen to and comment on each others’ choice of music. Instead of using audio, you and learners could create online video playlists e.g. in a site like You Tube. People often have strong emotional ties to certain pieces of music, so this can be quite a powerful sharing activity. I especially like the way this activity brings in other media (audio or video) – one danger in online courses is that they become too relentlessly text-based.

2 My precious…

This is another great activity to help learners in an online course get to know each other better. Get learners to take a digital photo of an important/significant object that they own. This could be a piece of jewellery, a souvenir, a talisman or good luck charm, a drawing or painting, a CD, a piece of furniture that has been in the family for generations … (If your learners don’t own digital cameras, they could find an image of a similar object on the Internet, and use that). Learners prepare a 100-word text explaining what the object is, and why it is significant. They post their photo and text to a forum in your online course, or to a blog. They then read about and comment on each other’s objects. Like ‘Sounds of me’ above, this activity enables learners to share meaningful personal information with each other, and can really help the group to ‘gel’. It also brings in another form of media – digital images – which helps add variety to course content.

3 Podcast dictations

I find that many language learners love dictations. So how about building up a bank of dictations as a series of podcasts over time, which learners can regularly listen to and transcribe? Use a free podcasting site (such as Voice Thread, or Podomatic) to record yourself dictating a short text. You could also provide a transcript as a separate text document, so that learners can check their dictations afterwards. Add one dictation a week to your podcasting page, based on course work. This is a great way to review course content, and to also give your learners plenty of practice in listening skills, and grammar. You could even get your learners to record dictations for each other!

4 Your message to the world

This activity is good for speaking practice. It gets learners to record a short speech, based on a model you provide. Record yourself speaking for a minute or two on one of the following topics:

  • What is your vision of a perfect world?
  • If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be, and why?
  • What is the most annoying thing in the world?

  • What is the best thing in the world?

  • If you could say one thing to the world, what would it be?

Upload your recording to your online course site, and get learners to listen and post comment or questions in reply. Give them the list of topics above, and ask them to record their own one or two minute speeches (e.g. using Sound Recorder on their PCs, or Simple Sound if they have a Mac). Learners then share their own recordings in a forum, and listen to and comment on each other’s. You could set a summarising task in the same forum, by asking questions such as’Who talks about world peace? Who is worried about climate change? etc, based on the recordings. Of course it’s important to remember that recording their own speech can be immensely challenging for learners, especially at lower levels. Make it clear that they don’t need to speak for a long time, and that they can rehearse and use notes to help them.

5 Web tours

This is a synchronous activity, which means you and the learners are online at the same time, in a video chat room. Your chat room needs to have shared web browsing, so that you can show each other websites in real time. We use Elluminate for our online course video chats, but there are also free platforms such as Dimdim, or WizIQ you could use. Take your learners on a tour of your favourite website in the chat room, showing a few pages, and telling them what you especially like. One of my favourites is this site of paintings of redheads in art :-). Get each learner to then show the group their favourite website — preferably a non-language learning site! (They will need to have chosen this site before the chat, and have the URL ready to browse to). Make sure each learner doesn’t speak for more than two or three minutes. At the end of each web tour, the other learners in the group need to come up with one question about that website for the learner. To summarise the activity, provide a list of the website names and URLs for learners to take away.

6 Am I saying this correctly?

This is a listening/viewing activity that gets learners to spot the deliberate mistakes in video subtitles. Find a short video clip (e.g. a film trailer) in your learners’ native language. Using a subtitle creator site (such as Overstream), subtitle the clip and include three or four deliberate mistakes where your English translation does not match the meaning of what is being said in the learners’ native language. Upload the video to your course site, then get learners to watch it and to note down the mistakes they spot. Create a second subtitled version of the video clip with the correct subtitles, and let learners watch that. Did they spot all the mistakes?

We find that learners tend to enjoy this sort of intensive listening activity, especially when they can compare English with their native language. For lower-level learners, you can include deliberate mistakes on obvious items such as vocabulary. For higher levels, the mistakes can focus on more subtle differences in meaning.

These are just six of my favourite activities – there are plenty more in our book! If you try out any of these activities (or the six activities Lindsay has posted on my blog), let us know how it goes in the Comments section below. And if you have any favourite online teaching activities yourself, we’d love to hear about them.

Free Teaching Online Webinar 22 September

You can experience some of our teaching online activities by coming along to our free Teaching Online webinar on Wednesday 22 September 16.30h – 17.30h CET (Central European Time). Check the time in your country , and if you can make it, sign up online with your name and email. We will email you a link to the webinar room half an hour before the webinar is due to start. We will hold a raffle during the webinar to give away free copies of the book! 🙂

Published in: on September 7, 2010 at 6:03 pm  Comments (9)  
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Six discussion classes for back to school

It’s back to school time, well for many teachers it is anyway. I’m going to be taking a group for the next two months before my travel commitments pick up again and I’m preparing my first classes. One idea I often use is something I picked up from a colleague of mine in Barcelona, Mark McKinnon. It’s called a “lucky dip” and consists of a series of questions on a theme. Each question is written on a different long thin strip of paper. The papers are then all clutched together and the student picks one (the lucky dip) and answers it. I’ve used it with many one-to-one classes, and with groupwork in larger classes. Here a six different categories of questions that I’ve used for “first classes”. Maybe they’ll be helpful for a first class for you?

1 Summer holiday

Describe your summer holiday in five words or less. What did you do this summer holiday that was different to other summers? What was “typical” of this summer for you? What would you have done if you’d had an extra week of holidays? Describe in detail one thing that you bought or paid for this summer. How have summer holidays changed for you since you were a child?

2 Summer news

Can you remember three international news stories from this summer (what were they)? Did you follow the football World Cup or another sports event (what was your favourite part)? What was the strangest news item you heard about this summer? Look at these three headlines from this summer’s news (you need to supply the headlines for this): what do you know about each news story?

3 The English language

What are your favourite words in English? What is the most difficult thing for you about learning English? Who was your first English teacher and what was he/she like? Look through your English coursebook (if you are using one), find three topics you think are interesting and compare with a partner. How important is English in your country? Imagine everybody in the world spoke English; what would be some of the possible disadvantages of this situation?

4 Establishing good habits

When do you study best: morning, afternoon or night? Where do you like to study? Can you think of one good way to remember new words? How much do you aim on studying English outside class every week? Set yourself a goal. Do you know any good websites to practise your English? Share with a partner.

5 Names

Are you named after someone in your family (who)? Do you have a nickname (what is it, and who calls you this)? If you had a child (or another child) now, what would you call him/her? Do you think a person’s name determines, in a way, the kind of life they will have? If you could have any other name, what would it be? What names do you think are particularly ugly?

6 Music and film

Do you listen to different kinds of music for different moods you are in (e.g. your “happy music”, your “sad music”)? What was the latest CD/song you bought? Would you like to study a song in English class (which one)? What was the last film you saw? If they made a film of your life, who would you like to play you? Think of three great films and three absolutely awful films, then compare lists with a parnter.

As usual, I’ve tried here to steer away from the typical questions. Feel free to add more to these lists. One can never have too many questions up one’s sleeve to ask students and get them talking!

Published in: on September 6, 2010 at 9:33 am  Comments (2)  
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