My six favourite activities from iT’s magazine

Page design for the Language Academy activity, by the amazing Derek Zinger of iT's. We played this game during a whole summer intensive course!

One of my first writing jobs, if not THE first writing job I had, was with iT’s for Teachers magazine. It was back in 2001 and I’ve told the story many times of how I got published with them (you can read it again here, or hear it here) and I’ve always been proud of the way they’ve edited and presenting any stuff I’ve written for them since. For a few years I was editing biTs, the beginner level version of the magazine.

iT’s for Teachers has now gone completely online, but they still produce amazing lesson ideas and material. Although of late I haven’t written as much as I wanted for them I wanted to share with you all six things I wrote over the past ten years with iT’s that I’m really happy with. I managed to twist their arms to give up the material for free, so please do yourself a favour and check out their site! A subscription is worth every penny!

Here, then, are my half dozen best from this part of my writing career. Click on the title of each one to download a free pdf of the activity. Teaching notes for all the activities are available at the end of the post.

1. Planet of the Apps From issue 115 of the magazine, 2010

In Planet of the Apps students find out about typical and rather strange apps for mobile phones, and design their own!

2. Googlegangers! From issue 106 of the magazine, 2007.

In googlegangers students find out what a doppleganger is, then go online to discover some facts about their own googleganger.

3. Mind Reader From issue 99 of the magazine 2006.

I loved making games for the magazine, and Mind reader was one that I played over and over again with a class of teens. It’s a word association and picture game, with lovely photos to cut out.

4. Lost also from issue 99 of the magazine 2006.

Lost was an ambitious role play activity, in which students each had a role card with a job, an objective and a key line. All based on the series Lost (remember how good it was back in 2006?), this was lots of fun. So for example you have “The Doctor. You want people to help you look for medicine. Your line: I’m a doctor, are you okay?” but I also threw in things like “The Priest. You want everyone to stay together. Your line: God will help us if we all pray.”

5. Language Academy Issue 84 of the magazine 2002

How I begged and pleaded to make this activity! Just listen to the pitch: Bored with Big Brother? Fed up with Survivors? Disgusted by Fantasy Island? Tired of the same old songs from the X factor? Are you looking for something newand original? Then welcome to… LANGUAGE ACADEMY!. Language Academy is the newest concept for a reality TV show. In Language Academy you are a contestant on an intensive English course at a very special school… The activity itself is a board game of the language academy school, with cafeteria, classroom, a confessional booth (yes! yes!), multimedia room etc. In each room there is a different “task” students have to do. We used it over a whole summer once. Oh, I’m too excited to go on, just download it for yourselves and see.

6. A Work_in_Progress from issue 81 of the magazine, 2001

Ten years ago! This is the lesson that started it all. It was the international year of the refugee and I wanted to do something connected to it. The result was a collection of now and then stories of refugees who had fled their countries and become well known in their field. I’m still proud of this lesson.

There you are. Six photocopiable lesson activity ideas on a variety of themes. Some of these may feel a bit outdated, but with some small tweaks I think you could make them relevant. One thing I love about iT’s for teachers magazine is how they can be consistently relevant with smart-looking and very workable materials. Nine pages of detailed teacher’s notes for all these activities, by the way, can be found here: Deluxe Teaching notes

Enjoy everyone! And if you already know of the magazine iT’s for teachers and have a favourite activity, post a comment below!

Oh, and by the way, if you’ve never heard of this magazine, you can find out all about it here. Don’t delay…

Published in: on November 24, 2010 at 11:49 am  Comments (6)  
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Six ways of letting unplugged teaching through the coursebook door

This week I’m joined by a repeat offender here on Six Things. The wonderful English Raven himself, Jason Renshaw, has been experimenting with ideas on unplugged teaching and coursebooks. You can see much more of this work in progress at his blog. Here though he asked me if he could share six general tips for people wanting to unplug their teaching bit by bit. Over to you Jason!

Okay, so you work in a school where coursebooks rule. Welcome to a rather large club, to put it mildly! Whether or not you like using coursebooks or think they encompass the best overall approach for your learners, perhaps you’ve begun to wonder about the potential of having a bit more “unplugged” time in the classroom. As a teacher or program manager, I would encourage you to experiment with unplugged teaching, but also remember that it can be hard to get the coursebook to shift its bulky influence over your program. Here are what I consider to be six essential rules for facilitating unplugged teaching in a context where coursebooks have – up until now, at least – tended to dominate the program from head to foot.

1. Think about how you pitch “unplugged”
If you walk into the staffroom or school owner’s office and announce you want to do “Dogme” or even “unplugged teaching” or (heaven forbid!) “learner-centred and generated dialogic learning”, in many cases you should prepare for a lukewarm or baffled reception at best, and a reaction of complete incredulity at worst.
Consider using terms like “free speaking”, “conversation class”, or “integrated speaking and writing” – terms that management and other staff are more likely to recognise and be able to relate to (but still potentially facilitate something along the lines of unplugged teaching). These are also terms/concepts that are usually only very vaguely catered to in existing coursebooks, so you could well be proposing something that helps to fill a gap your school and teachers are already aware of.

Also, try not to make this look or sound like a personal quest to overthrow a coursebook regime (even if that is your underlying motivation!). Try to show you understand and respect the current way of doing things, and just want to expand and improve it.

Finally, it’s also a good idea to show some evidence before you propose major change. Record some unplugged lessons or sequences of lessons, and copy and present some evidence from learners’ notebooks. Don’t go in with an idea or notion. Go in with something you can show, explain, and rationalise (see also rule number 6 below).

2. The schedule: Double or nothing

First work out how many lessons are required to adequately cover the existing core coursebook content, then take that number and double it. At a basic level, this creates a syllabus and schedule where there is potentially as much time for unplugged teaching as there is coursebook teaching. If this results in an overly-long or impractical schedule overall, it might be worth seeing if some coursebook units can be skipped, done in “fast forward” mode, or allocated as homework.
Other options, of course, could be to make sure the coursebook is a slim(mer) one to start with, or to abolish things like extra workbooks.
The chances of your school accepting such proposals could have a lot to do with how well you pitched unplugged teaching as per rule 1 above, but also how well you present and follow through with the other rules below.

3. Create options, not specifications
Make sure the system and schedule allow for teachers to choose between unplugged and supplementary options.
If you have doubled the available schedule as per rule 1 above, essentially what you want is a situation where a teacher can choose to go with some unplugged teaching, or use pre-provided (or teacher made) supplementary materials more specifically aimed at the coursebook content, or – probably the most attractive and feasible option – use a combination of both.

Many coursebook series now have a wealth of extra materials and supplements for their units. If a teacher doesn’t want to pursue unplugged teaching in the extra lesson time available, they might like to use these supplementary materials instead. And it is very important that they are not made to feel inferior or somehow deficient by choosing to do so.
Like any major change in teaching approach, it is more likely to appeal and spread when shown gently and by example, and without being forced. If you want teachers to respect your right to teach unplugged outside the compulsory core of the coursebook curriculum, you’ll also have to respect their right to stick to that core curriculum.

4. Provide training
Teaching unplugged is not an easy endeavour for a lot of teachers. Make sure you provide good training that is rich in practical tips and demonstrated through actual examples. Let curious teachers observe your classes or look at the videos and materials that have been generated in your unplugged lessons. Request for your school to get a book like Thornbury and Meddings’ Teaching Unplugged, which presents unplugged teaching in both a practical way and through demonstrable theories about learning. Provide links to a spreading corpus of blog posts that demonstrate actual unplugged lessons.

But again: don’t force this training or exposure onto the teachers. Let them come to unplugged teaching as a result of curiosity and their own choice, and also accept that they may never want to come to it – and if so be careful not to hold (or look like you are holding) that against them.

5. Match unplugged learning to specific learning goals

Document or create some broad learning objectives that unplugged sessions can end up targeting. Official tests are a great one to use – especially the speaking and writing sections of such tests (as I demonstrated for business English classes preparing for TOEIC here). It’s actually really feasible to manoeuvre unplugged lessons toward a variety of test task formats – and not just for speaking and writing. They’re mostly like building plans, really, and it could just be a matter of finding ways to let students decorate and furnish them according to their own tastes and interests towards the end of an unplugged lesson sequence.
Things like the CEFR specifications (and others like it – for example the framework I have to address for migrants and refugees here in Australia) are even easier to lop onto the end of unplugged lessons in a coherent way. I have generally found that doing this goes beyond making unplugged teaching acceptable in a learning context: it can actually help rationalise it and make it feel very relevant to learners and school. Dare I say it… it can even help to make unplugged teaching very popular!
6. Ensure there is evidence of learning (and teaching)
Evidence is really important in ELT in so many of the contexts in which it takes place, and it would have to be one of the most powerful rationales for using coursebooks.

All of the major changes I have achieved within school systems (and learners’, teachers’ and managements’ minds) have come about through careful attention to providing practical and accessible evidence. Even when unplugged sessions go well and appear to be enjoyable and worthwhile at the time, I have seen the approach become unravelled because there is inadequate follow up.

It is a good idea to make sure there is something organised and on (web)paper to show for any unplugged teaching. Notes should be appearing in learners’ notebooks, and we should be showing interest in them and helping the learners make their notes coherent and useful.

Given the relative lack of lesson planning notes associated with an unplugged approach, we should be providing good post-lesson reports that document what was learned and why. Creating a blog (or series of printed handouts) for students, summarizing activities, emergent language work, etc. can be a great way to rationalise and extend what you are doing in your unplugged lessons.

And of course, once your learners hit a certain level and familiarity with unplugged teaching, they could be generating most all of this evidence themselves. Just bear in mind that many contexts still want to see indications that a teacher is ‘working’ and ‘doing’ things, so you should be willing to provide the relevant follow ups that demonstrate this.

Published in: on November 11, 2010 at 9:18 am  Comments (7)  
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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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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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My six favourite Mario Rinvolucri Activities

Part of my bookshelf of teacher's resource books, there are four more shelves full!

Note: This blogpost originally appeared as part of a series of articles I was invited to contribute to in honour of Mario Rinvolucri’s 70th birthday. The post below and other articles about Mario’s influence in the world of ELT appeared in the last issue of Humanizing Language Teaching, one of the first online magazines for ELT that I know of that is still going. See the issue here.

The first resource book for teachers I ever owned was Mario Rinvolucri’s Grammar Games. After fifteen years of teaching and having several books of my own published I still enjoy opening the battered green cover and leafing through it (you can see it on my shelf, above). Much of the book still feels as fresh today in 2010 as it felt when I first opened it. It’s the sign of truly good and practical classroom activities, something that I know Mario has always striven for in his work.

Since my early teaching days I have slowly collected resource books for teachers. They occupy around eight shelves in my office now. Many of them are Mario’s and I’m happy to say that with every new book there is still always some good stuff in there.

I know that some teachers and writers like to make fun of the more “experimental” activities that Mario has suggested over the years, certainly many of these to do with Multiple Intelligence theory or NLP. But that overlooks the great amount of practical, doable and sensible activities and ideas that Mario has contributed to our profession. I thought I’d share half a dozen “Mario activities” that any language teacher, new or experienced, should have up their sleeve.

Note: I call these Mario activities because I discovered them in his books. Mario is very honest about where his activities come from, citing the source wherever possible. I know he would not want me to attribute a whole idea or activity to him if it weren’t his, so the proviso here is that all of these activities have been shared by Mario even if not created by him.

1 Causes and Consequences

This collection of ideas and activities are all stimulating, even though the photos in it now look extremely old-fashioned. My favourite activities here were ones that did not depend on photos. Causes and consequences was a simple activity where students were given a statement and had to brainstorm all the causes and consequences of that statement. Brilliant, and worked as a critical thinking activity for me many a time.

taken from: Challenge to Think, written with Christine Frank, published by OUP (1982)

2 Present Perfect Poem

One of my all time favourites as a teacher. The students are given a series of words which they have to make into as many different sentences as possible. They put these together to make a poem, which will be very close to an actual poem by Robin Truscott. Sample sentence: We have seen the face of the enemy and it works.

Probably one of the most meaningful exercises I’ve done with learners.

taken from: Grammar Games, published by CUP (1984)

3 The Marienbad game

I still use this activity with almost every group from Elementary level upwards. You write a poem on the board and the students have to take words away one or two at a time until a group cannot take any more words away. So simple and elegant as an activity. And very grammatical.

taken from: Grammar Games, published by CUP (1984)

4 The Coke Machine Round the Corner

My first ever activity I did with movement and mime, the Coke Machine dictation involves students miming a series of actions to get a soft drink from a machine and drink it. The “burp!” at the end often yielded hilarious results.

taken from: Dictation, written with Paul Davis, published by CUP (1988)

5  The Optimist and the Pessimist

I love the way Mario is able to generate a mass of communication and meaning from a simple sentence. In this activity students are given a sentence and each have to write a reaction to it beginning either with “Fortunately…” (for the optimists) or “Unfortunately…” (for the pessimists).

taken from: Humanising your Coursebook, published by Delta Publishing 2002

6 Time is of the essence

Given my long relationship with Mario’s writing as a teacher and a teacher trainer, it was an amazing opportunity for me to be able to actually work as an editor on his latest work, Culture in our Classrooms (written with Gilly Johnson). Mario’s passion for culture really shone through here, and even though we hotly debated some of the material and how it should appear I think his eye for practical activities that appeal to the students’ affective needs is as good as ever. One of my favourites in this book is Time is of the Essence, where students read a sentence relating to time and have to determine what time they would put. For example: She got to work early that morning. (students say what time that would be in their culture). Even more of a honour was that Mario asked me to supply the Canadian times as an example for the activity!

taken from: Culture in our Classrooms, written with Gill Johnson, published by Delta (2010)

There you have them. Only six, from an overall collection of probably more than six hundred. Apologies if I have missed your favourites, but you are welcome as ever to leave a comment. And if you don’t know any of these, then I recommend you get to a library or bookshop pretty quickly! Your teaching repertoire will be much improved for it!

Published in: on July 1, 2010 at 7:47 am  Comments (9)  
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