EFL characters

I can’t find any trace online of it now, but when I first posted this I swear it linked to a robot character representing IELTS. Honest!

That wouldn’t be the first EFL mascot, with even people who had no interest in language learning happily shelling out money to buy various Nova Bunny products before that huge chain of schools somehow managed to go bust.

It made me wonder what other EFL characters might be useful, for example:

- Eli the Elicitation Elephant (to make teachers elicit rather than just waffle on at the front of the classroom)

- Pedro the Pairwork Panda (to convince both teachers and students of the merits and methods of endlessly changing pairs)

- Terrence the Teaching Conditions Terrier (to convince IATEFL that workshops and newsletters aren’t going to improve standards while payment and conditions keeping on getting lower)

- Natalia the Non-Native Speaker Teacher Newt (she knows how you feel because, unlike the bad guy Nigel the Native Speaker Teacher Nile Crocodile, she’s actually learnt foreign languages before)

Any more?

Posted in IELTS | Leave a comment

The fight back against the EF English Proficiency Ranking starts here

The latest EF EPI ranking is out, with the usual mix of unsurprising (Scandanavia, Holland and other Northern European countries top) and more controversial (Shanghai and Beijing above Hong Kong, Japan above Italy and France, Turkey clearly at the bottom in Europe, etc). This year it seems to be the position of Hong Kong which has prompted the most debate.

Although it seems to be better than the pointless practice of comparing countries by TOEFL scores, TOEIC scores or IELTS scores, the EF EPI also has that classic statistical cock up of being made up of self-selected samples of people. Given how most of the results do make sense, my question is how much of a negative effect that might have. As statistics was always my most hated maths course, I have no answer to that at all. Instead, I’ve written to the BBC for the first time since Jim’ll Fix It, and am hopeful that the fabulous statistics radio programme (!) More or Less might cover it in their next series, given how they are on the World Service and all. If more people could contact them to ask the same or similar questions, should help settle this once and for all.

Posted in Teaching English as a Foreign Language | Leave a comment

33 IELTS Speaking games

My IELTS articles and worksheets pages have always had plenty of ideas for games, but they’ve been somewhat hidden under the other more boring but at least as useful activities like students making their own questions with typical question stems and choosing which exam tips are and are not true. I’ve therefore put together an article and list of handouts which can all be said to be actual games, including quite a few new ideas:

IELTS Speaking games article

Games for IELTS Speaking Part One, Part Two and Part Three (combining them or teach any one of them on their own)

IELTS Speaking games photocopiables, in approximate order of gamenessness

IELTS Speaking dice games

IELTS Speaking Parts One, Two and Three dice game

IELTS Speaking Part One dice game and question brainstorming

IELTS Speaking Part One dice game (version of the game above, but with different times and tenses and review of useful time expressions)

IELTS Speaking board games

IELTS Speaking Part One board game and useful phrases

Forgetting language board game (don’t particularly recommend this one, but might inspire you to come up with something better)

IELTS Speaking card games

IELTS Speaking Part One topics card game (ask questions on a topic until your partner guesses exactly what the card says – need to emphasize not using the word on the card in the questions to make it work)

IELTS Speaking simplest responses games

IELTS Speaking candidate or examiner game (hold up cards depending on who you think is speaking)

IELTS Presentations starting and ending phrases game

IELTS determiners and prepositions pairwork guessing game

IELTS Speaking prepositions and determiners pairwork guessing game

IELTS speaking and writing determiners pairwork guessing game

Other IELTS Speaking games

Ask and analyse 100 typical IELTS Speaking Part One questions (choose a number at random and answer that question)

IELTS Speaking add errors version 1 (add errors and see if another group can spot them)

IELTS Speaking add errors version 2 (ditto)

IELTS Speaking clarifying language (pretend you don’t understand all the questions and check before answering them)

Clarifying language and numbers review (dictate as quickly as possible then use the clarifying phrases to double check)

IELTS pausing language (speaking as long as you can without silence)

Posted in Teaching English as a Foreign Language | Leave a comment

Getting more complex language from your students Part Two

The follow up to this article, also published in English Teaching Professional.

Given the likelihood that your students often communicate with people who have a lower level of English than they do, there is much to be said for even intermediate-level students  getting some practice in simplifying their language in order to accommodate the people they are speaking to. However, even in the “English as a Lingua Franca” world in which we live, I still think our main emphasis should be on persuading our students to move quickly on from language they know well to something more ambitious. This is especially so when they are in the perfect place to try something new – in our classrooms. For one thing, even students who usually communicate with other non-native speakers often say that interacting with native speakers is their main challenge, and trying to use the kinds of tricky language that native speakers do is the best way of remembering it and making sure you really understand it. The same is also true for understanding authentic material such as newspaper articles and radio programmes produced by and for native speakers, which still make up a majority of the English-language materials that a student is likely to come across.

More sophisticated language is also vital for exams like Cambridge English Advanced and the higher grades in IELTS, as more complex language is a good way of making up the marks that students will inevitably lose by making errors. Acquiring a set of impressively advanced-sounding phrases is a lot easier than it is to stop making even “basic” errors like third person S.  Studying more advanced language is also a lot more motivating than trying to eliminate all mistakes with more basic words and phrases. In fact, I’d say that a philosophy of always moving upwards and onwards is perhaps the best way of retaining motivation to learn English.

As freer communication in the classroom will usually involve the opposite skill of simplifying language to match the person who is listening, if you want your students to concentrate on boosting the level of language that they use, you’ll need some more controlled speaking games. This article has examples of board games and a card game, then a description of the more general technique of students monitoring each other for more ambitious language use.

Use the functions card game

Prepare packs of cards with the names of several functions on the cards. For example, to practise turn-taking, you could use cards with one of these functions on each one:

  • Interrupting
  • Refusing interruption
  • Taking the turn back / Getting back on track
  • Offering others the chance to speak
  • Keeping others speaking
  • Signalling the end of your turn
  • Turning down the chance to speak
  • Ending your interruption

The full set of cards would contain three or four cards with each function.

The students are put into small groups and all the cards are dealt out. The students look at their own cards, but don’t show them to the other players. During a speaking activity that you assign, such as a roleplay teleconference, the students must successfully do the thing that is written on one of their cards, using a phrase that no one else has said during the game, in order to be able to discard that card. The person with the fewest cards left in their hand when the game finishes is the winner. The students can then work together to brainstorm suitable phrases for each function (both those that they used during the game and any other suitable phrases that they can think of).

This game can also be used for many other kinds of language, for example cards saying “opening greeting”, “friendly language”, “opening line”, “explaining reasons”, “closing line” and “closing greeting” for emailing (roleplaying by saying what they would write in response to each other).  

Here are three photocopiable versions of this game:

Turn taking functions card game

Sharing personal experiences functions card game

FCE Speaking Part One functions card games

Use the functions board game

I have recently found that this game works even better with a board to move round than it does with cards to discard . Each student talks about a topic written in the square that their counter lands on, perhaps in response to a question on the topic from someone else in their group. While they are speaking, they try to use phrases which haven’t been said so far and which has the functions written in the middle of the board game. The other students act as monitors, listening out for new phrases which fulfil those functions and putting a tick if they hear one, awarding one point for each when the person stops speaking. That person can then move that many squares forward on the board. The person who is furthest round the board when the teacher stops the game wins. The students can then brainstorm good high-level phrases for those functions, including things they didn’t say during the game.

There is a version of this game for the Cambridge First Certificate speaking exam here:

FCE Speaking Part One functional language board game

Match the criteria board game

This is an extension of the idea of monitoring for functional language use. As well as monitoring each other for appropriate and original language as in the game above, students can listen out for their partners matching other criteria for successful communication such as:

  • successfully doing the thing that they are asked to
  • giving a good impression
  • being polite
  • being friendly
  • starting well
  • ending well
  • using language that has been studied during the course
  • avoiding silence (speaking fluently, filling silence, etc)

This can easily be turned into a board game similar to that above by the other students in the group monitoring for which of those things are true while one person does the challenge in the box that their counter is on, such as a roleplay. They tick any of the criteria that they think are true as they are listening, then the person whose turn it is can move the number of squares of the number of ticks that they got.

There are three photocopiable versions of this game here:

Dealing with foreign guests meeting criteria board game

IELTS Speaking Part One meeting criteria board game

Different kinds of business communication meeting criteria board game

There will also be a negotiating language one coming soon.

If the situations in the squares on the board are roleplays, it is best if the students work in groups of at least three people, with the people who aren’t speaking working as the monitor, ticking the criteria and giving points.

Other group monitor activities

The idea of having a monitor in each group can also be used during the card games described in this and my last article. The simplest variation is for one person who is not taking part in the game giving cards back to people if they try to discard them without successfully doing the thing written on them or if they use phrases that others have used before them.

A bigger change is for the monitor to hold all the cards (rather than dealing them out to people), giving them to people as they successfully do the thing written on them or using the words written on them (as usual with language that hasn’t been used by anyone else during the game). In this case, the person with most cards at the end of the game wins.

Having monitors can also be very useful even without a game element to the activity. For example, one person can sit out each speaking activity such as roleplays that you are using, monitoring for a list of criteria that they have been given such as “smoothly starting and ending the conversation”, “speaking about half each” or “politely interrupting”. After the speaking is finished, the monitor gives feedback and suggestions on how they could do the things that weren’t so strong better next time, with the people who took part in the communicative activity adding their own ideas if they like. They can then perhaps try the same activity again. If you want to add more of a game element to that, the monitor can also declare a winner of each exchange based on the criteria that they have been given, with the “prize” perhaps being able to sit out the next round and take the monitor role.

Posted in Functional language | Leave a comment

13 reasons why chairs with flaps are better than tables

1. When beating out word and sentence stress, chairs with flaps allows for more Stomp-style variations such as shaking the whole chair and flapping the flaps up and down.

2. The dropping and picking up of various classroom accoutrements helps keep students physically active, awake and alert, and therefore able to learn more.

3. The periodic sound of books, pens, notebooks etc falling on the floor has the pleasing aesthetic effect of rain on a forest canopy, helping to take away student stress and so make them readier to communicate.

4. Flaps can lead to real classroom communication like “Can you hold my book for me while I try to get out of here so we can change pairs again?” and “How on earth are we supposed to fit all these cut up pieces of paper on a flap, let alone put them into order?”

5. As in drama lessons and therapy, it’s best to make our students feel as physically exposed and vulnerable as possible. If that makes them burst into tears occasionally when doing particularly therapeutic humanistic language learning activities, all the better.

6. Being able to physically hide behind desks might make students also hide their knowledge of phrasal verbs or desire to know about the Present Perfect Continuous.

7. When doing TPR activities, having flaps allows the learning of useful vocabulary such as “Put your flap at a 45 degree angle”, “Put a flap of skin between the flap and its hinge” and “Bash your knee on your flap as you try to stand up”, rather than just the usual “Touch the table” and “Put the book under the table”.

8. The aforementioned flap-related injuries also provides a good opportunity to teach swearing and/ or euphemisms like “Sugar!” and “Gor blimey!”

9. Male students can exploit the space in front of them to practise the “ankle of one foot on the knee of the other” seating position during the lesson as part of their cultural training.

10. “Flaps” sounds like an amusing euphemism for something.

11. Flaps allow for more creative love making by the teachers in their weekly Friday night orgy after all the students have gone home.

12. The inevitable few teachers who are too shy and/ or inexperienced to take part in that can make castles out of them.

13. Just like with cubicles in offices, we can absolutely trust that chairs with flaps were put into schools purely for the benefit of the people who use them, with the fact that they also help schools stuff more people into small spaces just a lucky coincidence.

Posted in Teaching English as a Foreign Language | Tagged | 1 Comment

The single best thing about TEFL

To give a bit of balance after my cynical off-day thoughts, I started writing a post wondering aloud if any job in the world could actually suit me as well as TEFL. I gave that up when it turned into more of a list of my personal failing than an ad for teaching English, but one thing stood out so much that I thought it was worth a post of its own.

For me, the best thing about TEFL is that you can put in exactly as much or as little effort as you like. Off day, hangover and or job which really isn’t worth it? Bang off some photocopies or teach straight out of the book with a joke or multipurpose game or two and still everyone will be happy. Feeling keen or found a lesson which is motivating to prepare? Every minute of those four hours collecting trivia etc will probably be worth it.

Or not?

Posted in Teaching English as a Foreign Language | 1 Comment

Stop speaking Japanese (etc)

… or How to React to Random English in Your Everyday Life Abroad.

This was supposed to be in Tokyo’s freebie listings magazine Metropolis, but it was so badly mangled by the editor that I decided to publish the original version for free here rather than the butchered version for free there. Given the topic, should be relevant to many people working in countries other than Japan too:

Even people with rubbish Japanese or who have only been here a short time have probably experienced someone with even worse English addressing them in that language, most probably a shop assistant or a man who’s looking for some free English conversation to liven his retirement up.

There are five possible reactions to this situation, all of which I’ve used at one time or another:

1) Reply in your (slightly or much) better Japanese, perhaps with your body language, tone of voice or unnecessarily advanced language showing how unhappy you were to be addressed in crappy English just because you look foreign

2) Reply in Japanese, but with a smile showing you appreciate their efforts

3) Interact silently while smiling to politely reject having to speak in English just because you don’t “look Japanese” but without rubbing their nose in it

4) Reply in English with natural speed and pronunciation, knowing that it will be met with incomprehension and so you can instantly switch to the Japanese that you’d be happier with

5) Try replying in simple English, being ready to switch to Japanese whenever it seems they might prefer that

The best response can depend on factors like how much the person addressing you in English is sweating and/ or shaking and your position in Japanese society. However, for the vast majority of people and occasions, the response should be the one I’ve resolved to use from now on, number 5. Reasons include:

  • It is the only option that takes the attempt to address you in English in the spirit in which it is usually intended, which is to help you and/ or make you feel welcome in Japan
  • The Japanese are often criticised for being shy about speaking English, so it hardly seems fair to disapprove of them doing so, whatever the circumstances
  • They might assume you’ve not understood their English or be embarrassed by your reaction, and so almost certainly not try to speak English outside the classroom again
  • Many people are impressed by the helpfulness and welcoming nature of Japanese who help or chat to visitors in English (as my gran was when she visited in the 70s), and there is no way that the person speaking to you could know that you were going to take it another way
  • It might not even be their choice to speak English, but rather something pushed on them by their employer or English teacher.
  • The Japanese government (and so presumably population) agrees to giving us visas with the stated ambition of “internationalising” Japan, and I’d imagine they would want us to “gambarimasu” with that even in our free time, especially with the Olympics already on everyone’s minds. That duty includes many people who are not actual language teachers but have nonetheless been employed at least partly with the idea of getting the Japanese people around them used to dealing with gaikokujin.

Some people think the automatic switching to English when someone doesn’t “look Japanese” is a kind of racism, and I imagine it is true that it is the colour of your skin, hair and/ or eyes that is the prompt in the majority of cases. However, this is simply an easy shortcut in the same way as Tunisian market traders seem to spot my French-Tunisian friend’s clothes and/ or body language and so know instantly that she’s a potential target – and in Japan it is usually without the aim of hard sell. I therefore can’t get myself worked up about the race part of the equation in this kind of case.

Perhaps the strongest objection to replying in English to English used randomly with strangers is a milder version of the same argument – that the Japanese need to get used to people with different backgrounds being part of Japanese society and being treated the same as other citizens of this country. I absolutely accept this point – for the few incomers who really are trying to become part of Japanese society. Personally, I’m not willing to accept the social pressure etc that truly “becoming Japanese” would entail and embrace my role as an outsider who acts and is treated differently.

Therefore, though it’s often inconvenient, uncomfortable and even annoying, I really can’t justify anything other than responding to all attempts at my native tongue in convenience stores, trains and stations with a smile and as polite and simple an English reply as I can manage. I even usually succeed in suppressing the thought “You owe me several hundred yen for those few minutes of free Eikaiwa, mate”. In fact, a bit like smiling even when you are depressed actually making you happy, responding in the nicest way seems to be making me appreciate people’s efforts in using English with me more, however little I need it. As it is almost certainly making them feel better too, I urge most of you to join me in the struggle.

Posted in Teaching English Abroad, Teaching English in Japan | 3 Comments

I’m back on TEFLtastic (but I’m not sure how I feel about it)

A day or two ago when I was updating my worksheets pages I got a message that TEFLtastic had been suspended from WordPress because I’d “broken the Terms of Service”. I quickly hit the contact button but given how I had no idea which of the many terms of service I’d broken and that I’d made some enemies over the years of blogging, there seemed to be a good chance that hundreds or thousands of hours of (unpaid) work over seven years had suddenly, completely and permanently disappeared.

My first thought was “I should really blog about this”… Along with an empty feeling that such a big part of the last few years had gone, my second thought was that a few more hours and a lot more thinking time in every week had suddenly become free. I’d probably be more likely to waste even more time reading comments on the Guardian website than join the gym or write a book like I started to imagine, but having a TEFL blog has started to seem like an even more ridiculous use of my free time.

But here I am again anyway, looking at my blog stats a couple of times a day to make writing about my job for zero financial reward and endlessly linking to myself seem less silly…

Posted in Teaching English as a Foreign Language | 7 Comments

New ELT games and other photocopiable activities October 2014

Actually more than a month’s supply as it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts, but with most recent top:

Making Arrangements Phone Calls Game

Analyse and write IELTS Speaking Part Two Tasks

Past or Present? Used to/Would Speaking Game

Present Simple Routines Pairwork Information Gap

Present Simple Third Person Guessing Game

Present Simple Taboo Questions Game

Present Simple Matchmakers Game

Present Simple Job Interviews Roleplay Game

Present Simple Guess Who Game

Present Simple Personalised Board Game

Present Simple Sentence Completion Bluffing game

Present Simple Ask and Tell Taboo Questions Game

Adverbs of Frequency Describe the Jobs Game

Adverbs of Frequency Bluffing Card Game

Different Stress and Intonation in Negotiations

Cambridge First Certificate (FCE) Writing Part Two Review Tasks

Paragraphing Mistakes in Emails

Opening & Closing Emails Jigsaw Puzzle Game

Negotiating Saying Yes, No & Maybe

IELTS Speaking Parts One, Two and Three Dice Game

Ask and analyse 100 IELTS Speaking Part One Typical Questions

Regrets Dice Bluffing Game

Social Issues Numbers Pairwork

Email formal and informal functional language review

IELTS Speaking Part One Board Game & Useful Language

‘Have Something Done’ Speaking Practice

There is/ There are How Many Board Game

Infinitives of Purpose Adventure Board Game

Determiners with Countable and Uncountable Nouns

Put the Dates in Order Games

Imperative for Offers and Commands in Presentations

“Have You Ever” Job Interview Questions Games

Emailing Politeness Competition Game

Apologies and giving bad news key words speaking game

Longer requests phrases card game

Turn taking functions card game

Business Result Pre-Intermediate rotating revision board game


Posted in Photocopiable worksheets, TEFL games | 4 Comments

Mixed results from Denver court order to improve teaching of English

This is a genuinely interesting story, but it also made me wonder what other court orders could influence our industry:

- A court orders a teacher to allow a pair of students who are flirting with each other to stay together, despite the activity finishing

- A court orders teachers to stop wasting time changing pairs all the time more generally

- A court orders IATEFL to actually represent its members when it comes to discrimination, industrial action, working conditions, etc

- A court gives compensation to a student, teacher or school who were fooled into buying a new textbook by the marking bs used by the publishers

- A court gives compensation to an ELT writer who was dismissed for introducing topics like LGBT issues into their textbook

- A judge gets all the “biggest TEFL courses” together to work out which actually have the right to claim that

- A court gives compensation to some who failed a CELTA or DELTA due to no scientific evidence that the way they were asked to teach is any more effective than the way that they did on the course

- A court stops recruiters asking for photos so that they can choose teachers by looks or race


Anyone fancy starting any of the cases above or have any other ideas of ones which could change our TEFL world?

Posted in Teaching English as a Foreign Language | Tagged | Leave a comment