Interesting Ways to Commence Language Studies: Using commencement speeches

Posted July 9, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Methodology

Tags: , , , ,

graduation capI have briefly mentioned the possibility of using commencement speeches in the past, but coming across some good ones recently inspired me to consider additional ideas in detail.

Do you have a favorite speaker? I really enjoyed Steve’s Job 2005 speech at Standford and J. K. Rowling’s 2008 speech at Harvard. is one of a number of sites that offer a list of all-time best commencement addresses, and both Jobs and Rowling made their list. Marlo Thomas of the Huffington Post put together her list of the best addresses from 2014.

No matter which speech you or your students choose to use, there is sure to be inspirational content along with useful expressions and a good listening sample of authentic language. Some considerations:

  • Length. The addresses are long by nature, so you may consider using an address in parts or simply choose to focus on an excerpt that students can work with to target different skills. They can always be encouraged to listen to or read the full address independently.
  • Difficult content. I don’t really mean the complexity of the language, for all the addresses will use formal language and higher level vocabulary. I’m referring to the anecdotes speakers tend to use to refer to adversity and realities of the world. You’ll have to decide what is appropriate for your students. For example, if you choose an excerpt from J. K. Rowling’s address, you would not want to focus heavily on the accounts of  torture victims.  You’d be wise to focus more on her description of failure.
  • Format. There are some interesting high school commencement speeches that have potential for classroom use, but unless there are accurate captions or a transcript, you may want to make another selection. The high profile speeches, like Rowling’s, are sure to have both the video (with clear audio) and the transcript. Having the speech in both formats allows you more possibilities and gives the students richer resources.

What are the classroom possibilities?

  1. Reading skills. Other than the the traditional approach of listening to the speech, posing comprehension questions, and then discussing the content, you might choose to focus on the structure. Can students look at the speech as a whole and make an outline? Can they identify the main theme, subtopics, and supporting details? Once this is done, then you can move into discussion and reflection.
  2. Listening/reading skills. You could provide the basic outline and students could be asked to complete it.  If no title is shown at first, invite them to provide a title. You can write in the supporting details and ask them to identify the main points.
  3. Writing skills. Can students look at the speech as a whole and critique the structure? Is there a consistent theme, development, and enough support? Evaluate the strength of the conclusion.
  4. Listening skills. You can create a true-false quiz that students can answer as they listen to the speech. I’d suggest focusing on the personal anecdotes and the facts of what happened.  A second quiz can be created for post-listening. At that stage, students can handle reflection and answer true-false questions about what is implied.
  5. Speaking/writing skills. Most commencement addresses include quotes. Ask students to scan the transcript for quotes and then paraphrase or summarize each one. After they share their work, they could be invited to comment on the meaning and state agreement or disagreement. They may also share their own personal stories that illustrate the quote.
  6. Vocabulary. As a class, students can create a vocabulary notebook. Invite each student to read an assigned segment and highlight 2-3 new vocabulary items. Have them use dictionaries (offline or online) to find the meanings. Each student is responsible for teaching their words or expressions to the class. All information can be compiled and shared as a reference tool.

Do you have ideas of your own? I’d love to hear them.

Holiday Hopes

Posted July 1, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Announcements

Tags: , ,

East Point Carnival and Fourth of July CelebrationI will be celebrating the Fourth of July with my family this week. For those observing Independence Day, I hope you have a safe and happy holiday weekend.  And to everyone everywhere, peace and good wishes!

I will return next week with a new post.



Photo credit: “East Point Carnival and Fourth of July Celebration” by Jason Riedy. Retrieved from Creative Commons on Flickr.

Forms of Freedom: Practice with the word family FREE

Posted June 24, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Vocabulary

Tags: , , , , , , , , 4th is just around the corner. In the U.S., we will be celebrating Independence Day. Whether you are in the States or not, you may find time this week or next to do a little bit of work with the word family for “free.” Are you teaching upper level students at the present? Please consider my Forms of Freedom_handout. Enjoy!


Photo credit:

“July 4th Beach Fireworks” by Kevin Dooley

Retrieved from Flickr – Creative Commons


Note: While putting this activity together, I came across a very niche-specific YT channel that helps people say other people’s names correctly! Do you know how to say Freida? Did you know it rhymes with Rita? Visit, and you’ll see their videos are not limited to names of people. Here’s the link to their main website.

Frequent Flyer: An activity to practice adverbs of frequency

Posted June 20, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

Tags: , , , , , ,

“AW9FYG” by Sam ChurchillIt has been a long time since I worked with my friend and student Natasha, with whom I made my playlist for beginners. We are both in new towns and very far from each other, but because there has been a demand for more video lessons, I found the time to drive out to her new home recently. (Video to come!)

We reviewed, and then I decided to test her familiarity with adverbs of frequency. Natasha did well, but if given the chance to practice more with her, I would like to reinforce word order. Students generally pick up on the meanings quickly, but variation in word order can be the main challenge. With that in mind, I created my Frequent Flyer_handout. If you have basic level students, you may find this simple activity to be a good way to reinforce the patterns in word order. For this lesson, I limited the focus to always, usually, often, sometimes, rarely, and never.


Photo credit:

“AW9FYG” by Sam Churchill

Retrieved from Flickr, Creative Commons.

Push to Dispense: Understanding the grammar of consumer labels

Posted June 12, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

Tags: , , , , ,

DSC00127 Test Shot Cleaning Product 10-01-2014A few years back, I posted suggestions for using authentic weather reports in a language lesson. Those ideas came under the heading of “Survival English.” Recently, a student’s question highlighted another source of authentic language that will inevitably be encountered and that also poses a challenge for the learner: consumer labels. You know what I mean — the information on the back of a box or bottle that supplies instructions, warnings, and other pertinent information for the consumer.

Once your eyes adjust to the small text, you encounter a very specific writing style that is not unlike news headlines. Consumer labels use abbreviated language. The absence of articles as well as the occasional auxilary verb or object confused the one student until I explained the need for brevity. It was then I hit upon the challenge of asking learners to put the abbreviated language into standard spoken English. “Turn nozzle and push to dispense foam” really means “turn the nozzle and push it to dispense the foam.” We could explain to another user, “You have to turn the nozzle and then push it down to make the foam come out.”

Want a practical and original warm-up for upper level students? I call it Consumer Demos:

  1. Bring in a mix of personal care products and household cleaners, one for each student.
  2. Give them a minute to read the consumer information. Ask them to scan and find the uses and the instructions. They must be able to explain in more conversational English but using standard grammar what the product is for and how it should be used. Dictionaries may be used. Possible products: facial lotion, mouthwash, make-up remover, aftershave, all purpose cleaner, tub and tile cleanser, jewelry cleaner, car wax.
  3. In small groups, each student will take a turn presenting their product. After each student speaks, group members can comment on whether they have used the product or a similar one.

You can easily move into a grammar or vocabulary lesson by selecting language from the labels.

  • Definite article and other modifiers. Present a line from the instructions and ask students to change it from abbreviated language to standard language. Example: “Squeeze small amount into palm of hand.” > “Squeeze a small amount into the palm of your hand.” Discuss the reasons why articles or other modifiers are needed.
  • Vocabulary. From “nozzle” to “dispense,” most consumer labels tend to use the same word choices. Are your students familiar with these words? See my Push to Dispense_handout for more practice.


Photo credit:

“DSC00127 Test Shot Cleaning Product 10-01-2014″ by rodtuk

Retrieved from Flickr, Creative Commons

Fun, Useful Ideas for Working with Adjectives

Posted June 5, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Grammar

Tags: , , , , ,

My next grammar video will target the order of adjectives. I find it’s one of those topics that can put me a loss for answers. Why do we put size before color? Why do we put shape after size? Well…because. It sounds like a lame answer, but that’s just what we do. Language users develop standards, and it’s best to observe those standards for clear communication. If you talk about a brown big couch, you might be putting a pothole in the road to comprehension. In contrast, the phrase a big brown couch is easily digested in the flow of conversation.

I’ve posted some ideas for practice in the past. Now I’d like to offer a way to help learners discover the patterns before moving into production. Please consider my reading-based activity: The Empty White Room_handout.

How to Learn Collocations: Independence from Teachers and Dependence on Resources

Posted May 28, 2014 by englishwithjennifer
Categories: Vocabulary

Tags: , , , , , ,

Another teacher recently asked about ways to teach collocations to upper level students. The inquiry reminded me of what I took away from a TESOL session in Portland this past March. A team from  Academy of Art University, San Francisco focused on building learner independence. They recommended showing students how to work with COCA and Vocabulary Profiler when reading academic texts. I agree with this idea of putting tools in the hands of our students. They will not always be taking our lessons, but they will have the information given and the skills practiced in our lessons.

While learners are studying with us, I believe in using a very valuable resource: one another. Whether it’s a group lesson or private lesson, I see value in practicing vocabulary through conversation and student-generated texts. Vocabulary is mastered through multiple encounters, but repetition must be meaningful. That’s why context is so important. But how can we be certain  that content will be engaging and target language will be retained? That’s where using students’ own ideas comes in. This personalizes the lesson and can increase learner engagement and retention of material.

I’ve shared classroom activities in the past to practice collocations:

These kinds of activities teach students best practices for learning vocabulary now and in the future:

  1. Don’t try to learn too much at one time.
  2. Don’t just learn the meaning of the word. Learn how it’s used. Learn the collocations.
  3. Pay attention to context.
  4. Don’t just look at the information. Practice using it. Try using collocations in your own speech.
  5. Listen to others and pay attention to their use of collocations. When in doubt about what you hear, check a learner’s dictionary.

As for the future, we can allow students to get ready for independent learning by practicing different approaches under our guidance. If they are wondering which words to learn, they could be told about high frequency word lists, like the AWL. You can visit the site together and explain how the sublists identify the most common words. Also, students could select a text and focus on high frequency words identified by Vocabulary Profiler. TESOLers Jill Ballard, Laurie Frazier, and Shalle Leeming of Academy of Art University suggested this and the use of COCA to discover collocations. COCA can be intimidating, though, so I’d offer a list of questions to help make sense of the results displayed on COCA:

  • What kind language are you looking at — spoken, fiction, academic, etc?
  • Do you see repeated phrases (e.g., adjective + noun “statistical analysis”) or repeated structures (e.g., noun + preposition “analysis of”)?
  • Can you confirm collocations with a learner’s dictionary?




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