Posted tagged ‘TEFL’

First and Last: A speaking activity

December 20, 2010

About a year ago, I posted a speaking activity called “Firsts” for upper level students. Allow me to offer another activity that could be used with both upper and lower level students. I call it “First and Last”. I find it timely for such activities as 2010 is drawing to a close, and we’ll soon be welcoming the first day of 2011.

Click here for printable First and Last_handout.

[Version A. For basic levels]

Directions for the teacher:

Step 1 – Use the activity to practice question and answer formation using the simple past. Write the following verb phrases on the board. You may add other phrases if you wish to target other irregular verbs. Be sure all words are understood.

bake a cake                                                                        ride a motorcycle

dance a slow dance                                                      see a shark

drink a cocktail                                                              speak to a large group

go hiking                                                                             spend a lot of money

make a big mistake                                                      watch a scary movie

meet someone from another country         write a letter in English


Step 2 – Under the verb phrases write these prompts:

Question 1: When was the first time you ______________?

Question 2: When was the last time you ______________?


Answer 1: The first/ last time I ______________ was ______________. [At what age? What year? How many years ago?]

Answer 2: I never ______________.


Step 3 – Moving clockwise around the room, one student will ask another classmate about a first or last experience. If student A asks about a first time, then student B must ask student C about a last time. New verbs can be used in each exchange. If a student is able to recall the first or last time of a certain experience, the questioner must add one more question to learn one more detail.


Student A: When was the first time you watched a scary movie?

Student B: The first time I watched a scary movie was maybe in the seventh grade.

Student A: What film did you watch?

Student B: Aliens.

Student B: When was the last time you baked a cake?

Student C: I never baked a cake.


 [Version B. For intermediate and advanced levels]

Follow the same steps; however, the focus will be on pronunciation. Explain how old versus new information influence both sentence structure and sentence stress. Note how usually old information comes first and new information comes last when giving an answer. New information receives greater stress.

Before students begin the Q&A activity, share the model and underline the words that should be stressed.

Student A: When was the first time you watched a scary movie?

Student B: The first time I watched a scary movie was maybe in the seventh grade.

Student A: What film did you watch?

Student B:  I saw Aliens.

Student B: When was the last time you baked a cake?

Student C: I never baked a cake.

 Be sure students are using falling intonation for wh- questions and rising intonation for yes-no questions.



Celebrating New Year’s Eve: A whole language activity

December 16, 2010

Are you planning ahead for your last lesson of the month? Perhaps you’d like to use an activity with a New Year’s Eve theme. Here’s one for adult learners at the lower levels.  Enjoy!

Step 1 – Present the following vocabulary:

at midnight                         champagne                        make a toast                     

celebrate                             dress up                               New Year’s Eve



 Step 2 – Ask them to complete the short text (Task A) on the New Year’s Eve Activity_handout.

Step 3 – Have students work in pairs to unscramble the survey questions (Task B). Then correct their work as a class. Discuss variations.

Step 4 – Have students work in small groups of 3 or 4 to discuss the questions from Task B.

Step 5 – OPTIONAL: Ask the small groups of students to create 1-2 additional questions about celebrating New Year’s Eve. Write the questions on the board and then ask each student to answer one of the questions (in a complete sentence).

Looking for the Truth About Language Levels

December 10, 2010

As teachers, we recognize a difference between Zero and False Beginners. I wonder if we could have a discussion about students whose different language skills are at both the intermediate and advanced levels. Let me clarify. I’m not referring to high intermediate students, whose language skills are all more or less progressing at the same rate towards advanced proficiency. I’m giving thought to those students who only in some respects can be called advanced because they still have some skills that are clearly below the advanced level. Is there a label for this? “False Advanced” sounds unfair. Perhaps “quasi-advanced”? We might then say, for example, “Anna is quasi-advanced, with her strongest skills being reading, writing, and grammar.” or “John is quasi-advanced, with writing being his main weakness.” What do you think?

I entered this reflection after considering the levels of some students I’ve interacted with both recently and in the past. Some clearly have strong comprehension, but are limited in self-expression. Others feel at ease during conversation, but shy away from reading and writing. Of course, all students have their individual strengths, but in some cases the gap between certain skills is significant. Have you made similar observations?

While thinking about language levels, I also tried to formulate a more concise answer to a question I’m often asked by students. They are typically intermediate language learners and desperately wish to be advanced. “How can I improve my English?” they ask. “How can I become more fluent?” My advice is rather voluminous. Very often I refer students to my collection of Study Tips. More recently, I’ve tried to learn what others feel is key to the success in language learning. In response to my question, people were first indicating that it was one’s ability to set and meet goals. As of today, the poll shows that people believe the true advantage is the chance to immerse onself in a country where the target language is spoken.

Your thoughts?

So They Said: An activity to practice verb + preposition combinations

December 6, 2010

Phrasal verbs alone pose their own challenges. However, another group of verbs that deserves attention in the course of students’ studies is the common combinations of verbs and prepositions. For example, suffer from is not a phrasal verb, but it’s a standard combination. How can students learn such combinations? Multiple encounters certainly help, but active practice clarifies doubts. Here’s a series of short exercises for ten common verb + preposition combinations.

Step 1 –
Remind students that a good number of verbs are followed by specific prepositions. These combinations are not considered phrasal verbs but are simply set structures. Write two columns on the board with verbs on the left and prepositions on the right. Give students 1-2 minutes to recall as many matches as possible. Let them work alone, and then correct their work together as a class. Note: They must use each preposition listed only once. Two verbs can be followed by “about”.

Verbs: beg, confess, dream, insist, laugh, play, succeed, suffer, talk, warn

Prepositions: about, about, against, at, for, from, in, on, to, with

 ANSWERS: beg for, confess to, dream about, insist on, laugh at, play with, succeed in, suffer from, talk about, warn against

Step 2 – Hand out the next matching activity (Verb and prepositions_handout). Students must match the verb + preposition combinations to the speakers. This can be done in pairs or as solo work.

ANSWERS: 1. suffer from  2. dream about  3. talk about  4. confess to  5. laugh at  6. insist on  7. warn against  8.  beg for  9. play with  10. succeed in 

Step 3 –
Have students work in pairs or small groups to create questions and answer them.  One variation is to have groups switch papers and answer one another’s questions.

Looking for more practice? Kenneth Beare of offers two interactive quizzes students can try independently. Click here for Quiz 1 and Quiz 2.

Here We Come A-Caroling: Language lessons through holiday songs

December 3, 2010

Looking for some holiday ideas?

Past ideas for bringing the December holidays into the classroom included letters to Santa and holiday tongue twisters.  The list of suggestions doesn’t seem complete without addressing the use of Christmas carols.  Here are some possibilities:

  • Santa Claus is Coming to Town. With the very first line a lesson begins on modal-like expressions for giving advice and warnings.
  • Winter Wonderland. Have advanced students find all the present participles in this song and identify their uses. They’ll see the present progressive, verbal adjectives, and adverb phrases. You’ll have an interesting discussion over the line “when your nose gets a chilling”.
  • Sleigh Ride. This might be one of the fastest carols known. For that reason, it can serve as pronunciation practice for upper level students. Let them practice at a slow pace and work their way towards the actual rate at which it’s usually sung. Trickiest lines: “Just hear those sleigh bells jingling ring ting tingling too.” and  “Giddy yap, giddy yap, giddy yap. Let’s go.”
  • Let It Snow. This carol can help give practice with the American pronunciations of /t/. It includes the glottal stop and the flapped /t/.
  • The Christmas Song. A slow and beautiful tune to learn! You could use the first verse to demonstrate the different meanings of present and past participles. The present participles “roasting” and “nipping” express an active meaning, while the past participles “sung” and “dressed” express a passive meaning. You could also practice question formation by challenging students to create a question for each line of music. For example, “What do people do with chestnuts?” – The roast them on an open fire. / “Who sings yuletide carols?” – Yuletide carols are sung by a choir. Turn it into a game and see which team comes up with the most correctly written questions.

Party Poll: A speaking activity

December 1, 2010

Step 1 – Copy enough survey sheets so that each student receives one. (See below for printable copies.) For groups larger than then, you may make doubles or create additional surveys on other topics. Note: These questions (especially the first five sets) were written for adult learners.

Step 2 – Give each student one survey sheet. Ask them to review their four questions, use a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words, and add a fifth question.

Step 3 – Tell students that they will have 10-15 minutes to talk with up to 5 different classmates. During each exchange, they must take turns asking and answering questions. Answers can be kept brief and should be noted on the survey sheet in the appropriate boxes. If the number of students is odd, allow for a grouping of three.

Step 4 – After the Q&A period, have students sit down and review the information collected. They must prepare to share this information with the class and draw at least one conclusion based on their findings. Write prompts on the board to facilitate their mini presentations. Suggestions:

            3 out of 5 people said that…

            2 out of 5 people think that…

            I asked 5 people (….), and everyone agreed that…

            I asked 5 people (…), and no one believed that…

            Based on all these answers, I believe…

            Considering all this information, I’d say that…


To review question formation, scramble the questions and ask students to correctly write them before the Q&A period.

Printable copy of instructions for the teacher: Party Poll_instructions for teacher

Printable Student Survey Sheets: Party Poll_student sheets

Partners’ Pastimes: An activity with Wh- questions

November 29, 2010

You may choose to use this activity in the context of a grammar or writing lesson for basic or low intermediate students.

Step 1 – Explain the meaning of pastime. Do the students know of any other word with a similar meaning (i.e., hobby)? List a few of your favorite pastimes on the board, and as you write single words or short phrases, be sure to speak in full sentences. For example, you may write reading as you say, “I enjoy reading.”

Step 2 – Create several question cards. You can use index cards or slips of paper. Ask the students to help by telling you question words in English that ask for more information. Write one word on each card. [Suggestions: how, why, where, when, who, how often, how much, how many, with whom, at what time, which, etc.] Shuffle the cards and place them in a stack.

Step 3 – Hand the stack to the first student. When a student takes a turn, she or he will take the top card from the stack and make a question about one of your pastimes using that question word. Example: [where] “Where do you read?” / “Where do you like to read?” Answer each student’s question. The stack will be passed on to the next student on the left.

Step 4 – Place students in small groups, one group for each of your pastimes. Ask them to compose a short text based on the information they learned during the questioning. When possible, they should combine information. For example, they may know when and where you like to do an activity. That information can be stated in a single sentence.

Model: Jennifer enjoys reading. She likes to read at home in the evenings. She reads many different books. She gets books from the library. Her favorite books are science fiction.

Step 5 – Have students pair up for partner interviews. They may use my Wh- Questions_handout to learn more information about their partners’ pastimes and then write a short text.

Questionable Qualities: An activity with embedded questions

November 22, 2010

Here’s a quick form of practice to reinforce the use of embedded questions as objects, subjects, and complements.

Step 1 –
Tell students they’ll be creating descriptions about fictitious people based on a dominant quality in their character. Give students the Embedded Questions Activity_handout. Look the photos in Set A. The first two fictitious people are named Clueless Cleave and Clever Chloe. Look at the model sentences about each person: Cleave never knows what to do in a crisis. / Chloe always knows how a problem can be solved quickly. Ask students to identify the objects in each sentence. Note how an embedded question can be in the form of a question word + an infinitive.

Step 2 – Have students work in pairs to complete the sentences in Set A. Ask students to share their ideas with the class.

Step 3 – Look the photos in Set B. There are two fictitious people named Grumpy Gretchen and Gracious Greg. Look at the model sentences about each person: Why people smile and say hello to strangers is a mystery to Gretchen. / Whether to share or not is never a question for Greg. Ask students to identify the subjects in each sentence. Note how an embedded question can be in the form of whether (or not) + an infinitive.

Step 4 – Have students work in pairs to complete the sentences in Set B. Ask students to share their ideas with the class.

Step 5 – Look the photos in Set C. There are two fictitious people named Laid-back Luke and Ambitious Barbara. Look at the model sentences about each person: The nice thing about Luke is how he never complains. / It’s surprising how much Barbara can get done in one week. Ask students to identify the embedded questions and then indicate which is a subject complement and which is an adjective complement.

Step 6 – Have students work in pairs to complete the sentences in Set C. Ask students to share their ideas with the class.

Step 7 – (optional) - Ask students to decide if any of the sentences could be applied to themselves. Can they create at least one sentence about their own character using an embedded question?

Particular Places: An Activity for Adjective Clauses

November 19, 2010

A reader brought up a tricky grammar point in the comment section of Student Stumper 10. Her students were confused about the choice between which and where as a relative pronoun. Perhaps you have a clear and simple explanation you could offer. I suggested breaking down a sentence with an adjective clause to show the different meanings of which and where. For example: I remember the park where we first met. Where means there. We first met there. In contrast, consider this example: I walk my dogs in the park which is close to my house. Which means it. It (the park) is close to my house.  The relative pronouns could not be switched in these two examples.

To help students feel more confident about their choice of relative pronoun. I offer the following activity.

Step 1 – Review the choice between which and where as a relative pronoun. You may give these examples and discuss why the pronouns may not be switched: Example 1 – I love the park which has the big fountain and bike path. / Example 2 – I love the park where you can feed the deer.

Step 2 – Ask students to name types of places around town of which there are two of more. For example, your town or city might have three museums or two movie theaters. They might know of at least four different coffee shops. List these places on the board by name. (E.g. The Boston Science Museum) Develop a list of four or five categories, such as museums, theaters, night clubs, cafés, and libraries. 

Step 3 – Place students in small groups of three or four. Ask them to vote among themselves to decide which place is the best in each category. For each chosen place, they must write a sentence using an adjective clause with which or where as the relative pronoun, and they must leave out the name of the place. Example: We think the museum which has the dinosaur exhibit is the best one. / We like the museum where you can take a simulated rocket ride.

Step 4 – As a whole class, students will share their top choices in each category. Other groups will try to identify the place by name after hearing the clues, all of which are being presented with adjective clauses.

Printable version of this activity: Adjective Clauses Activity_handout

The Color of Money: An activity with finance idioms

November 15, 2010

Later this week I plan to publish a video about Black Friday, the biggest shopping day in the U.S.  The very name of this day along with its significance in the retail world makes me think this is a good time to share money-related idioms with students. I’ve selected five that not only relate to finance, but also make use of colors.

Step 1 – Present the following five idioms: in the red/ out of the red, in the back, not (worth) one red cent, a golden opportunity, (see) the color of someone’s money. Ask first if any students are familiar with the expressions. Give short definitions to clarify the meanings. More context can be provided later.

  • in the red = in debt, losing money/ out of the red = out of debt, now with profit
  • in the black = not in debt, showing  profit
  • not (worth) one red cent = having no value
  • a golden opportunity = a chance to be very successful, often in terms of money
  • (see) the color of someone’s money = want to see if someone actually has the money to pay for something

Step 2 – Check student’s comprehension of the idioms by having them match the idiom to a photo that illustrates its meaning. See my suggestions on my Color & Finance Idioms_handout. Note how I contextualized each idiom in a sentence.

Step 3 – Have students work in pairs. Assign an idiom to each pair. (In large classes, some idioms will be assigned to more than one pair.) Ask them to create a short dialog that includes the quoted speech from the matching exercise.

Step 4 – Have pairs read their dialogs to the class. At this point, you may suggest other common contexts for these idioms to be used.


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