Valentine’s Day Lesson Idea/plan + materials

For once in my life, I decided to break with tradition and actually do a Valentine’s Day lesson. Turned out to be quite good fun with my Upper Intermediate teens during their last lesson before Valentine’s Day…

Image from licensed for commercial reuse with modification

Image from licensed for commercial reuse with modification

This lesson includes a prediction quiz, a video clip, a short philosophical reading, a discussion and some project work. Materials used are all linked to at the end of this post.

  • Brief lead-in: Show slide with a Valentine’s Day picture and a picture of marmite. Ask students what these have in common. (Love it or hate it…) Which camp are they in? Why? (NB: you may want to show a quick clip of a marmite advertisement – I would if I did this lesson again! Unless students are familiar with marmite…)
  • Prediction quiz: In pairs/small groups, students complete the quiz about Valentine’s Day with their predictions.
  • Video clip: Students watch/listen and check their predictions, noting correct answers where necessary.
Click on this picture to be taken to the video clip!

Click on this picture to be taken to the video clip!

  • Check: Students check what they understood in pairs/small groups.
  • Discuss: Students discuss if they are surprised by any of the statistics and why/why not.
  • Discuss: In new groupings, students discuss the two philosophical questions that lead in to the reading.
  • Read: Students read the short text and compare the writer’s views with their ideas from the discussion.
  • Discuss: Students discuss the gist and opinion questions at the end of the text.
  • Produce: Having learnt all about Valentine’s Day, the students, as campaigners, now create their own holiday. (Who is it in honour of? Why? How is it celebrated? Encourage them to make it as zany as possible. Encourage them to incorporate the statistical language from the video clip [in the case of my teens, this recycles the statistical language they met last term]). Students should present their holiday in a poster (for my students I prompted them to use the persuasive language we’d looked at in a previous lesson, so some more review), to convince the government to give everybody a national holiday for it. I also warned them that I (the government) would be asking a few questions following the presentation, which they duly prepared for.

My teens got really in to the final production stage, getting into role as petitioners for their holiday, and they even took a photo of their finished poster afterwards! 🙂

Here are the materials I used:

And here is the holiday that won!

The 'Government' says, "Yes, please!" ;-)

The ‘Government’ says, “Yes, please!” 😉

If you use this lesson with your classes, I hope  you enjoy it! Let me know how it goes by posting in the comments… 🙂

Learning students’ names: how do *you* do it?

Getting to know students’ names is something every teacher has to do. It goes with the territory. Working in a language school, you teach multiple groups of students at various levels, of various ages, which adds up to a lot of names. My latest timetable currently has 7 different classes with another 1 due to start in a few weeks. Fortunately, 2 of the classes are YL classes, kept on from last term, and one of the classes is an on-going IELTS class. The other 4 are new adult groups each with around 11 or 12 students in, and the one due to start soon is another IELTS class. Like I said, that’s a lot of names!

This blog post has come about because after my first class with one of my new groups of learners on Wednesday 4th February, I came back down to the staffroom and one of my colleagues was wondering if I had inherited his students. So I proceeded to reel off all their names for him to check against. The response was ‘Bloody hell! How do you know all their names already?!’ The simple answer is, I need to. In order for me to be able to teach a group, they need to be individuals, as soon as possible, so that I can work with them and not experience group-fear (fear of being in front of a big group of people I don’t know!) :-p

Of course, remembering these names and people just after the end of the lesson you have just spent with them is one thing. The difficulty comes when two days later, having met umpteen other new students and taught umpteen other classes, you pick up your register to meet your new class for the second time. Who are they again, these names? I had that moment today, but luckily because of what I did in the first lesson, before I walked in I was quickly able to remind myself who they all are.

Here’s how:

  • In the first lesson, you always do some kind of getting to know you activity, right? Obviously. For example, at the most simple level, find out three new, interesting things about your partner. (Always concept check ‘interesting’ here… 😉 )
  • What I find works best is if after the activity you do some kind of plenary, where the students report things about each other to the group as a whole.
  • While they speak together and while they report, I scribble bits of information down.

Here is an example page from the above-mentioned class:


(You may well wonder why the book says September when we are in January. This book was a freebee from the school, which my desk ate between October and January, and recently regurgitated! 😉 ) It’s no work of art, very basic scribbles. Of course, names and ages blanked out for obvious reasons. (And I’m not entirely sure why I wrote ‘Sicilian’ down, not really a distinguishing feature here! I think though that it had been to do with cooking but I didn’t have time to finish writing!) So, some of the information relates to physical features, some is from the initial ‘3 interesting things‘ activity or equivalent, some is from the subsequent FSW activity, and some is meta-information gleaned from the activities e.g. the eye symbol, to remind me that the student in question looks like one to keep an eye on. The important thing is, moments before the second lesson with this class, I opened my notebook, looked at these notes, these bits and bobs of information I had scribbled down, and it was enough to trigger memories of who they all were, meaning I could walk into the classroom and confidently use their names straight away, which of course they appreciate and which helps with rapport.

This time round, I did the usual ‘Find someone who…‘ type-activity but I did it with a ‘learner autonomy twist’, which, as well as acting as an icebreaker and getting everybody talking to everybody else, immediately gave me an insight into/snapshot of where they are all at with regards their independent learning habits. It also encourages the students to think about what they do already, vocalise it to their classmates, and compare it with what their classmates do. Hopefully this is sowing the seeds and setting the scene for further work on helping them – and helping them to help each other – become more autonomous in their learning.

For homework at the end of the first lesson, I set them the task of writing a letter to me, with the goal of telling me about them. I told them the objective of the homework was for me to get to know them better and to see what their writing is like. Two days later, 11 pieces of writing duly plopped into my lap from my eager beavers! So, killing two birds with one stone, I’m getting extra needs analysis data both from the point of view of getting to know them better (including about their learning habits, as I encouraged them to use the ‘Find Someone Who‘ activity statements for inspiration as to what to write about) and seeing where they are at with their written production.

Obviously my initial observations in terms of speaking and listening ability or level of autonomy may not necessarily be accurate, and they are not set in stone judgements, they are just first impressions which will keep evolving every lesson, as I learn more about the students and as the students evolve. ‘Eyes’ may be added or removed and so on. Simply, this is a starting point. The main thing is, as a whole, the notes fixed the students’ faces and names in my memory from the get-go, which makes life much easier for me.

This works for me. But I’m sure other people have much more efficient ways of going about it! How do you get to know your students names? 🙂

Kaboom! The Explosive Team Review Game (With an added twist…)

I am sure most of you are already familiar with the review game of Kaboom (also known variously as Tornado, Earthquake, and any other non-context-sensitive natural disaster). In this post, I am going to share the adaptations, or tweaks, that I’ve made to it in order to:

  • cut down on preparation time
  • make it more student-centred
  • make it more challenging

The Regular Version

In the regular version, prior to heading to class, the teacher pre-prepares a grid (size decided at discretion – depends how long you want the game to take!). The grid is made of squares, to each of which is allocated one of the following:

  • A question mark – signifies, funnily enough, a question.
  • A flashing B – signifies a bonus (which means 50 free points to the recipient team)
  • The arrows of change – two arrows one above the other, each pointing in opposite directions, signifies the team changes points, either with the other team, or if more than two teams, the chosen team (which is going to be the team with the most points!)
  • A bomb – signifies an explosion of points, leaving the recipient team with zero.

The teacher also prepares a set of questions to ask.

Once in the classroom, the teacher draws a blank version of the grid on the board, with letter and number coordinates. Teams take turns to pick a square and answer a question/receive a bonus/change scores/lose all their points, depending on the square. The game continues till all squares have been revealed. The winners are the team with the highest score.

My Version

Well, it’s the same as the above version, except:

  • The teacher doesn’t prepare a grid before going to class: the teacher draws the empty grid on the board (sized at discretion) and makes up the square contents as he/she goes along. And when the kids accuse you of making it up as you go along, wow them with your amazing memory skills… 😉

This way, you save on preparation time (big deal, it’s pretty minimal, but why not!) AND you get to ham up the drama, orchestrating the changes and explosions etc. to keep it as exciting as possible.

  • The teacher doesn’t prepare a set of questions before going to class: instead, when a question square is selected, the opposing team must come up with the question. How? By working together, looking through their coursebooks/notes and coming up with one.

This way, you save on preparation time AND you wind up with a bunch of teenagers avidly looking through their books/notes either in order to make up a question or preparing themselves to be asked. Encourage them to be crafty: the harder the questions, the less likely the other team is to get points. They try really hard to come up with tricky questions and do a lot of reviewing in the process, with lots of whispered discussions regarding vocabulary definitions and grammar points, and how to make them as difficult as possible. The game becomes less teacher-centred too.

  • The teacher breaks down the question squares in to ? (free question), ?G (grammar-related question) and ?V (vocabulary-related question)

This is so that the students don’t get stuck in a question-type rut. It also serves, in this way, to up the challenge level. If your class were still not coming up with enough variety of questions, then you could throw in a few ?T (teacher-generated questions) as well! This would also enable you to draw attention to a particular language point/piece of vocabulary that you wanted to review, without having to prepare all the questions/make the game entirely teacher-centred.

Here is an example of a game in progress: 



This was with my upper intermediate teenagers class. They are a small class (currently) and so only two teams were necessary. Being quite high-level, they were doing well with regards to question variety so I hadn’t inflicted any ?T squares at this point. Here, you can see the different types of question squares, the bonus squares, the arrows of change and the bomb squares.

All in all, Kaboom! is a great review game. It’s easy to tweak the amount of challenge according to the level of your learners, and children, teenagers and adults all get caught up in the excitement. Finally, I may be biased, but I think it’s even better with my tweaks! 😉


An added twist! Image taken from, licensed for commercial reuse with modification.

An added twist! Image taken from, licensed for commercial reuse with modification.

Finding the game-like challenge!*

*With minimal preparation involved… Following a recent Friday workshop on teaching teenagers, in which, amongst other things, we discussed the difference between playing games for the sake of playing games and adding a game-like challenge into the activities we do in class, I have been thinking about different ways we can do this, without spending heaps of extra time on preparation. Here are some of the ideas I’ve come up with:

1. Board it and collaborate

Instead of (or as well as/before) having learners complete a table in their books, individually, why not put them in teams, put the table on the board and get them to race to complete the table accurately:

Linking words with teenagers

Linking words with teenagers

Here is an example from a teenager class of mine, looking at linking words in a writing lesson. The words were highlighted in a model text and the activity in the book was to divide them between a: words for contrasting two pieces of information, b: words to give reasons for something and c:words used to list arguments. Doing the activity this way got them out of their seats, changed the pace of the lesson and generated some useful energy. Of course, they also got to benefit from working together to solve the task. And all I had to do was draw a table on the board while they were reading the text.

2. Bingo it!

The age-old game of bingo can be used to liven up writing activities, as Sandy explains here or speaking activities, as I describe here. Bringing bingo into a speaking or a writing activity in this way gives students something extra to aim for, rather than just completion of a writing or speaking activity. It doesn’t hurt that the something extra is a) fun and b) encourages extra production and/or better use of the target language! Here is an example bingo board I used to model the activity for my Level 9 Upper Intermediate adult students:

Bingo with L9

Bingo with L9

All students need is a page in their notebooks on which to draw their table. No preparation is required beforehand, unless you want to make a model, in which case I think that one took me about 60 seconds to mock up! You could also play Reading Bingo, where students make a bingo grid of ideas or vocabulary that they expect to find in a given text, having looked at associated pictures or headings, and then read the text quickly to see if what they predicted is present, ticking off anything that is. First student to tick everything off in their grid wins! This is a good way to challenge students to read faster and resist reading every word.

3. Speed it up!

Adding a time constraint to an activity can up the level of challenge and bring in some competition. This is enhanced if the activity can be done in pairs or groups. Whether you set a time limit or do the old ‘whoever finishes first gets a point’ thing, heart rates will probably speed up. Beware though: a) make sure stronger and weaker students are mixed up. b) enforce an accuracy rule (i.e. being really fast but really inaccurate doesn’t win any points!)

60 seconds...starting now! Image taken from, licensed for commercial re-use with modification

60 seconds…starting now! Image taken from, licensed for commercial re-use with modification

4. Make it kinaesthetic!

If you can get students moving (for good reason rather than at random!), chances are you can make the language more memorable. For example, going back to the language my teenagers were looking at in 1, to test their recall of which words do what, you could ask them to put their hands up when you say a word used for giving reasons, stand up for any words used to list arguments and stamp their feet for any words used to make a contrast. Other variations on this include ‘river crossing’ or ‘traffic lights’ where students move to different parts of the room or move from side to side, according to where a given piece of language is allocated. This is a good way to change the pace of a lesson and generate some energy when teenagers – or adults! – are getting tired. Or, with younger kids, perhaps you’ll use it to get rid of some excess energy!

Kinaesthetic to the max! Image taken from, licensed for commercial reuse with modification

Kinaesthetic to the max! Image taken from, licensed for commercial reuse with modification

5. Bring out the banana boards (a.k.a mini-whiteboards!)

Mini-whiteboards are a fantastic way to spice up a lesson and add some game-like challenge. From something as simple as the teacher saying a verb and the students writing the past participle on their mini-whiteboard and then holding it up, and awarding points to the fastest and to those who got it correct but more slowly (so that everybody has a chance to win some points and nobody gets too far ahead or behind) to as complex as working on introductions in an IELTS class, mini-whiteboards come up trumps for their flexibility and students always love them!  Common uses include banana dictating sentences (i.e. dictating a sentence with a gap for students to complete) or sentence transformations. For lots of great ideas, here is a brilliant post from Chia Suan Chong, describing how she uses mini-whiteboards in her lessons. I particularly like the idea of having students summarise a portion of a text using pictures and then using the pictures to jog their memory when they tell a partner about their portion of text. A jigsaw reading with a difference! “But my school doesn’t have any mini-whiteboards!” I hear you say. Not to worry, all you need is a piece of card and a plastic folder like this (our YLC taught me this one!):

Home-made mini-whiteboard!

Home-made mini-whiteboard!

6. Drill it differently

Instead of just doing the same tired old choral drill, add some challenge to your drilling and make it more appealing to learners. Here is a post from Chris Ożóg over at ELT Reflections, which highlights the benefits of drilling together with lots of good ideas for how to spice it up. Another way to bring drilling to life, and make it more game-like, in the YL classroom, is to use a pronunciation wheel:

Pron wheel made by our YLC

Example pron wheel (made by our YLC)

Students take it in turns to spin the wheel and say whatever sounds, words or chunks it is that you are drilling in the way that the wheel stipulates. You can do this as a whole class, and then you can put learners in pairs or groups and they can continue the activity and drill themselves while you go round monitoring and working with individuals/groups to upgrade their production.

7. Make it a memory game

If learners have just done a crossword or a vocabulary activity in their course books, rather than check/feedback and move on, why not re-use the activity to challenge their memory? Get them to cover up the crossword clues and try to remember what the clue for each word in the grid was. Or get them to cover up the grid and test each other using the clues. Get them to close their course books and see how much language they can remember from the page (in pairs or groups, make it a competition) or call out prompts, so that you encourage active recall. Give students a time-limit in which to read a text, then have them close their books and see how much of it they can recount in pairs.

Testing your memory? (Image taken from Google image search licensed for commercial reuse with modification.)

Can you remember? (Image taken from Google image search licensed for commercial reuse with modification.)

8. Hand it over!

Sometimes the game-like challenge may also be a case of making a game more challenging, so that students are pushed more. A good way of doing this is finding ways to make games as student-centred as possible. For example, getting students to make up some quiz questions rather than only answering teacher-prepared questions. Here is a post describing how I upped the challenge in the review team game, Kaboom!



This picture is taken during a recent Kaboom! review with my teenaged upper intermediate students.

What do you like doing to bring a game-like challenge into your lessons? 

60 seconds: a simple vocabulary review game

So, at our school, it’s that ‘nearly time for the final test’ kind of time, but as any self-respecting teacher will tell you, review (especially of the spaced variety) is an important part of language learning. So hopefully this activity will be useful to you, at whatever point in your courses you may be! The amount of preparation required for this game ranges from minimal to none…


Encourage active recall of previously studied vocabulary; push learners to think about the co-text of vocabulary not just the basic meaning.


Pre-intermediate upwards. For lower levels, give them more time to come up with examples, and perhaps provide a sample example on the card to get them going. It kind of grades itself by the vocabulary used. Each level will be capable of putting different words into example sentences, each level’s sentences will vary in complexity.


Small pieces of paper, each with a piece of target vocabulary on one side. (You can prepare these yourself [minimal] or get your learners to do it in groups, which case you only need to provide paper! [none] )


  • Put learners into groups of four. Within the four, each learner has a partner and two opponents.
  • Give each group a set of cards (or if your students made the cards, get each group to swap their pack of cards with another group)
  • Each student takes it in turn to pick a card and think of example sentences into which that word could fit. They tell their group as many sentences as they can in sixty seconds, substituting ‘banana’ or similar for the target word.
  • If their partner guesses the word first, they as a pair get a point. If one of the other pair guess the word first, they as a pair get the point.
  • The game continues until you want to stop it or until all cards are finished.
  • If you use a vocabulary box/bag, you could get them to put the words that weren’t guessed into it, for future review. You could also play this game using vocabulary from the box/bag.


Learners, whether providing examples or guessing the target word, have to think about various aspects of the word in question, not only the meaning. I.e. They need to think about the word grammar, about collocates, about register etc. I think this makes it more useful than simply describing/defining the word.


If the focus is something like word pairs (which I have needed to review with my Level 9/Upper Intermediate learners), you could provide only half of the word pair on the pieces of paper, so that the learner who is providing the example sentences has to recall what the full word pair is, as well as how to use it.


60 seconds...starting now! Image taken from, licensed for commercial re-use with modification

60 seconds…starting now!              Image taken from, licensed for commercial re-use with modification

Christmas Fun!

Well, it’s that time of year again! Here are a few things I’ve done with my classes in the last week before the Christmas holidays… 

1. Christmas Play!

How the Elves saved Christmas

My 10-12 year old ‘M2’s’  persuaded me to enter into the ‘Christmas Spirit’ this year, by requesting a Christmas play – some of them had done a play with their teacher last year and, apparently, had much enjoyed it! I duly complied and set about writing a play. The play tells the story of Father and Mary Christmas, amidst their Christmas preparations, losing their list of naughty/nice boys and girls, and sending the Elves off to compile a new one. The Elves finish their journey in M2’s classroom and use our star chart to decide if the M2 children should get any presents this year. Needless to say, the answer was yes! So, in the end, they return to Lapland with the list and Christmas is saved!

In terms of language, I also managed to work in all of the structures we’d looked at over the course of this term – present simple, past simple and continuous, present perfect, comparatives, possessives and present continuous for future plans – as well as a song and a chant (the chant being based on the wake up shake up chant we do at the start of each class).  In terms of preparation, as well as rehearsal time (half an hour per lesson for three lessons), some time had to be spent making elf hats and shoes out of coloured card.

Here is the hat I made as a model for them! The design inspired by a Google image, but I can’t claim credit for it – my lovely YLC (Young Learner Coordinator) figured it out!

Elf hat

Here are my happy elves, Father Christmas and Mary Christmas (who, bless her, stepped into the role at the last minute due to an absentee, hence double hat and script in hand!):


And here is a copy of the play. It is for a cast of 8 students and one teacher, but easily adaptable, as the number of elves is very flexible!

2. A letter of complaint to Santa

I also had some Christmas-related fun with my L4b’s (Upper Intermediate teenagers): In a bid to try and balance the time:exam date:quantity of course book remaining ratio, rather than doing an un-related Christmas lesson, I converted a page of their course book into one. The course book page from Pearson Choices Upper Intermediate was a writing workshop, focusing on formal letters of complaint, within a unit on advertising.

So a quick Google found me this letter of complaint to Santa. A speedy bit of editing enabled me to splice in some of the language that the Choices workshop centred around, that is to say language for formal letter writing, including the structure ‘Not only <inversion>….but …. too’ e.g. Not only were the presents not what I had ordered, but they arrived late too’. To lead in, I threw together a quick powerpoint with images of an advertisement for Santa’s Grotto, claiming to make all your dreams come true, a Christmas tree with presents beneath it and a screaming child, from which I was able, via some pair work, to elicit the story behind the letter of complaint. This was followed by some role-playing in pairs, student A was the 9 year child, with a rather impressive vocabulary, who wrote the letter and student B was the grumpy elf who answered the phone when said child called to complain (mentioned in the letter) and then the language focus, using a mixture of the Choices skill builder for identifying the target language and my own Christmas complaint letter-related examples for the ‘Not only…’ bit. Finally, I asked them to imagine it was Christmas day and they had just opened a…<show the picture on the course book  page> …I think it was a fancy alarm clock and had them imagine the problems they might have with it, which they then compared with those mentioned in the model letter on the course book page, from which the homework of writing their own letter was set up.

So, nothing extraordinary, but my teens enjoyed the amusing twist on an otherwise fairly bland sequence. 🙂

3. Christmas Debate

Less amazing still, but good value: turns out you can get a really good debate out of the topic ‘This house believes that Christmas should be abolished‘ with chatty Italian upper intermediate adult students! It also provided a nice opportunity for reviewing language for expressing opinions, agreeing and disagreeing, which we had looked at earlier in the course.


So all in all, it’s been a fun run up to Christmas and, even better, now the holidays have actually arrived!

Teaching teenagers “have to” and “can’t” for complaining – resurrected in TEA issue 71!

A while back, I blogged about an activity I had done with my teenagers, to help them get to grips with ‘have to’ and ‘can’t’ for complaining. Some time down the line, Philip Kerr from TEA (Teachers of English, Austria) approached me to request permission to publish the activity in the TEA online magazine winter 2014 issue, which I, of course, duly granted.

Here is a link to the magazine, where, as well as my little activity, you can find pieces by Ceri Jones, Lindsay Clandfield and others, on a range of focuses.


(PS: there will be more blog posts soon… when the time – things to do ratio is just slightly less punishing!! 🙂 )