IELTS swap-shop at the ELTC

IELTS! image taken from via google search for images licensed for commercial reuse with modification

There are a number of us teaching IELTS afternoon classes at the ELTC this term, so I thought it would be a good idea for us to share ideas to use in IELTS classes. With the help of the TD team at the ELTC, this was duly organised and took place on Wednesday 11th October. I kicked off by sharing a couple of my go-to activities and then everybody else followed suit.

I also promised to provide a written record of the workshop, for everybody to use as reference. Therefore, this post is a write-up of all the ideas that emerged, both for my colleagues to refer back to and for anyone else out there blessed with IELTS classes to dip into, divided up by skill to make it more user friendly.



I’ll start with mine! Nothing spectacular but it worked well with my group…


To encourage students to look at their feedback carefully rather than burying it in their bags never to be seen again. To create the need for students to ask when they don’t understand an element of the feedback (rather than ignoring it), hopefully rendering future feedback, presented similarly, more useful.


After writing feedback on a set of Part 1 or Part 2s, as part of the marking process, T makes a checklist based on common errors the students have made. Save this for later.

In class, group students in 3s or 4s, hand out the pieces of writing and have them look at their feedback. They should use the feedback to make a group checklist of things to remember next time they do a similar piece of writing. (To do this successfully, they need to understand their feedback. T monitors and provides further explanation when needed.) When students have finished, regroup them so that each new group contains one student from each of the previous groups. They should compare their checklists and add any extra items. T hands out the pre-prepared checklist for students to compare with their own (or in my case, as marking time was short and I hadn’t quite got round to typing up the checklist, I put it on Google classroom the next morning for the students to access at home!).



Familiarise students with the writing marking criteria and help them become better aware of their strengths and weaknesses in relation to these.


Give students a handout with some sample feedback comments together with the marking criteria headings (see example below). In groups, students look at the sample comments and decide together which of the criteria they affect.

They can then look at a piece of writing you have given them feedback on and categorise your comments in a similar way. In doing this, they can see which criteria they have most/least positive/negative feedback within and thereby see where their strengths and weaknesses lie.



Encourage students to focus on paragraph construction/organisation.


Put students in groups and give them a part 2 question to brainstorm ideas for. Give each person in the group a topic sentence for a possible paragraph for that essay question. They add the next sentence and pass it on. This continues for a few sentences until the paragraph is complete. In order to add their sentence, the students have to read the paragraph carefully and understand where it is going. They will also have to look at the language used carefully, in order to use rich lexical chains rather than repeating a particular word over and over across sentences.

Once the activity is finished, stick the paragraphs up around the room then get students to walk round in pairs to look at and analyse them. (You can give them/elicit a checklist of things to look for). On the basis of this, they decide which paragraph is best and why. You could then ask them to look at a paragraph of their own from a previously marked piece of writing and analyse it in a similar fashion.



Get students using chart/graph language for part 1 and give students practice in understanding what is happening in such visuals.


Students draw a chart or graph but don’t label it. T redistributes the charts so that each student has another student’s chart or graph. They they then have to analyse it, decide what is going on and create the labels. The charts/graphs are redistributed again and this time students have to pick out 3 features and write about them in part 1 fashion. Once finished, the charts/graphs and accompanying paragraphs can be stuck on the wall for students to walk round, analyse (elicit what criteria they should use first, of course) and rank.


For speaking, I brought along a print out of my Part 2 Speaking Game , which aims to encourage students to speak for a full two minutes, and my colleagues brought the following:



Develop fluency and use of vocabulary (using the game “Just a minute”)


Give the students this handout/similar to familiarise students with the game and elicit the rules:

Once they have understood the goal and rules, brainstorm a list of IELTS-style topics. The students then use these to play “Just a minute”. The repetition factor applies only to content words/ideas.


Rather than having students interrupt the speaker for the repetition/hesitation, the speaker is encouraged to speak for a minute uninterrupted and, at the end of the game, the other two students in the group score him/her based on how much/little repetition/hesitation there was.



Work on expanding responses to IELTS speaking questions


Brainstorm and write on the board as many IELTS topics as your class can think of between them. Students then mingle, find a partner and ask that partner a question about one of the topics on the board. The response should be well-developed but the student who asked the question should also ask follow-up questions to encourage further expansion. Before they start, tell students that they will have to report back a few interesting things they find out, to encourage them to listen carefully too. You might also like to model expansion, to give students a clear target. T monitors and does delayed feedback on the end, commenting on expansion, use of vocabulary etc not just grammatical errors.



Develop fluency in speaking


Prepare sets of cards, with one IELTS speaking topic per card. Students pick a card and have to speak about the topic for a minute. Then next time, they have to speak for a minute and a half. Then two minutes. This helps them to build up the length of time they can speak for. The topics can be broad e.g. “holidays” or you can make it harder by making the topic more specific or restricting the time frame.



Work on planning/preparation for speaking part 2


For homework, students choose an image that relates in some way to whichever topic you have been looking at in class. They should also prepare some notes that will help them speak about that image. Restrict the size of the paper they can use, to something of the size that they will get for an IELTS part 2 speaking exam task. In class, everybody uploads their pictures to Google classroom, in order to project them for everybody to see, and then students take it in turns to stand up at the front of the class, and use their notes to speak about the image.

I then made the suggestion that students organise their speaking part 2 note paper as follows:

The idea is that in the pressure of the moment, when they glance down at their notes while speaking, it will be easier for them to keep track of whether they  have spoken about all the required elements. Credit to my ex-DOS Jonny Ingham, an IELTS speaking examiner,  from whom I got this idea while teaching IELTS at IHPA! He said the students who use the note-making time effectively always out-perform those who don’t, as the response tends to be better organised and clearer.)




Develop the skill of matching paragraphs to headings.


Give each pair of students one paragraph between 2 from an IELTS reading text. (Depending on how big your class is and how many paragraphs the text has, you may have more than one pair with the same paragraph. This doesn’t matter.) Students look at their paragraph, discuss it together, and write down a few key words that sum it up. Only once they have done this do you then distribute a list of the headings, one of which belongs to their paragraph. Using their key words, and looking again at their paragraph, they decide which heading is theirs. They must agree and be able to prove their answer to the class i.e. be able to explain how the heading corresponds with the content/vocabulary of their paragraph.


Instead of giving students a paragraph, give out just the topic sentences of each of the paragraphs and the list of headings. Again, they must work together and decide which heading goes with the topic sentence they have by noticing how the words in the topic sentence correspond (positively or negatively) to the words in the headings.



Encourage students to identify the wrong answers in a reading or listening, as a way to help them identify the right answer.


Students work together to look at a multiple choice question/it’s possible answers and see which wrong answers they can identify by using the text. “It can’t be c) because it says x while in the text it says y” With listening, this can be done whole class by (re)playing short sections of text in order for students to focus on one question at a time.

Variation: Before playing a listening text, have students look at the questions/possible answers and have them discuss what they would expect to hear if each of the choices were the correct answer. They should think about different ways of expressing the answers.



Expand students’ vocabulary


Every time you use a text in class, follow up reading skills work by getting students to call out any words they found difficult and boarding them. They then need to do some word work – find synonyms and opposites, word families, useful expressions etc. Get them to keep a notebook where they can group vocabulary by topic.


After looking at a text, tell students that they need to know all the vocabulary in it as you will test them on a random selection of words from it in the next lesson. If they don’t know any words in it, they will need to go away, find out what the words mean and learn them.



Develop students’ awareness of collocation


Before a listening lesson, look at the transcript of the listening text and pick out up to eight good collocations (you don’t want to overdo it!). After students have done the listening exercises that go with the text, dictate the first half of each collocation for students to write down. Play the listening again and students should listen in order to write down the second half of each collocation. Once they have got them all, get students to use the collocations by making sentences/asking and answering questions etc. Draw attention to any cases where they should be avoided in writing (e.g. if they are too informal).

Resource recommendations

Two particular books were mentioned as go-to books:


IELTS Resource Pack 

Has lots of useful speaking (also a good resource simply of [almost] endless speaking topics if you are at a loss) and lots writing activities that encourage interaction.

I would have mentioned it if one of my colleagues hadn’t. One of my favourite activities involves students looking at two part 2 essays, both of which contain a mixture of good and bad sentences, and identifying which are the good so that they finish with one good part 2 essay. There are also some good part 1 writing activities.


IELTS Testbuilder

This has good explanations for reading texts regarding why certain answers are wrong, why the correct answers are correct etc.

Final tips…


With the map questions in listening, take advantage of the box sizes – a big square won’t be a little cafe, a tiny square won’t be a shopping centre etc.


Don’t forget task repetition: using speed dating/speaking ladders can facilitate task repetition within speaking activities, which will have a positive effect on fluency and complexity.


I will cheekily add: Don’t forget my Useful links for IELTS post for a wealth of IELTS-related links, and my Top 10 resources for teaching IELTS  might be of interest too.

I hope this post is useful to some of you. Do any of you have any go-to activities or resources for IELTS? If yes, please do share them by using the comments box below this post.  🙂 

(To my colleagues: if I have missed anything or got anything wrong, please let me know and I’ll make changes accordingly. Scribbling things down and then subsequently trying to decipher them may not be the most reliable method but it was all I had!)


Mental Health in ELT

“Mental Health” (Pixabay)

Yesterday I read a Guardian article stating that the number of referrals to mental health crisis teams in the NHS has gone up by 60%  in the UK. It didn’t seem to specify the time period in which this increase has taken place, but nevertheless it’s clear that mental health problems are something that a lot of people face to varying degrees of severity. Another recent article argues that in adopting the new GCSE result grade scales, schools are putting elite performance ahead of pupils’ wellbeing while yet another discusses the increase in mental health issues in students at university, with the number of drop-outs being three times higher in 2014-2015 than it was in 2009-2010. The context of education can be, by its very nature, a very pressurised situation where the stakes are high and failure unthinkable, even for children as young as six years old. Meanwhile, the Independent reports that at least one tenth of the 4908 teachers questioned rely on anti-depressants to combat work-related stress. An interesting initiative responds to the issue of pupil mental health at schools by proposing to give teachers the training they need to be specialists in mental health. I would argue that everybody involved in the education system – students, staff, managerial staff – would benefit from greater awareness of (potential) mental health issues, how to recognise them and how to address them.

Within education, mental health can be considered from three main angles: pupils/students mental health and mental health awareness, teachers’ mental health and mental health awareness (both of their own, colleagues’ and their students’) and managers’ mental health and mental health awareness (both of their own, their colleagues’, that of their staff team, and that of the students in their school). That’s a lot of mental health awareness needed, and alongside it, systems both for dealing with the problems that arise and, importantly, addressing the causes in order to bring down the number of these. I think this applies as fully to ELT as it does to ‘regular’ teaching, whether teachers are based in the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors or whether they are based in private language schools. All contexts are high stakes in various ways, demanding in various ways and potentially conducive to mental health issues in the staff and students within them. Universities often have support services within which students and staff can seek help if they are struggling but this relies on people a) being aware that they are struggling more than is ‘normal’/need help b) knowing how to access that help and c) not being ashamed to access it.

Looking  back on my own experiences of poor mental health, the requirements stated above are not necessarily easy to meet. If you are struggling, you are generally too focused on trying to keep your head above water, in one or multiple contexts, to see the bigger picture. Things accumulate, build up, things that each individually by themselves may be minor but in combination become more difficult to overcome. For example, at one school I was working at, I was told that I had had some complaints from students in one of my classes. It eventually transpired that there was a mismatch between their current syllabus and their expectations based on the syllabus of the previous level they had studied. However, between the issue arising and being resolved, my confidence took a massive hit. This spilled over into my personal life, as I lost confidence in my linguistic abilities too, meaning that when my gas bottle ran out, and I had to phone the service for obtaining a replacement, instead of it being a little thing and easy to do, it was a difficult thing and I couldn’t face it. So I didn’t. Which meant that I then wasn’t eating particularly well as I couldn’t cook. I was also having issues with my social life that were making me very unhappy, details unnecessary. I reached a point where I would sit in my flat in the morning feeling physically sick at the thought of going into work (and this ‘work-dread’ anxiety took a while to ease/wear off even after I changed jobs due to my contract reaching its natural end.) While all of this was going on, there was a workshop that required me to use the language I had lost confidence in, and as a result of all the issues described (which I just had to resist the temptation to qualify with “silly”!) I didn’t participate properly. This led to me being hauled into the DoS’s office for an explanation. I was asked if everything was ok, but my automatic reaction was to say yes. (I don’t know about anyone else, but that tends to be my knee-jerk response, almost a defensive one, but also what was wrong was all ‘little things’ that I was ‘dealing with’, it didn’t occur to me to talk about them when asked what was wrong.) So then I was told off, which shocked me into ending up in floods of tears explaining what was wrong and did then get the help I needed to sort out the gas etc. I think this is one example where better mental health awareness, both on my part and on my manager’s part, could have made a big difference.

Mental health, like physical health, is always in flux, is affected by what we do, what we consume, what situations we find ourselves in and other such factors. Like physical health, we need to be aware of how to manage our own mental health to avoid becoming ill and of symptoms that our health is off. Like physical health, sometimes ill health is minor and can be adjusted/improved fairly easily and other times it is a longer and more difficult process to heal. Like physical health, sometimes we need help to treat the symptoms and identify the cause. For that to happen, we need to be able to recognise and acknowledge when things are not ok with us, and we need to be able to help others to recognise and acknowledge when things may not be ok with them. Mental Health First Aid  is one interesting approach to enabling this.

“Mental Health” (Pixabay)

I don’t have the answers to it all, but it’s certainly something that I feel is important and want to explore further. To finish off this post, I leave you with Sandy Millin’s very useful post that brings together a lot of links relating to mental health and recommend that you have a look through. I also invite you to share any thoughts you have on the subject as I would be very interested to hear them. 🙂



Scholarship Circle “TEFLising EAP” (5 and 6)

Today was the sixth session of our new scholarship circle “TEFLising EAP”. (You can read more about what a scholarship circle is and what it does here.)

–  Yes, the sixth: the fifth was last week but Friday seems to have rolled round again before I’ve got round to writing it up. Life and work happened! The sixth, and also the last for this term (sob!), so a special thank you to my colleague, Holly, whose brainchild it was and who has consistently brought along interesting ideas to get the discussion going. We’ve all got a lot out of it, in terms of ideas, motivation and generally a happy Friday feeling! 🙂 

To quote from my write-up of the first session,

The idea behind this one is that EAP lessons can get a little dry – learning how to do things academically is not necessarily the most exciting thing in the world even if it is essential for would-be university students – and for the students’ sake (as well as our own!) it would be great to bring in more, let’s say ‘TEFL Tweaks’ – things that we used to do when we taught at language schools abroad (warmers, personalisation, fun activities etc!) and have got out of the habit of doing in the EAP context but that could actually be adapted for use here without losing the all-important lesson content.

Session 5

Last week, the focus of the session was how to make students more aware of what words they can and can’t use with countable and uncountable nouns – to try and minimise, amongst other things, the number of instances where we see “These research show” and “Many research prove” etc. This sequence was adapted from Teach This 

We began with a variation of backs to the board/jeopardy:

To start with, there was nothing on the board except the score table. The teacher writes a word on the board, e.g. spare key. In order to get their team member whose back is to the board to guess the word, the students have to ask a grammatically correct question, e.g. “what do you give to your neighbours so that they can water your plants while you are on holiday?”. Rather than erasing the word to write another, the word is left on the board and another is added, either underneath it or in the column next to it. Obviously one of the columns is for countable nouns and one for uncountable nouns.

Once the game is finished, the teacher then elicits from the students what each column of words is (countable/uncountable) and what question you could ask about each (How many…? or How much…?) Students should then work in pairs and identify one similarity and one difference between them, using these questions. So, student A might ask “How many tattoos do you have?” and Student B might reply “2”. Student A would either say “me too!” or “I have ten” or “I have none” and that would be a similarity or difference, depending on the response.

Next, students brainstorm quantifiers that can be used with each column (or you can give them a list of quantifiers and get them to match which ones go with which column). Then the teacher hands out an empty grid of quantifiers per pair or group of students:

What now follows is a few rounds of Stop the Bus! In other words, the teacher gives the students a category (e.g. no. 1 above was “Things you might have in your bedroom”) and students have to write nouns that fit the category and go with each quantifier.  After each round, do some whole class feedback to make sure groups have correct words. (Be aware, a teacher, I mean a student, of course, from one group might argue rather tenaciously against a word given by another group 😉 )

Once you have done a few rounds of Stop the Bus, write up a few examples from groups’ tables.


  • happiness
  • carrot
  • books

Elicit a correct example definition for each and use it to review what words are and aren’t used with uncountable, singular countable, plural countable.

In the case of our EAP classes, this whole sequence then leads onto editing their coursework writing: students choose four nouns that they have used repeatedly (e.g. research!!!!) and use the ‘search’ function in Word to find all the occurrences and check the grammar around them. They should check if the noun is countable or uncountable, and if the noun is countable they should think about whether they want it as singular or plural. The grammar around the word is then edited accordingly.

Session 6

Today, we started by looking at Getting to know you activities: the current term is drawing swiftly towards its conclusion and the new one will arrive sooner than anyone might think, so this was a bit of forward-thinking.

So, here are the ideas that were shared.

Find that person

  • Each student writes one thing about themselves on a small piece of paper and screws it up.
  • All the papers are thrown up in the air in the middle of the classroom.
  • Each student comes and takes a piece of paper (throwing it back and taking again if it is their own)
  • Students mingle and ask questions to find out a) who their piece of paper belongs to and b) more information about what is written.

Getting to know the teacher

Variation 1

  • Students work in pairs to write 5 questions they want to ask the teachers. Each question should be in a different grammatical tense.
  • Pairs swap questions with another pair and check the grammar.
  • Depending on numbers/time, group pairs and pieces of paper and allow a question or two from each pair or group, that you then have to answer.

Variation 2

  • Choose 6 pictures (the more obscure the better) that relate to different periods of your life and display them on the board.
  • Students discuss what they think the pictures are about and what they suggest about the teacher.
  • Students share their ideas with the teacher and bit by bit the real story comes out.

This could also alternatively be done with 6 names or years or places.

Variation 3

  • Teacher writes 3 truths and one lie (mixed up) about him/herself on the board.
  • Students have to ask questions to try and decide which is the lie.
  • Once the lie has been guessed, they can then do the activity in pairs and share their findings with the rest of the class.

Conversation starter

  • Students write their name in the middle of a piece of paper. Around it, they write the name of someone important to them, a year, a place, and something random (their choice) about themselves.
  • Students mingle and find out more about each of the things their classmates have written on their papers.


This is for when you’ve done a bit of getting to know you but still have more time left and want to get students talking some more.

  • Give the students the scenario that there is a shipwreck, a lifeboat that only holds 5 people and a need to decide who is going to be allowed onto that lifeboat.
  • Give them a list of ten people (for example roles search “lifeboat ESL game”
  • They have to discuss and decide who to save
  • Extension: they have to take on that role and try to persuade the others on the ship to let them on the lifeboat (obviously creative license comes into play, they can go beyond the information on the role card!).


As above, this is for when you’ve done a bit of getting to know you but still have more time left and want to get them talking some more.

  • Linking back to the shipwreck, now that students have decided who will live and who will die, they have to decide what to take with them.
  • Give them a list of things they have on the boat, of which they can only take 5 or the boat will sink. You could include some of the things mentioned here and some random other things. (And I bet none of the students will decide to take the condom because it makes a good water bag!)

For more getting to know you activities, see my posts here and here

After the getting-to-know-you brainstorm (or what are we supposed to call it these days – thought shower or something?), we talked about self-observation. The idea suggested was that every couple of weeks you pick one of your weaknesses  (can be very simple little things e.g. instructions, board-work, getting down to student eye-level to speak to them etc.) and focus on it in all your lessons for that period of time. Whether or not you pair it with reflective writing etc was thought to be a matter of personal choice and not for everybody. Have you done something like this before?

And that was the end of our last scholarship circle for the term (because All The Marking lands next week and continues in week 9…) I will miss them!!  

Scholarship Circle “TEFLising EAP” (3 and 4!)

Today was the fourth session of our new scholarship circle “TEFLising EAP”. (You can read more about what a scholarship circle is and what it does here.)

–  Yes, the fourth: the third was last week but I was buried under rather a large pile of essays so I didn’t have time to write it up. So this week is a double bill! Hurrah!

To quote from my write-up of the first session,

The idea behind this one is that EAP lessons can get a little dry – learning how to do things academically is not necessarily the most exciting thing in the world even if it is essential for would-be university students – and for the students’ sake (as well as our own!) it would be great to bring in more, let’s say ‘TEFL Tweaks’ – things that we used to do when we taught at language schools abroad (warmers, personalisation, fun activities etc!) and have got out of the habit of doing in the EAP context but that could actually be adapted for use here without losing the all-important lesson content.


In session 3, last week, we shared the following ideas:

1. Catch-all nouns and cohesion in pairs

This is a useful review activity for students who don’t seem to be using catch-all nouns in their writing.

For those less familiar with EAP-dom, “catch-all nouns”, also sometimes called “general nouns”, are nouns that can be used to condense ideas already put forward, so that you can refer to them and give more information about them. They are general words that take on specificity through what comes before (or indeed after) them, for example problem, issue, process, approach, trend etc.

For this activity you:

  • give each student a worksheet with some examples of catch-all nouns in use, with the noun gapped out. Each student has a different set of examples.
  • get the students to take it in turns to read out a sentence to their partner, who needs to use the co-text to guess which general noun is missing. They must also decide if they need the singular “this” or the plural “these” in front of the noun.

E.g. First the cocoa beans are picked by hand and placed in the sun to dry. Then they are put in large sacks and loaded onto lorries (sounding familiar to anyone who teaches IELTS?!). ……………….. is repeated many times a day. Answer: This process.

Here is an example set of worksheets that my colleague whose idea it was gave to us:

The benefits of this activity are:

  • it makes the students think carefully about which catch-all nouns work best in which contexts.
  • it forces the students listen carefully to what their partner is saying, and in order to provide the answer they of course need to listen AND understand, so it also provides some detailed listening practice.
  • it also makes them think about whether the noun is singular or plural, and which determiner they need – this/these – to use with it. (Something our students tend to make mistakes with!)

Variation: Have students stand in a line; read out a gapped sentence; students step forward if they can think of a word + determiner that fit the gap. Actually I think it would work really nicely with mini-whiteboards too. Ahhh mini-whiteboards. Those were the days… 😉

2) Adapting a listening

This activity can be used with any listening extract where the speaker refers to data taken from a graph, where the graph has been provided in the materials for students to look at.

Instead of showing the graph to the students, get them to listen and make notes on it. Then put them in groups and get them to produce the graph based on what they have written down.

If any of you academic IELTS teachers out there are feeling keen, you could record yourselves talking about data from a graph (make it a funny graph so the activity is less dry!) and get the the students to produce the graph based on what you say. Then you could get the students to repeat the activity themselves – group them, get them, in their groups, to prepare a graph and discuss how they would present the information in it (using IELTS writing part 1 language) and then pair them up with someone from another group. Student A talks about their graph, student B listens and takes notes and then tries to draw the graph. (Or they could directly draw if you don’t want to bring note-taking skills into it!) They swap roles and repeat. Hopefully the language becomes more meaningful through being used communicatively. 

3) Speed-reading relay

The aim of this activity, as you would guess, is to work on students’ reading speed.

  • Put students in pairs or small groups.
  • Give each pair or group one copy of the text
  • Student A reads for 30 seconds, stops and makes a mark on the page where they got to and then verbally summarises what they just read for Student B.
  • Student B reads on from where Student A stopped. Another 30 seconds. Repeat as above.
  • This goes on until a pair or group gets to the end of their text. The first pair/group to do so is the winner!

You could use this activity as a way of practising different speed reading techniques: teach students a handful of different techniques (find examples here) and then use this as a fun way to practice them.

4) Variation on a debate theme

This is less of an activity and more of a variation on an activity: when you are doing a class debate, instead of dividing the class into 2 groups, half for and half against the motion, divide them into three groups and give each group a role:

  • For (pick a group of people who would naturally be in favour of the motion. E.g. if the motion were to ban video games, perhaps worried parents)
  • Against (pick a group of people who would naturally be against the motion. Following the above example, it could be video game designers)
  • Politicians (these have to prepare difficult questions to raise during the course of the debate, imagining that they have to think about what their constituents might say in response to the arguments raised)

In session 4, today, we shared the following ideas:

1. Task-based Evaluation (mine!)

  • Do a speaking ladder. Round 1:talk about the last restaurant you went to. (Rules: students  must elaborate not just say “yeah it was ok, I ate curry”!) Round 2: tell your new partner about the restaurant your old partner visited and how they felt about it. You can repeat this so that each student talks about their restaurant twice and a partner’s restaurant twice so that more language can be generated.
  • While they are doing this, collect examples of anything evaluative that they say.
  • Then students look for example evaluative language in a text and categorise it – modal verbs, adjectives, reporting verbs, adverbs.
  • Go back to the language students produced earlier and read out each example for them to put into their tables (unless you can cunningly feed it all into the computer while they are busy on one of the identification activities and then display it when they are ready! But this way they have to listen carefully so it’s still good!).
  • Repeat the speaking ladder activity with the aim of students upgrading their language from their initial effort. Give them some planning time first and if there is time, do a repetition.

My thinking behind this activity was that in day-to-day life we do evaluate, but when it comes to academic writing, students think that evaluation is this really difficult thing and it usually therefore gets omitted, so hopefully rooting it in the students’ own (meaningful) output, it will be more memorable and make more sense.

2. Bringing evaluation into synthesis

This activity is an extension of the fishbowl synthesis activity we talked about in session 2. Once students have fishbowled (yes it’s officially a verb now – at least in the USIC staffroom!) and written the summary paragraph, usually what you will find is that they have just about managed to synthesise stuff but there will be little if any evaluation. To get them to make that extra step which is needed in order for it to be a good paragraph rather than just a collection of information, elicit from them what’s missing from their paragraphs (which are now on a Google doc) – i.e. evaluation – and then brainstorm/board evaluative language that they could use. Then give them time to edit their paragraphs accordingly.

(This could be used in conjunction with my activity…gotta love the scholarship circle!)

3. Error correction scavenger hunt

  • Brainstorm, as a class, typical mistakes that students make in their writing. (If students say “grammar” or “vocabulary”, get them to be more specific!).
  • Prepare slips of paper/post-its with one error type and example per slip before the lesson and at this point hand out one to each student. Students mingle and explain their error type to the other students. (You could then put them in groups and get them to make a list of as many as they could remember and see which group remembers the most, for a bit of fun :-p )
  • Give out an error correction scavenger list like this one:

  • Put up sentences, or chunks of two or three sentences, taken from students’ work, around the classroom on the walls. Anonymise it and number each piece of paper (on which is/are the sentence(s) from one student).
  • Students walk round looking for the errors on the scavenger list, with speed obviously being of the essence. They find the mistake and write the number of the piece of paper they found it on next to the mistake  type on their scavenger list.
  • You go round and stick a post-it above each piece of paper with the error type(s) in the sentence(s) on it.
  • Students go round in their pairs and check they have the correct error type per sentence and then try to correct the sentence.
  • In groups, students compare their corrections.
  • Whole class feedback.

The idea of the lesson is to get students looking for typical error types. It also gets them up and moving, which is always a bonus in the EAP classroom! No reason why it couldn’t work with IELTS essays and the like as well! (This idea originally came from this pdf by Ken Lackman, about getting students involved in error correction, worth a look for more ideas.)

So, two great sessions, two motivation injections, and lots of ideas. 🙂 Let us know if you use any of them and how you got on!

Scholarship Circle “TEFLising EAP” (2)

Today was the second session of our new scholarship circle “TEFLising EAP”. (You can read more about what a scholarship circle is and what it does here.) To quote from my write-up of the first session,

The idea behind this one is that EAP lessons can get a little dry – learning how to do things academically is not necessarily the most exciting thing in the world even if it is essential for would-be university students – and for the students’ sake (as well as our own!) it would be great to bring in more, let’s say ‘TEFL Tweaks’ – things that we used to do when we taught at language schools abroad (warmers, personalisation, fun activities etc!) and have got out of the habit of doing in the EAP context but that could actually be adapted for use here without losing the all-important lesson content.

Last session, we had a series of little ideas, while this session we went into more depth on two activities:

1) Synthesis Fishbowl *

This activity takes the “fishbowl” approach to structuring a speaking activity and uses it as the basis for teaching students about synthesis. Synthesis is basically the process of using and combining multiple sources to support a point, showing where the sources agree and disagree. Linking language and particular reporting structures help the writer to do this. Here is an example of the kind language that is used in synthesising sources, taken from Manchester University’s  Academic Phrase Bank:

So now that we know what synthesis is, back to the fish bowl. In a fish bowl speaking activity, students sit in two circles, an inner circle and, around the outside of that circle (funnily enough), an outer circle. (As per the picture below, assuming that each X represents a student!)

Inner circle students face each other. They will be the speakers. Outer circle students watch the inner circle. They will be listener/note takers.

Each student/speaker in the inner circle receives a piece of paper like this:


On it they write their surname and a (fairly recent) year e.g. 2014.

Each student/listener-notetaker receives a piece of paper with a table like this on it:

The table would have enough squares for each student of the inner circle to be represented (which would usually be about 4 – you don’t want the inner circle to be too big! For larger classes break them down into sub-groups within each of which there will be an inner and outer circle).

The inner circle discusses whatever topic you set them, the outer circle makes notes on what they say. (You can make this harder if you have really good students: the outer circle could listen and take notes that evaluate the inner circle’s arguments  e.g. “Good example from X of……../Y needed more support for what he said about bla bla bla/ Z said he agreed but didn’t explain why” etc).

Once the discussion has finished/you have called it a halt, new groups are formed of a student from the inner circle and a couple of students from the outer circle. In these new groups they identify themes that were discussed and look for relationships between the pieces of information they have noted down. I.e. what do the speakers agree about? What do they disagree about? Does a speaker (or more than one of them!) build on anything another speaker has said?

After they have teased these relationships out of their notes, they write a paragraph summarising the discussion (you could use google docs for this). You could give them a framework to use for lower levels, you could feed in language you want them to use (particular verbs or structures), depending how much scaffolding they need. They will need to pick one of the themes discussed (which will provide them with their topic sentence) and then use synthesising language to summarise what was said about it.

This mirrors what they will have to do with academic sources in their writing. We (the teachers) have decided to film ourselves doing the activity in a future scholarship circle session, so that it can be used as the basis of a homework task to prepare students for doing the activity in class themselves.

*Obviously fishbowls are not only useable for teaching synthesis – they are a way of running a speaking activity so that students’ listening skills are worked as well. Of course students take it in turns to be listeners and speakers.

2) Nominalisation game

This is the game I put forward last week. This week I actually brought the grid to the session and everyone had a go at playing it. Click on the picture below to be taken to a pdf of that grid.

To quote from last week’s write up, it works like this:

Put students in groups of three and give each group a grid, counters and dice (they can use a phone app and the change in their pockets if needs be!). The aim of the game is to “collect” as many squares as possible by turning the verbs into nouns. To do this, students roll the dice and move their counter the corresponding number of moves. If their square has not been claimed, they can claim it by giving the correct noun form. If they are correct, they draw their symbol on that square. They can move in any direction that gets them to an empty square (backwards, forwards, diagonally, vertically etc) in any combination. They continue until all squares have been claimed or the teacher calls a halt. The winner has the greatest number of squares when the game stops. You can then get the students to group the nouns they have made according to the different suffixes used to create nouns and then try to think of any more verbs–>nouns they know that work in the same way.

That’s all for this week. Just like last week, the session gave me a real boost. There’s nothing like spending some quality time being creative with a great bunch of people! 🙂 Here are a few questions to leave you with:

Have you used a fish bowl activity before? How did you use it? Do you have any other ideas for teaching synthesis or activities for livening up lessons on nominalisation?




Scholarship Circle “TEFLising EAP”

Today was the inaugural session of our new scholarship circle “TEFLising EAP”*. (You can read more about what a scholarship circle is and what it does here.) The idea behind this one is that EAP lessons can get a little dry – learning how to do things academically is not necessarily the most exciting thing in the world even if it is essential for would-be university students – and for the students’ sake (as well as our own!) it would be great to bring in more, let’s say ‘TEFL Tweaks’ – things that we used to do when we taught at language schools abroad (warmers, personalisation, fun activities etc!) and have got out of the habit of doing in the EAP context but that could actually be adapted for use here without losing the all-important lesson content.

The plan is to look at the lesson materials for the following week (all of the courses here except for the highest level one have a very structured week-by-week, lesson-by-lesson syllabus and materials) and share ideas for how to breathe some life into them. We shall be doing this between 12 and 13.00 on a Friday and all in all, we will be aiming, through some most excellent collaboration, to avoid this** happening in our EAP classrooms! 😉


*not necessarily the official name!

**substitute ‘lesson’ for ‘lecture’!

Here are some of the ideas that came out of today’s session:

  1. For a listening and note-taking lesson: when you want students to work in pairs to use their notes to answer questions, make it impossible for them not to (or they won’t!) – you could do this by setting up the activity with clear stipulations i.e. one student to close their folder and one to read out the questions that they then work on together to answer. This avoids students getting buried in their folders, which is the tendency.
  2. For a citation and referencing lesson: students may be good students but may not be familiar with terminology that we take for granted, such as “semi-colon” or “bracket”. To ensure that you start the lesson with all students clear about the language you are going to use in teaching the lesson content, take that terminology (e.g. semi-colon, italics, brackets, et al etc) and use it as the basis for a backs-to-the-board game. This enables you to check that students know the terminology before you use it.
  3. A pronunciation warmer for working on minimal pairs: Minimal pairs phone numbers. Number the board vertically from 0-9 and give each number a word within which is a minimal pair sound. Here are the examples we had: 0-Annie, 1-any, 2-rise, 3-rice, 4-fool, 5-full, 6-light, 7-right, 8-sit, 9-seat. (Adapt it according to the sounds that your group of learners tend to struggle with) You read out your (invented) phone number by saying the word that corresponds with each number. So 989 would be sit seat sit. The students have to write down your phone number by deciding which word you have said and writing down the corresponding number. They can then do it in pairs. This gives them practice in both recognition and production of the minimal pairs.
  4. Do a speaking ladder at the start of the lesson based on the lesson content: It takes some time to do it, but the benefits range from giving the students (who have very long days at the college) an energy-levels boost, get them mingling, get them thinking/speaking in English and make them focus (as it generates a lot of noise, they have to listen very carefully to concentrate on “their noise”). It also gives them some bonus fluency practice.
  5. (This one was mine!) A warmer for a nominalisation lesson: Make a grid of academic verbs, one verb per square. Put students in groups of three and give each group a grid, counters and dice (they can use a phone app and the change in their pockets if needs be!). The aim of the game is to “collect” as many squares as possible by turning the verbs into nouns. To do this, students roll the dice and move their counter the corresponding number of moves. If their square has not been claimed, they can claim it by giving the correct noun form. If they are correct, they draw their symbol on that square. They can move in any direction that gets them to an empty square (backwards, forwards, diagonally, vertically etc) in any combination. They continue until all squares have been claimed or the teacher calls a halt. The winner has the greatest number of squares when the game stops. You can then get the students to group the nouns they have made according to the different suffixes used to create nouns and then try to think of any more verbs–>nouns they know that work in the same way.
  6. Academic style: When the activity requires students to edit sentences to make them more academic, here is a fun way to do it in groups. Write each sentence at the top of a blank piece of paper and make sure you have enough for each student in each group to have a different sentence. They write their edited sentence at the bottom of the sheet and fold it over to hide it. They then pass their paper to one student and take a sheet from another. Repeat this until all the students have written their edited version on each of the sentences going round in their group. At the end, as a group, they can look at all the different versions and collaborate to make a final “best version”, combining their ideas, and write that best version in their folder.
  7. Working with a text: take out ten key words, do a few rounds of backs to the board; once all words have been guessed and are on the board, get students to use them to predict the possible content of the text.
  8. Summary-writing tasks: get students to record it rather than write it for a change! Put them in pairs and give them time to make notes, discuss what they want to say and decide who will say what, then get them to record that. They can send you the recordings to listen to and give some feedback on.

The hour went by very quickly, it has to be said. Looking forward to more next Friday! 🙂 (I am planning to share the ideas here regularly but marking 30×3000 word essays [in chunks of 1 and 2000 words] is likely to get in the way somewhat! Hopefully I will catch up eventually though. )


IATEFL 2017 – In one ear and out the other: does feedback work? (Lorraine Kennedy)

You’ve got to love IATEFL Online! This year I didn’t make it to IATEFL for both personal and professional reasons; the first time since 2012 that I haven’t attended for at least some of the days. I wasn’t able to follow IATEFL Online at the time of the conference, but I think it’s marvellous that all that footage is stored for so long, giving teachers across the world the chance to access it when they are able to. As for me, finally I am addressing the “IATEFL 2017” gap that is no longer in the conferences category of this blog!

I decided to start by watching Lorraine Kennedy speak about feedback as it is something that I think about a lot in my professional day-to-day life: I am currently working for the ELTC at the University of Sheffield International College and the teaching here is focused on academic skills for students who hope to start an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in the following academic year. The academic writing strand is built on the process of drafting work, receiving feedback, reflecting on it and responding it, in order to develop sufficient skills to survive and hopefully thrive in the university environment. The question of how to improve the quality of my feedback, both written and spoken (in tutorials) is one that I continuously ask. While this talk focuses on giving feedback to in-service teachers rather than students, some of it is bound to be transferable with a little thought!

Lorraine starts by pointing out that we are all both givers and receivers of feedback. She also reminds us that feedback is prominent in the world today, so much so that we often ignore requests to give it (e.g. your hotel, the flight you travelled over on etc, all of them apparently want your feedback!). In one ear and out the other. She describes an article based on research done back in 1996 that says that 1/3 of feedback has a positive result, 1/3 has no result at all and 1/3 has negative results. So that means 2/3 of feedback has no effect or a negative effect. To Lorraine this means we need to take a step back and think about it and review our thinking on it. She informs us that Deloitte Consulting Company are trying to take performance management out of the workplace, as it isn’t working.

Her first main question is: What is the point of feedback and does anything change when we give it? We need to stop and think about some fresh questions – what will I achieve by giving feedback? Does the person I’m speaking to want my feedback? Have they requested it? How can we explore the issues that we want to discuss in feedback effectively? – and we need to start with the assumption that people will not necessarily accept feedback. Giving feedback is not by definition positive or constructive, it is just an act or a form of communication. Only feedback that is accepted is likely to have an impact. Lorraine’s focus is in-service feedback for growth and professional development.

Having raised these questions she moves on to provide a definition for feedback:

Nobody is questioning that feedback done the right way is a good thing. The Hattie definition has a broad range of providers for feedback – reading a book is a form of feedback, rather than the stricter definition of expert to novice feedback. The traditional format for feedback is the sandwich approach – good, bad, good. She wonders if it has any impact on teaching practice rather than documentation just being put in a drawer and kept for inspectors to look at. She also remembers what it was like first and foremost to receive feedback – terrifying to be observed and receive feedback on that. Then she became more confident receiving feedback and also became better at assessing herself and less bothered about someone else’s opinion. She wonders how many other people experience that. The same went for giving feedback. She was uncomfortable initially and then through becoming a coach it became a more positive experience.

Lorraine is interested in 3 areas.

1) Which is better positive or negative feedback? The research will say things like if someone is a novice, focus on their effort/commitment/progress but if someone is quite experienced, you need to be more ‘brutal’ – are you successful all the time? If not, come on, let’s look at the constructive things we should look at and focus on that. It depends on the individual, the context and whether the person is listening in the first place.

2) Mindsets – growth mindsets and fixed mindsets:

Everyone likes giving feedback to the “growth mindset” people, the fixed mindset not so much. The idea is that we should work towards developing a growth mindset in everybody. What do you do with people who have been around for a while as vs children?

3) Feedback styles – there is a lot of work out there on communication styles and feedback is one aspect of that. One of the most difficult conversations to deal with is giving feedback. How to make it palatable and make people listen? Some people like it direct, no touchy feely stuff, some are the opposite. But how helpful is that? We can’t read other peoples’ minds to know if they are open to feedback and what style they appreciate unless we know them very well and even then they may change depending on the day.

Lorraine puts forward the following:

If it is unwanted or not valued, perhaps you are wasting your time. So the starting point is to be with the receiver mentality and think how does the receiver want feedback and who from? Perhaps it is not you.

She then makes some suggestions:

  • remove the word feedback from the language – has negative connotations and teachers tend to become weary of receiving it. “Really? Am I still not good enough? Do I still have to prove myself through an observation?” Instead, talk about “insight” into working performance – as a more neutral/positive term/concept.
  • use a coaching conversation technique. It doesn’t matter if you are the boss or a peer, this approach dictates that the person who has been observed takes the lead. The assumption is that if they are engaged and leading the conversation, then they are much more likely to engage willingly in that professional conversation. It could be “what would you like to talk about? what aspect of your development would you like to discuss?” (This does not apply to substandard performances but people who are well-established in the establishment).
  • coaching should lead to mentoring: the conversation should lead to your input as “giver of feedback” being requested e.g. “what would be your one suggestion to improve what I have done?” to which you could respond: “which bit would you like me to focus on?” So it is specific and requested by the individual.
  • more self-assessment should be used, so that teachers can start to lead on their own self-assessment more (performance management or observations). Very little need to tell people what to do different For this to work you need SMART objectives and it needs to be clear how progress is being measured/looked at. Encourage people to watch other people so they have benchmarks and point of comparison.
  • explore teacher beliefs about teaching and learning: it’s an important place to start. What is good classroom management? How do teachers teach well? What is a good teacher? What is effective learning? When you start with these kinds of questions you find common ground or differences of opinion to build the conversation, so that you know what perspective they are coming from and how to reach them.
  • focus on development not evaluation: if people are developing then quality results and evaluation will happen. Development is a better starting place. Goal-setting is a priority – future focus not past focus and goals need regular review. Takes the emphasis off process and puts the emphasis on results. Focus on how to impact positively on student progress and confidence? View the principles of teaching through that lens.
  • a variety of observation practices: video, audio, camera focused on the students, followed up with a coaching conversation is also valuable. Peer observation is also valuable but only when it is well set up and when people doing observations have been trained in having the post-observation dialogue. People do appreciate professional dialogue with their peers and also from managers who take the role of a peer.
  • encourage teachers to get feedback from students directly: what worked for you today? what did you find challenging? what would help next time? Five minutes at the end of a class. You can make it more formal if you wish. If we can get teachers to engage with student feedback then you won’t need to go through the managers – the teachers can report to the managers what they are learning from the students. It should be a regular part of teaching and learning.
  • establish learning culture led by teachers: creating collaborative opportunities, positive culture of growth and development. (I think my workplace does this well, with teacher-led scholarship circles)

In conclusion:

The progress being made by students doesn’t just mean results or what students got in a test, but many useful formative mechanisms in place to look at effort, confidence, support, growth, engagement etc.

Lorraine finally changes Stephen Covey’s quote to: “Begin with the students in mind” when you think about feedback in that line, greater impact on teaching and learning will result.

Here are the references she used:

Just a reminder that you can watch the full talk here.

I found this a very interesting talk and while it is focused on in-service teacher development, I wonder how I could incorporate some of what she has discussed into the feedback tutorials I have to give students based on their academic writing. As I said at the start of this post, I have done a lot of thinking about feedback, and giving feedback, since I have been working here and giving it on a fairly regular basis.

I think the process of reflecting each time on what I do, and what I could do differently, has helped me improve a bit each time. Partly I have become more confident about delivering the feedback (mirroring what Lorraine said) and so rather than being nervous I enjoy the experience of working with the students to help them improve. This is connected with increased confidence in being able to identify key areas for students to work on, that will have the most impact on improving their academic writing, and point them towards resources to help them with those. I know I used to give too much feedback initially, out of a desire to help the students as much as I could, such that it was nigh on impossible for the students a) to take it all in and b) to respond to it all in the time frame available to them. I think both the quantity and clarity of my feedback – or feed-forward if we must – has improved in this respect. Students receive the written feedback in advance of the tutorial, so they have time to look at it before they come and see me. To capitalise on this, where I used to launch straight into what I wanted to say, I now start the tutorial by asking the student if they have any questions about the written feedback or if they have any issues with their writing that they particularly want to discuss with me. Nine times out of ten, they do. Hopefully once these are dealt with,  this means they are more receptive to the rest of what I have to say and are less distracted by what they may have been worrying about up till that point. 

This term I intend to read up on and implement relevant coaching conversation techniques in my tutorials, to see if I can continue to increase their effectiveness for my students. I suspect there may be more posts in future relating to feedback!

Questions for you, if you got this far: 

  • How do you feel about giving feedback?
  • What kinds of feedback do you have to give in your job?
  • How has your style of giving feedback changed over time?
  • How would you like it to change in future?
  • What resources have you found useful in helping you with giving feedback? (Blog posts, journal articles etc)

(Feel free to pick out any of the questions that interest you and ignore the rest, or answer them all, whatever suits!)