Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A cooking workshop in the ESL class

Carnival is a festival of immense cultural and historical significance

“There are many advantages in holding a nursery or school carnival event. It can hold the key to learning in many areas of the curriculum, provide all children with opportunities to contribute at their own level, connect to children experiences in their communities and create links between adults in the setting and experienced carnival practitioners and parents”
(from Carnival in Education:

I really recommend this web site, even if you are convinced of why should we teach children and teachers about carnival.

Apart from arts and crafts, designing costumes, reading or listening about carnival parties and so on, each country is very rich in traditions and celebrations. Some of them come from the popular imaginary, some other have a lot to see with the religious calendar, winter fests, parades or food.

In my country we do celebrate “Dijous gras” (Catalan term that refers to “Jueves lardero in Castilian” or “Fat Thursday” literally translated into English). Do not confuse with “Mardi Gras” celebrated in New Orleans (even though the translation from French would be “Fat Tuesday”!).

Every year we celebrate Carnival in the school and me, as the ESL teacher; take advantage of it.

There are many different cooking traditions (very fat and with a high protein and calories content!). One of them is to cook omelettes: French omelettes filled with a special egg sausage.

During the previous days of the celebration my colleagues have been preparing the costumes, songs, parades, masks, and so on. But during this special Thursday (Dijous gras), English language takes the leading role. We do omelettes and tomato bread, and we do it in English.

This is the full process in images.

You must strongly think on the idea to do some cooking projects in English. They are a great resource of vocabulary and grammar in a rich context, full of motivation, fun and hands on activities.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Tiny Texts, for learning English and hearing some different accents

ESL teachers who do not use published materials or course books, know how difficult is to find good listening and reading materials for their English learners.

I would like to share with you a web site (or better to say a blog!) that I am sure you will find extremely interesting for your teaching in late Primary and Secondary: Tiny Texts.

Tiny Texts, published by Annette Porter, offers free listening and reading materials based on interesting news stories that may not make the headlines.

Each entry includes a short reading with an audio file and glossary. The recordings are provided by English teachers with different English accents: Scottish, English, Australian… This makes the listening more attractive and “real” as you can “hear” English from different countries.  

The “takeaway test” is a short printable quiz with a matching exercise and gap-fill.

Some entries also include related videos or links. The audios are uploaded in Audioboo (a great site to allows users to post and share sound files and to get itunes poadcasts).

Here are Annette’s Ten Tips for Teachers for using tiny texts in and out of the classroom. 

  1. Ask your learners to read and listen to a Tiny Text each week for homework.  It will only take 2 minutes. They will then come to your lessons with something to say and with some new vocabulary up their sleeves.
  2. Do the takeaway test as a classroom activity.  Cover the key words but help them out by providing the definitions if they get stuck.
  3. Subscribe to the itunes podcast and have tiny texts delivered to your ipod/laptop.  This will allow you to use the audio as a listening activity in class.  Just click on the itunes button here:
  4. Use the takeaway test as a listening gap-fill, i.e. Students listen to the audio and fill in the gaps.
  5. Have your students prepare one or two conversation questions related to a tiny text to spark off a lively class discussion.  
  6. Email each student in your class a link to a different tiny text.  Pair them up at the beginning of the lesson and ask them to tell their partner what they understood and what vocabulary they learned.  You could even mix up the pairs and repeat.  (You’ll fill a whole lesson if you have enough students).  Correct mistakes at the end of each session and their reports should be perfect by the end.
  7. For more advanced students, get them to use the tiny text as a starting point to research the topic in more detail (there are links to related articles at the bottom of each post).
  8. Assign a tiny text for homework and start the lesson by giving one of the vocabulary items to each student who then explains the meaning of his/her word in English and the other students guess the word.
  9. Get students to practice reading a tiny text aloud.  Record them, play it back, work on intonation and pronunciation and then record again.
  10. As an end-of-lesson cooler, have a competition to see who (or which pair) can best sum up a tiny text in exactly 7, 10, 11, or even 3 words.  I don’t know if this is possible, but it could be fun to try.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Language or teaching? Linguistics or Pedagogy?

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to give a short talk with other colleagues (very short talk, indeed!) at the Departament d’Ensenyament de la Generalitat de Catalunya, in front of a selected audience, about my daily teaching practice. The title of the talk was “Aprendre anglès, parlant anglès” –Learning English, Speaking in English- .

Some days ago, a good friend of mine and a wonderful English Teacher, Edward Lockhart from Lockhart Academy, left a comment in one of my posts (Illustrating a song with photos made by the students) that makes me aware about the importance to be coherent when teaching any language.

He wrote...

Some food for thought about the activity of fill-in the gaps.

I always tell my students to be very, very careful when using this type of activity. If we stop and analyze the process that a student needs for having a good understanding of what she hears, the main thing they need is to understand the context (their brain will fill the missing information if the context is comprehensible).

If we use (or overuse) the fill-in the gaps activity with the listenings, what are we subconsciously transmitting our students? That the important thing when they listen to something in English is to understand EVERY WORD. They're not trying to get the idea of the song but trying to understand every specific word they need to successfully do the activity.

I am not saying that we should never the fill-in the gaps, but that we have to be aware of what subconscious techniques and beliefs are transmitting to our students. I would probably substitute the fill-in the gaps by "sort out the pictures" or "sort out the paragraphs" where there's more general understanding of the context…

So I decided to start my yesterday short talk with a summary of this reflection:

"I started teaching English as a foreign language many years ago and I still have an apparent conflict between “teaching” and “language. Every single day of my professional practice I have to make decisions about which one has the priority. I think you would agree with me that both linguistics and pedagogy are obviously essential to the teacher of English as a foreign language.

As a teacher, I am interested in my student’s motivation and quick learning of new vocabulary and structures which they can use to say things, to communicate with others and to use for different purposes in a context from the very beginning.  In this sense I’m much concerned on linguistic aspects rather on methodological ones.

On the other hand, I have believed for many years that the best way to learn a language is a natural “immersion” with all its methodological conditions (respect for the silent periods, use of English language 100% of time, CLIL...). But daily classroom teaching often cannot afford the luxury of “immersion”. We cannot wait; we have to speed things up by “pushing” the learners to speak as soon as they can.

How many times you must make decisions on when to introduce the past or the future tenses, negative or interrogative forms...what to teach and how to put it across?

You have to consider both language and teaching arguments, and then decide which has the priority, or how to combine them. In deciding this, you need to use all the knowledge you have gained about TEFL through seminars, own experience, reading, discussion with experts and reflection. And this is something you don’t learn in one day.

In my experience as a teacher trainer and in-service training monitoring, most of the teaching in university has been theoretical on linguistic subjects and relatively little on pedagogy, classroom techniques or coping with diversity. So that trainees come out with a lot of theoretical linguistic knowledge, but little idea how to integrate it with practical classroom methodology.

And you see the results in the classroom. Some teachers abandon the linguistic research and base their teaching on techniques they have learned through literature: you get on one hand, articles giving “practical tips”, “ready to use” materials with no rationale, or on the other, descriptions of speculative theory, with no links to professional action.

So what do I suggest? What are my three wishes?

  • I wish training seminars about the principles of good pedagogy. We need more courses on “classroom management”, “activity design”, “best teaching”, “students motivation”, “classroom climate and behaviour”...

  • I wish there were more integration of theory with practice. Student teachers need critical reflection and analysis of how do they interact with children in their practice teaching and enrich this reflection by insights from books and lectures. 

  • And I wish trainees must be able to develop a rationale of language teaching, which enables them to make successful choices between different theories and methodologies.

"To be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner." Søren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher, 1813-1855

Thanks to Penny Urr to give me the idea of this topic through her article "In language teaching, which is more important: language or teaching?", saved from

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

How to improve Students' Conversational Skills

In this article you will find very simple and useful ideas to help your students to progress in conversation. Let's put them into practice and enjoy! 

If you've got some other ideas, please share them!

Some children develop a conversational repertoire by listening, observing, asking questions and interacting with a variety of people, while some others might need a little help.

Here are some ideas to improve conversational skills.

Conversation Starters
On small pieces of paper, write some conversation-starters and place them in a bowl. Examples might include ‘superpower you’d like to have’ and ‘favourite summer holiday’. Sneak in some more challenging topics, such as ‘where does the world come from’ or ‘why do people laugh’.
Mix the paper up and put the children into pairs. Get one child of each pair to pick one up without looking. Each pair should hold a conversation about their topic for a fixed period of time, say two minutes.

Non-verbal Signals
Watch a video clip of people talking, but with the sound turned down. Find specific points wherenon-verbal communication is being used and ask children to write down why they think the speaker/listener is using them. Once the children have grasped the basic ones, such as shaking or nodding the head, explain the more subtle cues to them, such as eye contact and posture.

Choosing Topics
Come up with a list of different people with varying roles – for example, a cook, a fireman, a cricket player, a farmer and an old lady. Get children to write down a list of things that they could talk about with each of them. For example, a farmer would be happy to talk about animals and the weather. Learning materials from language schools are often a good source of inspiration for this kind of method.Check out the website of ESL for examples.

Conversation needs practice so role-play is essential. Get two more conversationally able children to talk to one another and make a note of the key parts of the conversation for discussion afterwards. The basic conversation template starts with a greeting combined with a question – such as ‘hi, how was football practice?’.

The next step is to find some common ground by picking up on key words in a response – for example, talking about football or another sport. The next stage is deeper discussion where a person shares their opinions or feelings about a subject.

Once children have grasped the concepts, get them to practice in pairs. Introduce ways to encourage the conversation, such as empathetic responses and non-verbal signals. Conversational role-play is a great skill that will stand a child in good stead for their future learning goals – whether they end up in business school or studying French language courses in Paris.

Question and Answer
The inclusion of questions in a conversation helps keep it going. Have children ask one another a question. Specify that the answer must include anther question related to it. So, for example, if a child begins by asking ‘what’s your favourite colour?’, the other child might answer ‘blue. Do you like anything that’s blue?’.

I got the ideas from