At the Movies

Most students enjoy watching a good movie - whether at the cinema or on TV. Here are a few ideas for making use of their interest and knowledge to create some unusual activities.

Instant film scripts

Ask your class if they can think of any spoken sentences that typically occur again and again in films - things such as “OK everybody. Put your hands up.” or “Oh darling. Don’t go!”. Give students some thinking time to discuss possible answers in pairs then collect all their sentences on the board until you have a good number, taking the chance to correct mistakes and practise some exaggerated intonation. Make groups with four or five students in them. Each group must now select some lines from the board and put them in an appropriate order to create a complete mini film scene.  They cannot add extra words! Each group should write down their dialogue, rehearse it and later perform their scene in front of the class.

Favorite film keywords

In groups students agree on a film they have all seen e.g.  “8 Mile”. They must make a list of three key words that catch the essence of the film - but not including the film name or the names of any of the characters, places, actors or actresses.  Example words for 8 Mile might be: rapper, contest, city. When ready, each team reads their words to the others who try to guess the film names.


Groups agree on a film they all know and list as many characters as they can remember. Tell them that Hollywood is considering remaking the film but to save money they want to use students from their class as actors.  Groups must now discuss which students would be good for playing each of the roles, aiming to make a good cast list. This is a good discussion task - but be a little careful; don’t use it with classes where there is any antagonism or negative feelings as there is some potential for unkind casting decisions and arguments!

Watching the detectives

First teach the class the “truth rule” - i.e. if someone says something it becomes true and cannot be contradicted later on. Tell the class that they are all in a cinema and the blank board is the screen. Invite them to watch the board and imagine the movie being shown there. Say “The detective’s white car is stopping outside a house.”  Invite students to imagine the next part of the film. When a student can “see” something he/she says a sentence about what is on the screen - e.g. “The detective is going into the house”.  When the next student is ready he/she continues with what happens next (always following the truth rule).  Slowly a story will evolve as if from nothing - which is amazing as the board is completely blank. You can vary the story type by changing the opening line.


Bags of ideas

Teachers and learners carry books and equipment to their lessons in a variety of smart or scruffy bags. Here are some ways you could make use of these unassuming objects in class.

What's in the bag? Write "The teacher's bag" on the board. Tell the learners that you have brought 10 unusual things to class today and every item can be spelt from the letters you put on the board. (You don't have to reveal if they are real things, toys or pictures!!) Let groups work together and make a list, compare as a class, then reveal, one by one, the original items from your bag (e.g. a hat, a cat, a rat, a car, cheese, earth, a heart, a beach, beer, tears (!))

Different bags Bring in 3 different bags (e.g. plastic carrier bag, rucksack, elegant lady's handbag.) Explain that the bags each have appropriate contents; maybe show some lipstick from the handbag as an example. Teams must work on listing as many possible items as they can for each bag. At the end reveal the true contents and give points for each correctly guessed item. Whose bag? Tell a story about walking to work today and finding a bag full of mysterious things by the roadside. Reveal 5 or 6 evocative objects one by one (e.g. travel tickets, a dried rose, a map with a bank circled, a scribbled name and phone number, broken glasses, a knife etc). Encourage discussion and speculation, then ask groups to work out the true story: why were these things abandoned at the roadside? When ready, students could first tell each other their stories, then perhaps write them up.

In the bag Ask students to pair up and choose five interesting things from each of their own bags (you could set up the activity the day before by specifically asking students to bring in special things). In their pairs they should explain to each other why the items are important or interesting to them. Once finished the pairs should agree to temporarily swap one item with the other person. Pairs now meet up with other pairs and explain the items, but this time talking about the swapped item as if it was their own. The other pair must guess which item doesn’t belong to each speaker.

Bag grammar Here’s a useful revision lesson. Ask your class to find out how many grammar points from this term’s course they can demonstrate or mime using only your bag as a prop. As an example you could show an idea or two yourself, e.g. (going to) “I’m going to throw it at the door.” (too + adj.) “This bag is too heavy to lift.” First get small groups to look back through their coursebook and spot possible grammar points, then they should prepare two or three of their best ideas to show the class. You can give feedback and discuss the sentences. See if you can elicit further examples for each grammar point.

Board games for teaching English

Learners are often familiar with popular board games such as Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit or Scrabble (probably in their own language).  Inventing new games (or adapting familiar games) can often produce materials that motivate students to talk and practise language. 

The basic all-purpose board game

For most of these ideas you need to make a basic board. On a large piece of paper (e.g. A3) use a thick pen to draw a path of board game squares in a continuous route e.g. an oval (with the last square joining onto the first).

The topic road

Write one topic in each square e.g. "Friends" or "Sport" or "TV".  Learners play in groups, throwing the dice and moving their counter from square to square  When they land on a square they should talk fluently for 30 seconds on that topic.  If they succeed they keep their piece on the square; if not they must go back where they were before.   The winner is the person who has got furthest when you stop the game.  If you have a higher level class, you could make more demanding topics e.g. "Climate change" or "Noise pollution" or using questions such as “Are men or women better drivers?”

Revision cards

Instead of writing topics on the board, leave it blank. Copy out a range of revision questions (grammar, vocabulary etc) and cut them up into separate cards.  When a learner lands on a square they take a card.  If they can answer the question they stay on the square.

Learners invent their own game

In groups of 3 or 4 the learners get a basic board.  They must first discuss and agree a theme for a game (e.g. "Olympics" or "Detectives") adding any extra pictures or text as necessary to the board. They must now work out the details of a game that could be played using the board and then write down the rules clearly. (Remind the class how to use imperatives!). When they are ready, combine groups together to make larger groups. Each half of the group now tries to understand the rules and play the other half's game.


Bringing dialogues alive

You can find short dialogues in many course books. How can you exploit these scripts and get them to come alive?

Speedy dictation

  •  Tell the learners that you will read a short dialogue to them – only once. They must listen without writing – but as soon as the dialogue is finished they should write down whatever they can remember.

  • When individuals have finished writing they get together in small groups and see if they can work out the original conversation.

  • They can compare what they wrote with the original (text or on tape).

  • Start orally - rather than with the printed text

  • Draw a picture on the board showing the conversation’s location and with “speech bubbles” over people’s heads showing pictures of what they are talking about (e.g. a question mark and a cup of tea)

  • Ask the learners to guess what they are saying. Correct any English errors but don’t say if the learners are right in their guesses. Write up their words and phrases.

  • When you have collected a lot of phrases, read the dialogue aloud yourself (maybe stand in a different position for each speaker) – or ask two learners to read it aloud.  

  • The learners listen and check if their predictions were correct.

  • Learners then try to remember any other phrases they heard.                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Moving jigsaws

  • This idea is suitable for short dialogues (3-8 lines) in classrooms where there is space for learners to move around. Choose dialogues that totla the same number of lines as there are learners.
  • Write the dialogue(s) on paper, with space between the lines. There should be one line for each learner.

  • Cut the lines up and randomly distribute one to each person. Learners walk around, read their line out to other people and see if they can work out what the original order was. When a group has found a complete dialogue, they call out “snap”.  

  • Everyone listens while they read their conversation, then the others decide if it’s good or not. If it’s OK, they sit down. If not they start searching again.

  • You could make it much more challenging by cutting up dialogues so that the pieces are shorter phrases (rather than whole sentences)

Dialogue refills

  • Once a dialogue has been studied, choose one of the adjectives in it and ask the learners if they can think of a different word that is possible in that place (it may change the meaning) e.g. learners might suggest that “red” or “delicious” could replace “large” in the sentence “I had a large apple after supper.”

  • Tell the class that, just like ink in pens, dialogues get old and need refills. Erase about a quarter of the words of the dialogue on the board (or hand out a photocopy). (Erase key words like nouns, verbs, adjectives etc). Learners must now try to “refill” the dialogue by putting new words into the old spaces. The dialogue can completely change its meaning but it must make sense and be good English!

  • Learners may like to read out or act their dialogues for each other.


Catalogues, shop brochures and leaflets are a type of authentic material often available free and in quantity. Here are some ideas for using these, whether printed in English or another language. (If you don't have such material locally, you could use advertisements cut out from magazines instead.)

Catalogue search You'll need multiple copies of the same brochure or catalogue for this listening comprehension task. Prepare about 6-10 questions that require learners to understand a short but detailed description of what a person is looking for e.g. "Mary loves to pick flowers from her garden and wants to display them in her home – but has nowhere to put them." Learners look through their catalogue and find the best product, writing it next to the person's name. This is an interesting task because it doesn't lead to single "right" answers, but to further comparison and discussion when everyone has made their choices.

Catalogue race A similar idea – but this time you'll need English language catalogues to make it useful. Prepare about 15-20 short, snappy questions that require students to fast-read through the text and find specific information. Example questions: "How much is a DBX23 toaster?"; "What colour is the After all perfume bottle?"; "How high can the toy frog jump?". Give students time to familiarise themselves with the organisation of the catalogues – then ask questions fairly quickly, forcing them to flick through the pages and read fast. 

"Killer product" Learners should browse their catalogue and choose a "killer" (i.e. really brilliant) product. They then have 10-15 minutes to prepare a short presentation to persuade the class why their product is the one they should buy. They can invent any new information about it, add new features, even change the purpose of it. When all are ready everyone makes their sales pitch one by one and at the end the class votes for the one product they most want to own.

Bargain Hunting Choose about 7-10 unusual catalogue items. Make teams. Give out an imaginary $200 to each team. Auction the products one by one, giving elaborate, enticing descriptions (but not saying the original prices). Teams bid for products they want to buy; highest bid wins each item. At the end, reveal the real prices and calculate who has achieved the best bargains.

Christmas shopping Ask learners to think of a friend or relative and write a short description (age, personality etc) and a brief list of the kind of things they like and don't like. When ready, they should pass this list on to another student. Now hand out some Christmas or New Year "gift idea" catalogues. Students work in pairs. Assign each pair an imaginary amount of money e.g. $25. Each pair now has two people to "shop for". They should look at the products, make suggestions to each other, justify choices, offer alternatives etc and finally reach a compromise of one present for each person. When finished they meet up with the original list writers and explain what they have decided to buy and why. The writers can then tell them whether they chose well for the actual person or not!


Coursebook lessons on comparative forms often ask students to make random comparisons between things for no obvious reason (e.g. “An elephant is bigger than a mouse”). If we consider typical real-life contexts when we are genuinely likely to compare we might be able to create some useful practice activities.

Giving advice Ask students to write down a small problem that they have (real or imaginary) e.g. “My feet are cold!” or “My chair’s broken!” When students have done this, elicit some things that a friend might say in answer to your example problem. Collect student ideas then point out that you can give advice using a comparison e.g. “Get warmer socks!” or “Find a stronger chair”. Ask students to stand up and mingle with others. Students should say their problem to each new partner – who must reply with some good advice. Students should note responses. At the end ask them to read out all the advice - but not the problem. Others can then guess what the original problem was.

Boasting For some light- hearted practice, teach students how to boast. Start by doing an example yourself. Choose one student’s desk (a crowded one is more fruitful!) and randomly pick up things from it, boasting as you go e.g. “My book’s much longer than yours”, “My pen’s more expensive than yours” “My writing is more beautiful than yours” etc. Make this light-hearted and funny rather than serious! Ask students to recall what you said and then elicit some other possible boasting phrases. Put students into pairs and get them boasting to each other. As students gain in confidence this activity could get loud! You could allow students to argue back (e.g. “No – MY phone is much more modern than yours”). NB You might want to ban comparisons with “better” as students will tend to overuse this.

Advertising Bring in some familiar objects (e.g. a pocket radio, a wallet etc). Distribute one to each small group of students and ask them to design a much better, more modern version of their object, drawing a picture and labelling it with special features. Afterwards point out how you can use comparatives to say why your product is better than before – or better than competitors’ products (e.g. “It’s much more beautiful” “It’s lighter” “It’s cheaper” etc). Now ask groups to prepare a “TV advertisement” for their product. When ready students should perform their short “ad”) in front of other groups.

Saying why you did something Write “Why did you … ? “ on the board. Elicit 10 - 15 endings e.g. “… go to the cinema?” “ … come late to the lesson? “ etc. Don’t let students copy these into their books yet! Now ask students to think of comparisons that would answer each question (e.g. “It was more fun than staying at home” “The bus came later than yesterday”) and write them up. Now erase all the questions and see if students can remember them just by looking at the answers.  

Dicey moments

Some of the most useful teaching props are the simplest. Most ELT teachers will have used dice at some time, perhaps when groups are playing a board game. Here are three ideas for more unusual uses of dice in class

Story dice

Write the numbers 1 to 6 down the side of the board. Tell the first line of a story e.g. “It was a bright Tuesday morning and Alex was going to work.” Pause, and ask the class to suggest various options e.g. you could ask “How did he travel?” Collect six answers (e.g. “bus” "car" "skateboard" "hot air balloon" "tank" etc) and note each one next to the numbers on the board. Invite a learner to throw the dice and, depending on the number that comes up, continue with the story, inventing as you go, making use of the selected idea e.g. "He skateboarded down the hill …" and stop again fairly soon to elicit new options for a new question. When the class has grasped the idea you could ask learners to take over your storytelling role – and later to play the game together in small groups.

Class decisions

You could use this same dice decision-making idea to break the "routine habit" and add an element of surprise or unpredictability to some duller classroom activities. For example – ask the class "How shall I take the register today?" and elicit 6 options (e.g. "whispering", "from outside the door", "pronouncing the names backwards" etc). Just thinking of such options may prove quite an inspiring and creative stage in its own right (so long as you're not too nervous of being asked to do something out of the ordinary.)


Draw six columns on the board. Ask the class to call out any words that come to mind. Write these up randomly in the 6 columns, making sure that you get a good mixture. Encourage the class to include small words (articles, prepositions, pronouns, auxiliary verbs etc) as well as nouns and verbs (you could add items yourself). Continue till each column has at least 10 items in it.

Learners now work in small groups of four or five. A student throws the dice and, depending which number comes up, chooses one word from that column on the board, which everyone then writes down. The next player then throws and selects a word etc. Whenever someone in the group at the end of their turn thinks they can make a good English sentence (minimum 6 words) using some or all of the listed words (reordering as needed) they shout "Yarooh!" and declare their sentence. If the rest of the group agrees it's a good sentence they get points for the number of words used (i.e. an eight word sentence gives 8 points). The used words are crossed off the list and the game continues. The winner is the player with most points when the teacher calls time. You could then collect all the sentences on the board and check them!

Dictation for teaching English

Traditional dictation - where the teacher reads a text aloud and the learners must write it down accurately - is often quite unpopular with learners. It can feel like an unfair test. Could we make it more enjoyable and useful?

Democratic dictations

Usually the teacher makes all the decisions about a dictation. How about turning the tables? Let the learners choose the text. Or let them decide how many times it should be read. Or who should read it. In fact, could the learners choose everything and then dictate to the teacher?

Keywords dictation

Find an interesting short story and underline fifteen to twenty of the most important words in it (e.g. key nouns and verbs). Dictate these words to the class - but don't tell them the original story. They now must make a new story that uses those words - in exactly the original order and the original form you dictated. At the end, the class can swap stories, reading or telling them. You could also tell them the original if you wanted.

The "bad cold" dictation

Explain that you have a bad cold today (sneeze or cough a bit to prove it!) Tell the class that you're going to do a normal dictation - but if you have to sneeze or cough (and they can't hear a word) they should write any good word that fits the space. For example you might dictate, "Last Thursday Maria decided to have some cough for breakfast." The learners could write the sentence with a word like "eggs" or "cornflakes" or "whisky" instead of the cough.

Living tape recorder

Draw some tape recorder controls on the board (e.g. a symbol for a Play button, a Rewind button and a Stop button). Introduce yourself as a "living tape recorder". Get two of the class to stand near the board to control the "tape recorder" while you read the dictation. Members of the class can call out to ask the "controllers" to "press" the buttons. You ignore anything people say but strictly obey any button presses. In this way you will read the dictation, rewinding, replaying, rewinding etc until the students are happy that they all have the dictation. It's a bit chaotic at first but it's great after that!

The wild dictation

Dictate a numbered list of descriptions of words, like this: "No.1 the name of a male pop star; No.2 an adjective describing some food; No. 3 a verb of movement, No.4 a kind of animal" etc. The learners should write down answers to these prompts e.g. "Robbie Williams, salty, swim, kitten" etc. When the lists are finished dictate a short story you have prepared - but with appropriate gaps (into which the learners will write their own previously chosen words) e.g. "A car drove up to the zoo and stopped suddenly and - No.1 - got out. He looked really - No 2 - as he started to - No 3- towards the No.4's cage." etc You'll get some very funny stories. Don't forget to prepare both the story and the list of word descriptions before the lesson.



Although less familiar than word processors, computer Presentation programs (e.g. Microsoft PowerPoint) are a good way of storing and showing images and text in unusual ways, a sort of high-tech slide show. Here are some teaching ideas, all suitable for classrooms with only a single computer.

Fast flash pictures

Select 10-15 interesting pictures off the Internet ( has an excellent image search facility). Paste one full screen image onto each slide of a presentation. Set the display time for each image to 1 second. Gather students around the screen and then play the "show" once – each picture will flash past quickly. Afterwards students meet up in small groups and try to construct a list of all the items they can remember seeing in the pictures. After 5 minutes replay the show – and then again whenever it seems useful.

Fast flash vocabulary

Do the same – but instead of pictures, show recently studied words (maybe all from one lexical area, e.g. kitchen words).

Fast flash stories

You could extend the Fast flash pictures activity by telling students that all the pictures connect to make a story. Students discuss, work out and write a short narrative.

Fast flash texts

Prepare a slide with a short written text on it (maybe from the next coursebook unit?). Make sure the print is large enough to be readable by people standing in front of it. Make a second blank slide. Set up the program so that you can manually flick between text slide and blank slide with a mouse click. Start with the blank slide visible.

Divide the class into teams of 4-5 students. Ask an easy gist question and get the first group to come to the screen. Flash the text at them for a very short time e.g. 10 seconds – then send them away to discuss and come to a joint answer. While they are discussing, the second, third team etc. will also come and see the same flashed text. When all have seen and written their answer, repeat the activity moving on to more difficult questions (and longer viewing times). At some point you'll need to show them a normal printed text– but the flash technique can be an interesting and exciting lead-in.

Fast flash dictation

Select a short text and divide it into short "chunks" (i.e. coherent pieces shorter than a sentence). Put one chunk, in large print, on each slide, each followed by a blank slide, so that playing all the slides in sequence will cycle through the whole text. In class, display all the slides once, giving students time to read and understand them. Then play it through again more slowly, briefly flashing a text chunk followed by a blank slide. Students should write down each chunk. Flash the texts faster than it would be possible to copy them down – so that students have to work on catching the whole meaning and structure of each chunk rather than just copying the individual words.

Get them talking

(speaking in English classes)

Have you ever tried a whole-class discussion and, instead of speaking to each other, the learners direct all comments to you? How can you get more student-student interaction in such activities?

Circles rather than lines

It's hard for anyone to talk to people they can't see - so straight-line rows in classrooms can get in the way of interaction. Arrange seating so that learners can make eye-contact with each other. If you have fixed desks try getting everyone to sit on their desks for a while so that they can make a circle and really talk to each other around class. Alternatively get people out of their seats and standing. A "mingle" is also a useful format - where people walk around (as in a party) meeting others and having short conversations.

Look away

If a learner is talking to you when you would prefer them to tell the whole class, gently break eye contact with them and turn away to look in the direction you want them to talk in. It's quite hard for someone to go on talking to a person who is not looking at them and they may naturally start talking more to the rest of the class.

Disappear sometimes

Sometimes a teacher's presence can interfere in a discussion. If you feel that you keep drawing attention back to yourself, try "disappearing" for a while - i.e. move to a different part of the room, out of the participants' view and keep a low profile (e.g. not making any comments or corrections). This sets the learners free to continue without constantly worrying about your reaction and opinions.

Walk away

When a student speaks quietly it seems natural for a teacher to walk closer to her in order to hear better. Unfortunately this often has the effect of encouraging that learner to speak even quieter. Instead, try walking further away - across the classroom. This often has the effect of getting them to speak up - and then more students will be able to hear.

Don't fill the silence

Teachers often seem worried if there is silence in class - and may over-compensate by talking to fill the space. Sometimes we might feel we are not doing our job if we're not talking. It's worth remembering that a lot of silence is "quality silence" - it's space to think, to find a way to articulate thoughts. So, for example, when you ask a question, and there is no immediate answer, don't panic and start talking again or re-stating the question - try allowing three times the waiting space you normally do - and see what happens.

Reduce the echo

"Echo" is when the teacher repeats what a learner has just said. For example when a student says "at the weekend" and the teacher responds "At the weekend. Yes. At the weekend." A teacher who does this is probably trying to be helpful so that all students can hear the comment. Unfortunately it trains the learners not to bother to listen to each other and instead they just wait for the teacher to say everything. So monitor yourself - watch out for unnecessary echo - and avoid it. If someone doesn't hear something get them to ask the learner who spoke to say it again.

Glorious gaps

There seem to be an awful lot of gap-fill exercises in course books nowadays. And sometimes they can be rather dreary for students and teacher alike. Except for saying "Do exercise two" and then checking it when they finish, what on earth can you do with them? Well, you could do this… 100 metres sprint With books closed, announce that students have exactly one minute to do the whole task. Say go and then stop after 60 seconds – when students have to close their books. Gather student reactions to doing it quickly then ask them to look through more carefully, without a time limit, and see if they want to change any of their original answers. Only then, go through the answers together.

Books shut task Do the task with books closed and you reading the text aloud. Whenever there is a gap, make a beep noise instead and ask students to write down a word for each blank. At the end let them look at the text and see if they think their first answers were good, before you go through answers together.

Partial answers When checking gap-fills that require students to choose between a number of possible words, at first only give partial answers. For example, tell them only how many of each choice there are e.g. There are 3 answers with “going to”. This will make students re-check their answers to see if theirs fit this information – and it may cause them to rethink some choices.

Teacher student Instead of getting students to do it, do the task yourself on the board. Ask students to check if you get all the answers right. Make two or three errors and see if people spot them. Get students to teach you how to correct your sentences. Mark the teacher! Similarly, you could do the task on paper before class and hand out copies in class for students to mark. Student teacher At the end of a task ask a student to come to the front and be the teacher to check the task. Hand the student the answers and let them go through the class’s answers. Encourage them to ask people for reasons.

Dictated answers Give students a chance to read through the gapped text then tell them that you’ll dictate all the answers to them – but in the wrong order. Students have to quickly find the right space for the words you read out.

Unreliable information After they’ve finished a task pretend to be giving answers as normal, but without warning, tell them some right and some wrong answers. If a student challenges or questions you, argue fiercely for your answer. Give just enough encouragement to your critic to keep them challenging. Finally give in – and congratulate them (and change your own answer)! Once students have the idea that you may not be an entirely reliable informant they will be more motivated to listen much more carefully – and think rather than just accepting your answers.  

Hang ups!

Some props don't immediately suggest themselves as useful teaching aids. For example, what could one possibly do with a bag of clothes pegs and a piece of string? Mmm …

Clothes line Take your string and pin it up like a washing line. It could be slung across the top part of the board, it could be on an otherwise useless empty wall, or it could actually go across the room. Now you have a new display place for flashcards, word cards, magazine pictures, student work etc using clothes pegs to fix items.

Picture story grammar When you use a picture story to help present a grammatical item, reveal and attach the pictures one by one to the clothes line as the story unfolds. At the end, take the pictures down (or turn them around) and see if learners can recall the original sequence (and the accompanying language of course). An interesting follow-on practice would be to take the pictures down, mix them up randomly and then peg them up in a random new order. Students now have to work out a story that fits the new sequence (using the target grammar, of course). Communicative Clothes line Hang up two parallel clothes lines across the classroom. Select a number of pairs of pictures (i.e. two identical pictures or ones that have some item in common, are set in the same place, feature the same person etc). Divide the students into two groups, on each side of the room, standing parallel to the clothes lines. Divide the pictures into two sets, so that every item in set one has a pair in set two. Randomly peg them up so that each set is on one line, facing outwards (i.e. learners standing on one side of the room will see one set of pictures, but not the other). Students must now move along their line, talking to people on the other side of the room, describing their pictures (and listening to descriptions) and try to work out which pictures match and make pairs (and why) keeping notes as they go.

Sorting words Anything hung on the line can easily be moved, removed or reorganised. For example, when you teach countable and uncountable nouns, randomly hang up your example words on the clothes line rather than writing them on the board. Now ask students to separate uncountable items to the left and countable to the right. Alternatively, ask learners to sort: verbs in past simple and past participle form, different word stress patterns, adjectives and adverbs, informal and formal phrases, words with the schwa vowel sound and those without etc

Word line Many teachers keep a word box full of items for recycling in future lessons. Try hanging up a word line instead. At the end of every lesson, add ten or so new items to the word line. In the next lesson students pick a few random words to test themselves and others (e.g. translate it, put it into a sentence, use these 5 words in a story etc).


Green lessons

Break away from predictable course book topics! How about basing a whole morning round a single word? The ideas below would work for many items but, for now, let’s use green as an example for lesson activities at Intermediate level or above

Green lists Give students five minutes to work in threes and collect the names of twenty things that are typically green. Explain that you will give 3 points for every good word – but 5 points if the team is the only one to get that particular word. Check at the end. (You might choose to disallow arguable items, such as my mum’s hat).

Green idioms Before class, use a dictionary to select four to six green idioms e.g. green fingers, give it the green light, He’s very green etc. Prepare a short story that includes natural use of the idioms e.g. “…and everybody said that she had green fingers.” The context should help students to work out possible meanings.

Tell the class that you are going to tell them the same story three times - but there will be some small differences in the way you tell it (but don’t say what will be different). Tell the story first time with all the green idioms. Don’t explain them. Allow a little time for students to react to the story but don’t answer questions yet. Tell the story a second time – but this time, don’t say the green idioms but instead substitute an alternative way of saying the same meaning e.g. “…and everybody said she was naturally good at gardening.” Third time tell it with the idioms again. Put students into pairs and ask them if they can work out what was different between the stories. Get feedback and use this to check meanings and teach the idioms.

Green collocations Use a dictionary to find a number of compounds and collocations with green e.g. green salad, green card, greenback, greenhouse, green with envy etc. In class, write all the non-green words (e.g. salad) on the board. Add one incorrect one e.g. a collocation with red such as herring. Give students a few minutes to study the board and work out what the missing word is. When they agree on green, give ten minutes to use a dictionary to find out what all the green words / phrases are – and which one is the, er, red herring!

Green quiz Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to get your students thinking in different and unexpected ways. Say that you are going to ask them some questions where there is no right answer. Explain that they shouldn’t discuss answers but write their most imaginative answer. Dictate the questions and ignore any complaints! At the end put students together to compare and argue.

(1) What’s the opposite of green?

(2) What smell does green have?

(3) When you listen to green what do you hear?

(4) Name something that isn’t green but should be!

(5) When do you feel greenest - in the morning, lunchtime or at night?


Holiday English Courses

Many teachers do summer work teaching on short intensive courses. Such courses often have more of a holiday atmosphere than normal classes and teachers may look for jollier, summery activities. Here are a few bright and crazy ideas.

Treasure Hunt

Prepare a list of about 10 - 15 questions that can be answered by exploring and looking carefully at objects, places, notices etc in the vicinity, e.g. "What colour is the ceiling in the hall?" "How much does a bottle of Coke cost in the buffet?" "When was the museum opened?" etc Put learners into teams and set a time limit for everybody to finish and meet up. Check the answers - and the winning team gets a prize.


Who wants to be a grammar millionaire?

Students from different countries are often familiar with similar quiz programmes on TV. Many of these formats adapt well into classroom games. How about playing "millionaire" using vocabulary or grammar revision questions? A lot of the fun comes out of having one person "in the spotlight" which contrasts interestingly with more familiar pair, group and whole-class working modes. Some other good game show formats include "Blockbusters", "Countdown" and "Blind Date".

Pebble poems

Get a pack of felt-tip pens and go out of class to the park - or the beach. Ask learners to look around them, notice details of the place and note down as many words and phrases as they can. Then ask them to find a new natural writing surface in the location - maybe a pebble, a leaf, a blade of grass, a piece of driftwood etc. They must select words or phrases to write onto their new "page"; if it's a small object they'll have to choose - and write - very carefully. When everyone gets back to class, set up an art gallery in the room, showing off their new poems.

Ice cream

Give your usual communicative activities a "summery" edge. For example, in groups of three, the learners can become managers of competing ice cream companies. They first discuss and decide on three new flavours of ice cream, think of three names for them and design the packaging. Encourage them to think of weird and wonderful flavours (e.g. ham and eggs) and names. When they have decided, each group member can choose one of their three ice creams to sell themselves. Everyone now walks around, persuading others to buy their ice cream by showing the packaging, describing the taste etc. You could make it more exciting by giving each learner some money tokens (e.g. scraps of paper) that they can use to "buy" the ice creams they like; the winning player would be the one who collects most money for their ice cream.


Ask other teachers in the school if their classes would like to put on a "show" together. Each group can prepare an "act" (maybe a song, a dance or a comedy sketch). On the agreed day, bring all classes together (maybe in the open air) and enjoy each other's performances at this "Extravaganza".


In Town

Teachers often make use of maps or real information about the town/district students are studying in when teaching prepositions, giving directions or town vocabulary. Here are a few ideas that might help add a spark to those lessons.

Describing a town Ask students to think of 5 things they see in town on their journey from home to school (e.g. letter box) that they don’t know the English names for. In pairs students describe their items to each other (without saying a translation!) Their partner must understand the description well enough that they realise what the object is and can do a quick sketch of it. At the end everyone comes to the board and draws the pictures of their partner’s objects – and the whole class can agree (or be told) the correct names for everything. Then ask everyone to draw a town picture that includes all the items – with name labels.

Virtual walk You need a large empty space (without desks or obstacles) e.g. a gym, hall or playground. In pairs, one student has a blindfold (e.g. a scarf). The other leads their partner around the space as if they are on a guided tour of their town, starting at the school door. The partner should make it as realistic as possible and give a running commentary e.g. We’re just passing the Post Office now. Be careful – there’s a letter box. The blindfolded student can ask questions and make requests to go to particular places. At the end students will probably want to swap roles and take a new walk . An interesting discussion can come after it’s all over: How did it feel to be taken around town in this way? Did the blindfolded person feel they were really there?

Special towns

  • Teach twin town. Ask students to work in groups and think of an ideal twin town for their home town. Groups can present their proposal to the class and take a vote for best twin town.

  • A local council is considering your district for a street marathon. Ask pairs to agree the best route.

  • If the International Olympic Committee considered your town for the next Olympics, what would be the best arguments for your town to win? What would be big problems if you won? Decide where people could do athletics, swim, row etc.

  • Movie director On a large table and with students’ help, build a bird’s eye map of their town using pencils as streets and small objects such as old matchboxes, pens, pencil sharpeners as buildings and street furniture. When your town scene has been made, ask groups to think of a 3 minute movie that could be filmed using this location with small objects or toys as actors. Their idea should make clever use of at least 10 places or objects in the town scene you have made. Allow 30 minutes for students to prepare a script that has a maximum of 100 spoken words. When the movies are ready ask them to perform the film by moving the actors around the location while reading their script aloud.

Language to Language: Using Translation 

Many teachers feel their training has discouraged them from using translation in class. There is however a great deal of useful awareness-raising when learners compare English with their own tongue. Here are four great translation games - and they don’t even require you to speak the other language! 

English whispers

Prepare about 15 cards, each with a short everyday phrase (E.g. “Could you spare a moment, please?”). Ask 7 learners to stand in a line at the front of the class.

Take the first card and give it to the student at one end of the line who looks at the card and then whispers - once only - the message to student two. No-one else should hear the sentence. Student two now passes the message on in translation (e.g. in Spanish) to student three -who must whisper it on to the next student in English - and so on, the message going from language to language down the line. When the message reaches the end of the line, the first and last student say their messages out loud - and they can be compared. Often the confusions will be interesting and funny - and you can discuss if they are translation or listening errors. It may also be useful to hear what people said all along the line. When finished play the game again with the next card and so on. Make new lines to give more students a chance to take part.

Diplomatic affairs

Learners stand in groups of four: two “ambassadors” and two “interpreters”. One “ambassador” only speaks / understand English; the other only understands her mother tongue. The “interpreters” (one working for each ambassador) understand both languages.

The ambassadors now meet at a “party” and must have a conversation with each other about anything! The ambassadors whisper their communication to their interpreter and the interpreter must then communicate aloud (in translation) what their ambassador said to the other ambassador. (If you have a group of three then only have one interpreter who does all the mediation.)

Diplomatic incident

Play the game as above but each interpreter must completely mistranslate ONE communication. At the end ambassadors should guess which messages came through wrongly.

Translation role-plays

Prepare a pack of cards with everyday situations on them - especially ones in which a foreign tourist needs to do something in an English-speaking country - e.g. “buying a ticket at the train station”, “asking what time the film starts”, “booking into a hotel” etc.

In groups of three, one student is a foreign tourist (who doesn’t speak English and speaks only, for example, Portuguese). The other people are (i) the person they are talking to (e.g. a ticket seller who only speaks English) and (ii) their friend who speaks both languages. Each group picks one situation card from the pack. They read it together and decide exactly what the role-play will be. Then they then do it. The friend translates in both directions to help the tourist and the native speaker communicate.  

Name games

Many new language courses kick off in September and October. If it's the first time the class has met learners will need a chance to learn each other's names. Here are a few unusual games to try.

People bingo

Each learner draws a large 3 by 3 grid (i.e. 9 squares). Slowly read through all the names on the register (spelling difficult names). Learners must randomly select 9 of these names (of people they don't already know) to write into spaces on their grid. When everyone has a full grid the learners walk around the room, find their nine people, chat a little and make some notes about each person. Afterwards, play "bingo" by calling out names randomly - students tick a name if they have it on their own grid. For each name ask the class to indicate who the person is and tell you some things about the person. When someone completes their grid with nine ticks - they win. (But you could always play it again!)

The small difference

On the board draw a seating plan of the room and get the class to copy it. Each learner round the room then says their name and everyone else writes it down at the correct place on their plan. Ask the class to study the names for 2 minutes, then put their plans away. Ask your first volunteer to leave the room - and while they're out, two other learners change places. When the volunteer comes back he /she must notice and name both students that have moved. Repeat the game a few times with different volunteers. After a few turns, make the game more difficult by changing two pairs at a time.   Put up a mixed-up spelling of your own first name on the board - e.g. I might put up "Mij". Now, ask them to write an anagram of their own name. Collect these in and write them all up on the board. Every student now tries to write down all the original names. When finished they can check by walking round the room, meeting people and finding out if they have each person's name correctly.


Prepare a set of small cards - one for each learner. On three quarters write "true"; on the others write "false". Distribute them; students must not let others see their card. Learners then stand up and mingle, meeting people and talking. When asked questions, anyone with a "true" card must give true answers; anyone with a "false" card must lie (except about their name), inventing false life stories. Afterwards, form small groups of 4 - 6 people. Each group should try to work out who was "true" and who "false", writing a list identifying all suspected "false" people. Finish up with a whole-class stage when the lists are read out and the truth is revealed. Groups get 3 points for each "false" person correctly spotted - but minus 3 for anyone incorrectly identified.


Sound-effect tapes are an exciting teaching resource. These are recordings that have hardly any words on - but instead contain a sequence of noises such as crashes, bumps, bangs, whistles, screams etc. Heard together they may add up to a story. There are many commercial recordings of this type or you could make your own. Some links for web sites which have sound-effects files are included

Making your own “sound sequence” tape.

Plan a sequence of about 7 - 10 distinctly different easy-to-make sounds. Choose noises that will be loud and easy to record - for example, a set of plates being dropped, rather than a glove. Do some test recordings. If possible, use a recorder that doesn’t set an automatic recording level otherwise you will get very “hissy” recordings when no-one is speaking.

This is an example sound sequence: (1) someone says “shhhh!” (2) noisy footsteps (3) something breaking (4) moving with difficulty, grunting etc (5) rapidly opening and closing a number of boxes, drawers etc (6) “Oh!” (7) lots of things dropped (8) running (9) an amused “ah-ha!”


Learners listen to the sequence, then in pairs work out what they think the story is. They then compare with others and try to agree a consensus story. Groups tell their versions to the class.

What’s wrong with my story?

Prepare - and tell - a story with parts that do not match the tape recording (e.g. characters use a motorbike rather than walking). Learners discuss and agree which noises do not fit with your story.

Pictures from noises

Bring a set of cuisenaire rods or building bricks* to class and distribute these around the class. After hearing the tape groups use their rods or bricks to create a picture of a scene they imagine from the tape (e.g. walls with other pieces representing burglars breaking in). Afterwards, mix up people from different groups, keeping at least one of the original group with their “picture”. New people to the group should look and ask questions to find out what the construction represents (and work out the story) e.g. “Is this a person?” “Is she climbing through a window?” etc Members of the original group can only answer “yes” or “no”.

* If you don’t have rods or bricks you could do the activity by asking learners to draw a sketch of the scene.

Verb hunting

Play the tape a few times. Learners find as many verbs as possible to explain what people are doing. (Of course you could do exactly the same task with nouns, adjectives, adverbs…)

Wacky ideas

Ask learners to think of the wackiest, most amazing, most unlikely interpretation for the sound sequence.

Tense focus

Prepare a story yourself. In class tell it like a football commentary, using present tenses i.e. as if it is happening now - for example “The burglar is lifting up the window. He’s climbing through it.” using the tape to provide exciting sound effects at various points. Afterwards ask the class to write down the story as a news item about the past. 

Pairing and Grouping

With current teaching methodology teachers are constantly needing to get students into pairs or small groups. The commonest way of doing this is to tell students to “get into pairs” or to go round the class naming students A, B, A, B etc – effective but it can become a little repetitive and dull. A bit of variety can sometimes raise a smile and can also help you to mix up groupings a little, so that students get to work with people they may not otherwise have chosen … Alternatives to saying “A, B, C, A, B, C, A, B … “ Change A, B, C into the names of some real world items (you could use this to surreptitiously remind students of a few vocabulary items). The names are purely for making the groups and can then immediately be forgotten. Of course when students know their labels you can either ask them to get together with others of the same name – or to make set with different members.

Apple, banana, cherry, apple, banana, cherry… ; Purple, crimson, turquoise; Rain, sun, snow…; Volkswagen, Ford, Rolls Royce …; Preposition, adverb, conjunction; Kylie, Madonna, Janet …; Suit, Tie, Waistcoat …; Spring, autumn, winter …; Big Ben, London Eye, Tower Bridge; Hamlet, Macbeth, Prospero …; Homer, Marge, Krusty …; Present perfect, past simple, going to; Williams, McLaren, Ferrrari … (“Ok all Ferraris drive over here and meet up, all McLarens race over there …”); Eggs, coffee, bacon … (“Get together and make a complete breakfast …”)


Cut up cards Prepare a set of cards so that there’s one for each student. On each card write one word from a set of vocabulary items you’d like to reinforce with the class (e.g. kitchen words: fridge, mixer,sink, saucepan, cooker, microwave). If you want groups of six students there should be sets with six different words – and so on. Shuffle and distribute the cards, then ask students to meet up in groups where everyone has a different word.

“Work with someone …” … you have never worked with before … who has the same colour socks or stockings as you … you think you’ll strongly disagree with … whose home is as far away from yours as possible … who smiles at you across the room now

Anagram partners Ask students to write down their first name and surname then rearrange all the letters to make an anagram which they write on a new piece of paper. Collect in the anagrams and redistribute. Students try to unravel the anagram and find their new partner’s name.

Hello. Who’s there? Hand out a small piece of paper to each student. Ask each student to write down their mobile phone number on the paper then collect in the pieces and shuffle them. Students then pick out a piece of paper at random and ring the number to find out who their new partner is. (Students without mobile phones should write “chatroom” and gather in a designated corner of the room). This technique would be especially suitable for telephone practice pair-work activities that can then actually be done over the phone.

Party time

In many parts of the world this is the season for parties. And in class, the last lesson of the year often has a party atmosphere. So, to help things go with a swing, here are three classic party games adapted to be a little more classroom-friendly. Pass the parcel Buy a small prize e.g. a bar of chocolate. Write a number of very short revision questions on small slips of paper. Wrap the prize in paper and use sticky tape to attach one of the questions to the outside. Now wrap this parcel inside another layer (using a different kind of paper) and again attach a question. Repeat this again and again until you have a very large parcel with 15-20 smaller packages, all nested inside each other.

In class: Play some boisterous music. Students pass the parcel round the class, holding it for a maximum of 2 seconds. When you suddenly stop the music, whoever is holding the parcel must answer the question on it. If they are correct they tear off one layer of wrapping. If not, they pass it on. The music and passing then resumes ... and goes on until someone opens the final layer and wins.

The fishing game Write some sentences on long, narrow slips of paper, each with a missing vocabulary item e.g. I've lost my ... again. Prepare vocabulary items in the same way e.g. glasses. Curve all the slips round so that they each make an O shape, sticking one end to the other with sticky tape. Make a fishing rod using a stick, a piece of string tied to the end and a bent paper clip hook attached to the end. Place all the sentences and vocabulary items mixed up on the floor. In class, students take it in turns to fish (i.e. trying to hook one of the loops of paper). In their turn they can catch one item. Sentences can be kept, but vocabulary must be read aloud and then thrown back unless the student can persuade everybody that it fits the gap in one of their sentences. The winner is the student who has most good complete sentences at the end.

Pin the tail on the donkey (Well... no donkey, but...) Write 20 infinitives in large letters on small pieces of paper. Write up 20 corresponding past forms randomly all over the board. (NB You can vary the grammatical area to suit your class.) Tell students to study the board and try to remember where items are. Blindfold a student (e.g. using a scarf), spin them round (to disorient them) and then hand them one infinitive (backed with sticky tape). Tell them their word. They must now (without looking) walk towards the board and try to stick their word as close as possible to the correct past form. If it's close, leave it on the board. If it's not, remove it. Now let other members of class try using different words. At the end, the winner is the person who got closest.

No! Not every day?

Present Simple for habits and routines is a frequently taught item. We may sometimes want to find new ways of teaching familiar items like this - not so much to keep the students motivated but to keep ourselves, the teachers, interested. When it's the thirtieth time you've taught a language point you may need a way to avoid those stereotype coursebook characters and their dull daily routines.

Soap Opera – character making

How about making some fresh stereotypes? Lead a short discussion about Soap Operas and elicit some classic character types (e.g. teenage rebel, bad-tempered barmaid, lonely used car salesman etc) and typical storylines. Give your class time to each choose a Soap Opera character for themselves – it's most fun if they pick someone as different from themselves as possible. NB they can change age, sex, interests, behaviour, politics etc. They should start by just noting some basic details (you could give them categories to think about); later maybe they could write a paragraph about their daily lives.

Work out some key locations in the classroom (e.g. one corner is the "café"; near the teacher's desk is the "market" etc) and get the learners to meet up (various group sizes as they wish) in character to "just chat" and find out who the other people are and talk about what they do. In this role-play – and in a later whole-class feedback about what they discovered - there is scope for a great deal of natural and amusing use of language to discuss lifestyles, habits, routines, daily life etc. If the learners like the Soap Opera idea you can use it as a thread through future lessons and let "stories" unfold and grow. It'll feel less and less like role-play and more like their alter-ego. Some classes really get into this!

I'm shocked

I often wonder if our overt focus on "teaching" language items actually gets in the way rather than helping! One interesting way of approaching grammar is to deliberately not teach the item in question – but instead to put the apparent energy into issues around it.

Model some lively two-line exchanges such as "I have fish and chips for supper every day." "No! Not every day?" Deliberately don't explain the tense or work on it, instead concentrate on the reply to what was said, e.g. getting students to focus on showing amazement or shock, making appropriate facial expressions, getting range in intonation etc. The surprising thing is that even though you and the students put all your energy into the reply, somehow the tense seeps in deeply as well, possibly more so than when we direct our main attention to it.


Write a number of mystery lifestyle descriptions for some unlikely objects e.g. "I live in the open air. I stand in a line with others. I switch on at night. I make people's lives brighter." (a streetlight) Read them out and let pairs discuss the answers. Learners can then write some new ones for themselves.

Sounds and symbols

When learners can recognize and understand phonemic symbols they become more autonomous, able to use dictionaries to find out for themselves how words are pronounced. Many teachers however (maybe because they are unsure themselves) avoid using them in class. Here are a few ideas that could help teachers as well as learners become more comfortable when working with phonemes.


Use the dictionary to get phonemic spellings of about 15 words familiar to the class. Make anagrams from these - i.e. mix up the order of the phonemes in each word. In class give teams 5 minutes to work out as many as they can.

Phoneme rummy

Write a large number of phonemes on separate cards. Shuffle them and give 3 consonant and 2 vowel cards to each team. Each team must see if they can form a complete word using some or all of their 5 phonemes. If their word is good, award one point for each phoneme used. Now deal an extra card to each team - can they make an even longer word? Collect the cards, reshuffle and deal again.

Phoneme poker

Play “phoneme rummy” - but this time the teams keep their cards secret. They declare what word they have made and win the points but don’t have to show that they can really do it i.e. they can lie. If another team thinks they’re cheating they can challenge them to show their cards and prove that they can genuinely make the word they said. If they can't, the team loses all its points. If they can, then the challenging team loses all theirs!


Before class prepare a list of short words and check their phonemic spellings. In class, ask everyone to draw a naughts and crosses grid (i.e. a 3 by 3 grid making 9 boxes). Each learner then chooses any 9 different phonemes (from a wallchart or a coursebook list) and writes one into each of their grid boxes. This is now their “bingo card”. Read out your first short word (e.g. “car”). The learners must decide if this word contains any of their phonemes (maybe more than one). If they have any they should write the word under the appropriate symbols in their grid . Continue with more words. When someone thinks they have a line (horizontal, vertical or diagonal) pause the game and get the whole class to check if the claim is correct or not. Either way, you can still go on with the game and see if more people can get “bingo”.


Use phonemes to write out some long words on separate numbered cards - one word to a card. In each word make one mistake - substituting a wrong phoneme for a correct one. Learners work in teams and get one card. They must work out what the original word was and which phoneme is wrong. When they’ve done this they pass the card on and get a new one. The winning team is the one with most correct answers after 10 cards.  

Starting a new school year

Although many books suggest ideas for Getting To Know You activities with completely new classes, many students at school have already worked together for years and know each other all too well. The new teacher may be the only one who needs to learn names. And, even if the teacher and class have all worked together before, there may still be a need for some activities to welcome everyone back and mark the start of the new year. Fibbing to the teacher When a teacher is new to a class that already know each other, try this game. In groups of 5 or 6, the students should carefully prepare to introduce members of their group to the teacher. Everyone should introduce another person (not themselves). They should say names and something about their interests, home area, personality etc. All the information must be true except for one person in each group – for whom every single thing must be untrue. Allow plenty of time for careful preparation, after which the teacher should listen to all a group’s introductions (while learning useful names etc) and decide which is the untrue one. Warn all students that they must be careful not to give away the fib by laughing, sniggering etc.

The virtual party Arrange an imaginary “welcome back” party. Ask everyone to stand in one part of the room. Designate another section of the room as the party room and show them where the front door is. Appoint a host / hostess or two and brief them on how to welcome guests. Be a host yourself too. Then encourage students to “arrive” at the party one by one, or in small groups, (ringing the imaginary door bell) and once there, mingle, chatting in English, catching up on news. Serve imaginary drinks and snacks. Students initially tend to react to this simulation with some suspicion (feeling it is a bit silly to hold imaginary drinks etc) but it usually takes off very well once they get into it.

Setting year goals It is all too easy to simply launch into teaching from a new coursebook assuming that the class is automatically with you. However it is worth taking time to make sure that students are really clear about why they are learning and about what they want to get out of it. A simple way to do this is to ask them to make brief notes in answer to questions you ask. Make sure you allow enough thinking time. Students can then meet up in pairs or threes and compare thoughts. Possible questions: Why do you think English will be useful to you in the future? What is the most important area you want to improve on this year? What types of activities do you enjoy most in English classes? What advice would you give to your English teacher? What do you want to be able to do by the end of the year that you can’t do now?  


Teaching Conditionals

If you meet a wolf …

Conditional structures that begin If + present tense … (e.g. “If you meet a wolf, run!” or “If you do that I’ll never speak to you again!”) are often used for making warnings, threats and promises. They offer lots of possibilities for interesting tasks, presentations or practice activities. Here are a few ideas.

Dangerous results

Give one student a warning about some small, insignificant action e.g. “If you drop your pen it’ll break”. Invite learners to continue by taking the second half of your warning and creating a new warning e.g. “If your pen breaks you won’t be able to do your exam”. Once this sentence is established, elicit the next warning - becoming bigger and stranger as they go on e.g. “If you can’t do your exam you’ll have to leave school” etc. At the end, see if learners working in pairs can recall the whole chain of warnings - starting from that one small initial action. Pairs should then create their own chain starting from a new warning.

Star Warnings

Ask the class to work in groups. Each group thinks of a famous story they all know - e.g. a fairy story such as Red Riding Hood or a film such as Star Wars. Ask each group to think through the story and imagine what warnings they could give the characters at various points in the story - e.g. “If you meet a wolf - run!” or “If you can’t see your granny phone the police.” When ready, pairs of groups meet up and say only their warnings; the other group must guess what the original story was. When both groups have heard all the warnings they should invent a completely new story for which all the warnings apply.

Promises Promises

Say that you have a million pounds to give someone. (You could show them a few pretend “banknotes”) and you will give it to the person who persuades you best. Teach them the sentence structure: “If you give me a million pounds I’ll …” and then let the learners take it in turns to try and persuade you. Award the “cash” to the best or funniest promise.

Recognize the function

Write warnings, threats, promises on the board. Check that students know what each heading means. Say some if sentences aloud with appropriate (slightly exaggerated) intonation. Learners must decide which are threats, promises or warnings.

Warning noises

Select five or six interesting “Be careful … “ warning sentences e.g. “If you eat that, it’ll poison you.” Ask students to decide where the main stresses are in each sentence. Then offer a strong model of intonation for giving warnings. Get students to experiment saying these in pairs, then stand up and mingle (i.e. walk around, meeting others). Every time they meet another learner they give a warning. (If it works, it’ll be noisy!). When they’ve had enough, ask learners to write new warnings they could give people. When ready, repeat the mingling activity.

Teaching English Intonation

Many teachers find intonation difficult to teach. As a result they may avoid it. But intonation can be fun to work with - and it can make other language areas such as grammar easier to teach. Here are some ideas.

One word conversations

Write a number of single words (e.g. "yes", "today", "sorry", "bread" etc) on scraps of paper. Make groups of three - and give each group one of the pieces of paper. Tell the class a situation - (e.g. "Two people think the third one is a thief" or "It's one person's birthday") The learners must now have a conversation - but the only word anyone can say is the one on their paper! To express different ideas and emotions (e.g. anger, requesting, apologising etc) they will have to vary their intonation. The resulting dialogues are usually funny, but there's also a real teaching purpose. Without the resources of vocabulary and grammar, students have to find ways to express much more with intonation. Repeat it a few times - with new words and new situations.

Intonation and grammar in English

When you teach a new grammar item (e.g. superlatives) don't just teach model sentences as "idealized" examples - try putting the grammar into realistic and memorable everyday sentences with some real feeling such as anger, excitement, amazement etc (e.g. "This café's the worst I've ever seen!"). Say each sentence yourself and get learners to repeat it, encouraging them to really "do it with feeling".

English Poems

Choose a short extract from a poem that you like (about 4 - 8 lines). Work out the number of syllables and decide which ones are stressed. Mark the syllable pattern on the board showing unstressed syllables as dots and stressed syllables as boxes e.g. ??¦??¦??. Teach the poem to the class by saying it yourself and getting learners to remember and repeat it, line by line - but without writing the text on the board. Be careful with the intonation; when you read it, offer a consistent model. Learning a poem in this way is challenging - but they may come away with something they'll remember all their lives!

Intonation arrows

A simple, clear way to show intonation is to draw a little box over each stressed syllable. Add a small "intonation arrow" coming out from the right of each box, showing the direction of the intonation e.g. If the intonation starts high and then falls, draw the arrow from the top-right corner of the box going diagonally down e.g.

Marking texts

Ask learners to listen to a short dialogue while looking at the printed text. The learners must (a) decide which syllables are prominent (i.e. are strongly stressed in the sentence) - and then - (b) which direction the intonation moves after these stresses. When they are sure, they should mark the text (using the boxes mentioned above). This often produce disagreement - don't worry! The "tuning in" is valuable in itself - quite apart from any right or wrong answers.  

Teaching English using anecdotes

I wanna tell you a story Learners are often keen to hear stories about the teacher's life (even if they are not 100% true!). They are an excellent source of listening material but because students soon get used to a teacher's typical storytelling style, they can sometimes lack variety. Here are some ideas for creating richer, more varied personal anecdotes.

The teacher news

Talk about what happened to you yesterday but in the style of a TV news programme. Before you start, tell the students what you are going to do and give a reason for listening by asking them to note down a summary phrase for each story. Then sit down at a table (like a newsreader). Start with the headlines then give short, fairly dramatic accounts of six or seven individual stories one by one. If you are feeling very adventurous, you could leave the table occasionally to perform short on-the-spot reports! At the end thank everyone for listening. A story told like this could be invented on the spot, but will clearly benefit from pre-class preparation and rehearsal. Once students have seen your show, they could make their own.

Playing with genre

The News program (above) is an example of one genre that we don't usually use in classroom situations. Try telling stories in other unexpected voices e.g. a politician persuading you to vote for him (turn everything that happened into a persuasive, positive example of your good character!), a private detective's surveillance report, a stand-up comedian, a soap opera character (everything over-dramatic, lots of tears and excitement), a criminal's confession etc One wrong detail

Tell an entirely true story with one big lie in it. At the end students have to guess what was wrong.

Backwards forwards

Tell a story about some separate events that happened to you over the last 24 hours but in reverse chronological order i.e. starting now and then relating earlier and earlier events. You'll need to use lots of before that and earlier etc. When you have finished, the students' task is to recall the entire sequence of events in the normal chronological order i.e. from furthest past up to now. Obviously you'll need to warn learners about the task before they start listening – and make sure no-one takes notes.

Students tell the teacher's story

Divide the class in half. Gather one half around you (in a different room if possible) and tell them a story about your life. Include events and details that are really you. Use gestures and facial expressions wherever possible. Let students ask any questions they need to clarify the story. When they are confident, join the class up in pairs, each having one person who heard your story. This student retells the story to their partner – but as if they were you – i.e. they use the pronoun I (not he or she) and any gestures or faces that make the story more convincing. If students like this, repeat the activity again in another lesson, using the other half of the class as storytellers.  

Teaching English using timetables

Printed train or bus timetables are often available as free leaflets or can be downloaded and printed from the internet. This simple resource can be used in a number of ways.

Drills to practise pronunciation of times Ask: When does the first train leave Pomáz for Budapest? How long will I have to wait for the next train if I miss the 5.20? etc

Interpreting abbreviations Timetables often have short codes for specific meanings. Ask students first to guess what these mean, then look them up, then invent five funny new codes for things that might happen on journeys e.g. DDCT (Delay while Driver has Cup of Tea),

Pair discussion – planning a journey Hand out a bus / train timetable to each pair. Prepare a set of different planning tasks on cards e.g. You want to spend a day shopping in Berlin and then meet your friend whose plane lands at the airport at 7.20. Plan the journeys. Set one task to each pair. When pairs have finished they meet up with another pair and describe their plan; the listeners try to raise problems or difficulties.

Tense practice When students have planned a journey they can use present progressive for future to describe what they intend to do e.g. We’re arriving at 2.37 and then we’re going straight to the theatre.

Phone call role plays Pairs – one student is the customer, one is an information assistant. Only the assistant has a copy of the timetable. Set students some problem role plays e.g. enquiring about when trains go to Delhi, booking a ticket for tomorrow, enquiring about cancellations because of a strike etc.

Word brainstorming Ask students to study a train timetable and think of every noun that could be used in connection with talking about the journeys (e.g. train, platform, ticket, station etc). Repeat this for verbs that go with the nouns (e.g. catch, miss, arrive, change, board, buy etc). When students have a good list they can use this to prepare a story, for example …

Creative writing - A terrible journey Tell students they went on a terrible train journey yesterday. There were no major accidents or disasters but everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Ask pairs of students to study the timetable and brainstorm all the things that could happen (missing a train, trains delayed, getting on the wrong train etc) –. When pairs have discussed a number of ideas, they write a short narrative about this journey (using past tenses). The times and places in the story should be accurate according to the timetable.

Internet research If your students have access to the internet, set a task such as: Plan a journey from here to Los Angeles stopping at five interesting tourist places on the way. Students will need to research plane and train timetables as well as finding out some interesting locations to visit. You could make the task more challenging by restricting them to a maximum of two plane flights.

Teaching Listening in English

Modern coursebooks provide some excellent recorded material, but it can be exciting to supplement this with more unusual sources of listening work.

The Tape Gallery

Find about ten interesting short jokes, stories, advertisements or poems (not more than a minute long) and record yourself reading them, each onto a different cassette. Borrow two or three extra tape recorders and place them at different locations around the room. Put two or three of your cassettes next to each machine. Show learners how to "play" and "rewind" the tapes and how to keep the volume level down. Then invite them to wander freely around the different places, changing tape or location at will, with the aim of choosing their favourite recording - or, possibly, filling in a worksheet you provide. Make sure they play tapes softly and that they don't all gather round one machine - but otherwise leave the control of the activity to them. Afterwards get feedback on what they enjoyed or learnt.  

Live listening

When you find that your coursebook has a fairly dull text coming up, instead of using the tape invite a colleague with a spare 5 minutes to come into your class. Sit in front of the learners and have a live "ordinary" conversation on the same topic as the book. Make sure the class has a clear task while listening - e.g. to catch the main points that each speaker makes.

Guest stars

Prepare notes for a short monologue in character (e.g. as the Queen or Britney Spears). In class announce that a guest star is coming today - but don't say who it is. The learners should listen and NOT shout out who they think you are but instead write down their guess. Chat naturally for a minute or two in character - about your life, a typical day, how you feel etc. At the end of your monologue let them compare their guesses in small groups (giving reasons) and then check with you. When they know who you are, they could briefly ask you a few more interview questions in character.   Repeat the activity with different "guests" as a regular slot in your lessons or ask students to prepare as “guests”.


Prepare a short text that is longer than the learners could completely remember - e.g. twenty to thirty words at Pre- intermediate level. Tell the class that you will read it at normal speaking speed only once, while they listen without writing, trying to understand as much as they can. Afterwards they individually note down all they can recall - key words, phrases, ideas etc - then in small groups compare and see if they can reconstruct a complete text. Their aim is not to exactly reproduce the original, but to make a coherent complete text as close to the original meaning as they can. You might want to re-read the text once, but don't keep reading it otherwise it just becomes a traditional dictation. At the end see if the groups can agree on one final version on the board.

Teaching One-to-One

Long one-to-one lessons can sometimes be exhausting for both teacher and learner. Here are some ideas for keeping them fresh.

The scrap pack

Before the lesson collect a pile of scrap paper and cut them up into small cards about 8 cm by 5 cm. Keep them by you and whenever a new phrase comes up or the learner makes an interesting error write a note on one of the scraps. 6 or 7 minutes before the end of class, hand the pile of scraps over and encourage the learner to go through them, remembering meanings, corrections, pronunciation, how they are used etc   Afterwards they can put the pack in their pocket - a handy self-test for quiet moments on buses etc.

Real role play

Find out a specific activity the learner wants to be able to do better in English (maybe something at work - for example, answering an enquiry on the phone.) Talk through in detail how you could recreate that situation together in the classroom e.g. what role you could play, where you should sit, what questions you should ask, typical problems that come up etc. Then role-play this real situation! Afterwards both take a few minutes to quietly make some notes about how the task went, language problems, how it could be better etc - then compare notes, focus on any language that would help - and maybe - do it all again.

Be revealing!

Sometimes a learner can feel that they are constantly being asked to tell things about themselves, reveal their secrets etc. Make sure the learner gets frequent chances to turn the tables and ask you questions. Be honest and let them find out some of your "secrets" too.

Tape it.

Keep a recording tape machine on the table. Occasionally make short recordings of the learner doing role plays, making monologues, having a conversation with you etc. Replay these pieces and use them as the basis for future work - studying language, taking dictation, noticing pronunciation, comparing learner and teacher's language etc

You've got mail!

Here's an activity for when you're both tired of hearing the other's voice! Divide a pile of scrap paper between you. Set a time limit, say 20 minutes, during which you will only communicate by writing messages to each other - with a strict no talking rule! Write a short message yourself to the learner to start it off and then just see where it goes. Reply to each other's mail, ask new questions, raise new topics, give feedback on language and content etc. Some mail may be very short, some very long. This activity provides a change of pace and mood and a welcome breathing space.

Long distance calls

Sometimes really separating the seats can be useful. Write out some telephone tasks e.g. "Book a hotel in San Francisco." Sit far apart from each other and out of eye-contact. Have a "phone" conversation.


For many learners using the telephone in English is a particularly nerve-wracking experience. As well as all the standard "telephone phrases" learners need strategies for getting a failing interaction to work. Here are some ideas for confidence-building in class.

Hollywood calls

These are one-sided calls such as you see in films (when you know that the actor engaged in a dramatic dialogue is really talking to an empty phone). Hand out role cards to students (e.g. "Someone calls your software company asking for help with his anti-virus program but it's not actually your firm's product!") Give learners about 10 minutes to write, then perform their Hollywood call (complete with pauses!). It provides good practice in telephone language without the pressure. Decide which is funniest, most dramatic, most convincing etc. Replay them and the class must work out the other half of the dialogue.

Stop messages

One of the most useful things for a learner to know are "stop messages" - ways to interrupt the flow, to ask the speaker on the other end of the line to pause or slow down (because it's too fast and comprehension is minimal). You could teach some polite ones (e.g. "Sorry. Just a minute." Or “Hang on. That’s rather fast for me.”) as well as some funnier ones (e.g. "Whooah!" or "Hold your horses. I can't keep up"). Practise interrupting each other.

Walk the talk

Many teachers arrange students' seats back to back for telephone practice (to replicate the lack of eye contact) though students often seem to dislike it! An unusual alternative is to get learners to use telephone phrases etc in a face-to-face meeting. First tell the class to imagine that when they make a call they actually travel down the line to the other end! Get your class to stand up, hand out a list of telephone phrases and then ask them to walk around, mingle, meet people, get "put through", get wrong numbers etc but using only “telephone language” throughout. This practice is a little odd, but the change from standard format may be funny and liberating and reduce some of the usual stress.


This useful technique is a great way to slow a fast speaker down and check comprehension. The listener interrupts at the end of every sentence (or stretch) and repeats the message back to the speaker (possibly including exact words) with or without introductory sentence heads such as "So, you're saying... ". Practice this in class using pair work (everything the speaker says is echoed by the listener).

Unexpected answerphones

Getting an answering machine rather a human seems to shock everyone! Prepare a pack of cards where the majority say "live" but with a few having an answerphone sentence (e.g. “Sorry I’m not in. Please leave a message.”). Whenever you practise telephone conversations, the student role-playing the receiver picks a random card. If it says "live" the exercise proceeds normally. If it has an answerphone line, they read that instead, "beep" and start timing one minute for the speaker to leave their message.


Using newspapers in class

Just One GW

Teachers rarely have access to whole class sets of newspapers. Here are five ideas for things you can do using a single copy of The Guardian Weekly in class … though they do involve cutting up your precious copy!

"Have you heard the news?"

Cut up and distribute different mid-length stories to pairs who should then think about how they could retell their story in the most exciting, interesting way if they met their friends at a party. You could offer input on useful phrases, intonation etc and discuss what makes one motivated to listen to a story. Ask them not to simply recite the facts.

When everyone is ready, they stand up and mingle, buttonholing others to tell their story, starting "Have you heard the news?" Listen and join in, encouraging lively interaction by dropping in a few phrases such as "No! I don't believe it!" and "Really? What happened?"

Notes and Queries

Read out a good question from the "Notes and Queries" column   (e.g. "Why do we have noses?") and give the class 5 minutes to discuss and come up with the most amazing explanation they can.

If you do not have access to a copy of The Guardian Weekly you can see this section online at: (Search for Notes & queries)

Scrunched-up stories

Choose and cut out a number of longer stories (at least half a page). Scrunch up the pages into a ball so that it's impossible to read everything. Give one of these text-balls to each group, who can look all round it but may not touch or open it. Their task is to guess what the story is and write a one sentence summary of what they think their article is about. Collect these summaries in - then redistribute them. Groups which text. If you wanted to, you could then un-scrunch the texts and find out how well the learners guessed the full stories.

Headline gaps

Cut out a number of headlines (you'll need at least one for every 2 learners). In each one choose an interesting word to remove (e.g. "Hunting is good for trees, bad for _____ "). Glue the gapped headline at the top of a piece of paper with two columns. The pages are now passed around class. In the first column pairs should write their best guess at a possible word for each gap; in the second column they write a funny possibility. At the end compare answers and choose the best or funniest choices. The class could go on to predict the contents of the articles and maybe read a whole article of their choice.


Round the walls

On separate strips of paper write questions about facts that can be found on the odd-numbered pages of the newspaper e.g. "Who came third in the Grand Prix?" Pin the whole pages on the walls round the room. Hand out one question to each pair, who must now tour the room, find the answer, return and tell you - for which they receive a new question. Keep score if you wish.