Learning or acquiring? More thoughts from Greece.


In my valiant attempts to learn Greek, I’ve been reflecting on the role active study and technology can play in language learning.

My memorised sentence

I have an app…it sends me a Greek word every day with sample sentences and translations.  It’s the free version, so it’s pretty limited. I’ve been flicking through these words for a couple of years now, basically since my last Greek holiday, but have only managed to remember a single sentence, translated by the app as: 

‘The station is far from here.’

(Actually we would probably say ‘a long way’,  but that’s another article 🙂 )

In Greek: 

‘Ο σταθμός είναι μακριά από εδο’ (I think!)

Or with our alphabet:

‘O stathmos ine makria apo etho’

Apart from that, all the Greek I could remember was chunks of language that I’d actually used with real people on my first holiday here like: ‘Where’s the toilet?’, ‘How much it it?’, ‘A glass of white wine please’. This would seem to confirm Vygotsky’s theory that we learn socially, through connecting with other people. So if that’s the case, then is there any point in studying grammar rules and memorizing lists of vocabulary? Was Krashen’s acquisition theory on the nail?

Going back to my Greek sentence, what I’ve noticed is that it did give me a few tools to decipher more langugage. I guessed that:

  1. ‘O’ is a definite article (the), but probably this changes according to the gender of the noun, as in many languages?
  2. stathmos = station
  3. ine = verb ‘be’ – ‘it is’
  4. makria = far (the key word and translation of ‘far’ was ‘makrinos’ so maybe it changes according to some other factor?)
  5. apo = from?
  6. etho = here?

A quick check in the dictionary confirmed my translations. The sentence gave the language a context and (I guess) made it easier to remember.  So when I got off the plane and spoke to my first real Greek person (a taxi driver), and I told him where I wanted to go and I heard ‘ine makria’, I was pretty chuffed with myself that I knew what it meant, and of course knowing how to say ‘it is’ in any language is enormously useful. That said, it has to be taken into consideration that I’m a language teacher and deciphering and analysing language is what I do. Nevertheless, my experience would seem to suggest that theoretical linguistic knowledge and awareness can help our learners. 

Individual words

Listening to the bus drivers’ chat during my journey yesterday, I noticed that I could recognise some of the words from the app in their fluent speech.  I couldn’t necessarily translate them immediately though: ‘imerologio’ I knew was something to do with time- year? clock? (It was ‘calendar’). And when on the next bus the driver put a football match on the radio, helped by the context I heard the words for ‘head’ and ‘zero’, among others.  After that happened, as with the taxi driver, I felt that I would  be confident enough to use the language in conversation. It was as if it ‘clicked’ into place in my head. You could say that theoretical study of language is useful for receptive awareness, but this knowledge is transferred to the long term memory/speech (?) part of the brain only once you’ve had the language ‘confirmed in real life’ by a fluent speaker??

Another point of interest is how at this stage I am relying very heavily on translation, a fact which makes me feel rather shamefaced about how often I’ve said ‘Don‘t translate!’ to my poor students!


Authentic questions


I’m on my jollies in Greece at the moment, but keep thinking back to my lovely summer stint at Stafford House and these guys…


One lesson, they became curious about my family, specifically my brother. Non grammatical questions came tumbling out like:
‘Where live your brother?’
‘He have wife?’
‘What he job?’

My reply was ‘OK guys, I’ll tell you, but first you make correct questions’. In pairs I got them to write them out, reminding them of the QASI syntax rule for present simple and inversion of subject and ‘has’ for ‘has got’, which we’d just studied.

After a while, we had a list of things to ask my unsuspecting brother, because now came the surprise. I got out my phone and recorded this message to my bro on WhatsApp: ‘Hi Ryan. My students want to ask you a few things.’

I had a few looks of shock at this point, so I reassured them they’d only ask one or two questions each and they’d have time to rehearse them first. I reminded them they’d be transforming them into the second person ‘you’, since they’d be talking to him directly.

The result was intense concentration on getting the pronunciation and form right. It was also a way to deal with their not-so-sneaky Whatsapp use during lessons. If you can’t beat them join them!

Unfortunately poor Ryan was at work and didn’t have time to even listen to the 20 odd voice messages we sent him, nevermind actually answer them! So in the end I did it on his behalf.

Shame… because I was curious to hear his answer to this one: “Is your sister a little bit crazy??”

Long Live Exam Prep! Part minus 2 B: The Carousel Quiz


In Part Minus 2 A (this is getting silly-I’m so sorry!), I explained the first half of a first lesson to use with exam prep classes (or indeed any class over B1). Now comes the nitty gritty focus-on-the-exam bit. To do this I use a multi-skill activity that I call a carousel quiz. You do need some materials for this, but fortunately they are freely available. Here’s the link to the Cambridge English : First Handbook for teachers, which is all you’ll need for this FCE activity. We had a set of them at our school. Cambridge used to send free copies out, but I’m not sure if they do that anymore. You could have the students download it or view it on their mobile phones. Alternatively you could print it out before the lesson.

(There are similar resources for IELTS, PET, CAE and CPE)

The steps:

  1. Ask the students to brainstorm what they know about the exam. Generally this is very little. Accept everything they say and get it up on the board. Guide them with some questions like: How long is it? How many papers are there? How many pieces of writing do you need to produce? What do you do in the speaking test?
  2. Refer them to page 2 of the handbook: ‘Content and Overview’. Give them 5 minutes to scan for the correct information. Elicit what they got right and what they got wrong.
  3. Now tell them to concentrate on one part of the exam per group. So ideally you’ll have 4 groups and they take one paper each (splitting up Reading and Use of English). Tell them to refer to the relevant part of the handbook to read about their section of the exam in more detail.
  4. Explain that they’re going to make a quiz about their section for the other students. You can give them some question stems to guide them like: ‘What do you have to do in….’, or ‘What are they testing in…….’, or ‘How long is……’. Give them a fixed number of questions depending on how much time you’ve got. Monitor and help as needed.
  5. When they have their questions and are ready to go, ask one or two of the students to stand up in each group. Tell them to move clockwise around the room, taking their copy of the questions about their section, and sit at the next table. You should have two students from group A with group B, two students of group B with group C and so on. They ask each other their questions, awarding points for right answers and deducting them for wrong answers. They’re allowed to refer to the handbook. Then the same students stand up and move around again. This is repeated until they’ve spoken to everybody and they wind up back at their own table.


  • It’s student centred! Why spend the evening before making a quiz yourself when you’re the one who’s proficient in English? Let them work on the language.
  • They get a clear idea of what’s expected of them in the exam. Often this doesn’t happen until the exam date is looming, by which time it’s too late. Giving them this information in the first lesson allows then to prioritise and organise their study.

But it’s not perfect….

  • It can get a bit long, and the pace can drop as a result, so have something a bit lively up your sleeve for the last 15 minutes.
  • I’m not sure whether all the vocabulary is actually that useful. There’s a lot of teaching jargon that can be confusing.

Give it a spin and tell me what you think!

A real-life shopping game

One of the novelties for me of teaching in London again is that English is everywhere. I’ve been exploring ways to make the most of this, and today I came up with this shopping game. This was partly because I needed some shopping and I thought I’d get my students to do it for me!


In the classroom I explained that they would be split into three groups, given £10 and a shopping list. They would have half an hour to go around Borough market and buy the things I wanted. They had to ask for some information, like whether the eggs were free-range, if the apples were English. They had to ask to taste some cheese and choose a nice one for me. The winner would be the team who got all the things on the list and brought me back the most change, so they also had to ask how much things cost.

I also showed them the route we would take on Google maps and an approximate travel time.

Since the instructions were pretty complicated I got them to repeat them in pairs so I could check that they’d understood. Then I put a mini quiz on the board:

  1. How long will you have?
  2. How much money will you have?
  3. How do you win the game?
  4. How will we get there?
  5. Which bridge will we walk over?

Language and rehearsal

They had a look at their lists and we went through the meaning and pronunciation of the vocabulary.

I then gave them some language they might hear (Next please!,  Are you waiting? ) and elicited what they would need to say (Could I have some…?). They rehearsed the dialogues in their groups. Then off we went.

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Happy campers and a happy teacher. The pineapple was really good, and the English cheese was amazing! Carlos, Ana and Thais’s team (the Sharks) won. They gave me £2 change. 🙂

A Pronunciation Lesson: differentiation between difficult sounds

I’ve been teaching mostly Brazilian A1 students this summer, and although I speak no Portuguese, fortunately for me their language has many similarities to Italian. I’ve found that this has helped immensely for eliciting and checking understanding (but using the students’ L1 will be the subject of another post :-)). One feature which is different from Italian is that they have problems with the /w/ and /r/ sounds.

We were talking about food and they were trying to say: medium rare/medium well. I wasn’t sure which one they were saying. For Italians the problem would have been the ‘bear’ vowel sound in ‘rare’, but when we concentrated on this they got it. So I investigated further.

Here are the steps I took:

  1. Identifying the problem sounds and the need for working on them

If you work in a monolingual situation or you speak the learners’ L1, you will already be prepared for this, but I wasn’t. I numbered the target vocabulary:

  1. medium rare    2. medium well

I read them individually and asked the students to give me the corresponding number. I found that half of the class were giving a wrong answer.

I went around the class and asked them to say one of the phrases, and I told them which one I thought they were saying. They were surprised when they realised that I often couldn’t understand the difference. I told them that what I was hearing was something between the two, so something like ‘medium where’!

I noticed that they tended to:

  • aspirate the /r/ into a /h/, and were trying to form the sound only with their lips, not with their top teeth.
  • not use the rounded lip position for /w/. (My Brazilian friend tells me that /w/ is never found at the beginning of words in Portuguese)
  • not pronounce the /l/ (again, my L1 expert informs me that in Brazilian Portuguese /l/ is mute).

2. Focus on two sounds

I decided to focus on the /w/ and /r/ sounds. I modelled them, showing the right mouth position. They started to feel/understand the difference between my production and theirs. The problem of course is that in spontaneous speech this goes out of the window, so they need a lot of practice first.

I asked the students to brainstorm words beginning with the two sounds. This is what they came up with:


I then asked them to write a silly mini-story in pairs using the words from the board. Here’s one of their stories:

One day a receptionist asked me what I do. ‘I am a rock star. I write music and record video clips. In my free time I like relaxing, reading and running. My favourite colours are red and white. I like rainy days and winter.’

3. Practice 1 – closed pairs

When they’d finished they stories I asked them to underline all the /r/ sounds in one colour, and the /w/ sounds in another. Then they had to practice reading the story in their pairs with the correct pronunciation.

4. Practice 2 – open class

Now the students read their story to the whole class. The other groups had to listen for the /r/ and /w/ sounds and hold up a piece of paper corresponding to the right sound when they heard it.



A footnote- I have to give credit to my old boss from Prato for part of this activity. Her name was Sophie. Unfortunately she’s no longer with us. Thank you for your inspiration Sophie!





An Olympic Crossword part 2

In my previous post I explained how I got the students to create a crossword for their peers about the Winter Olympics. They completed them in today’s lesson and here are the finished versions.



As you can see, the mistakes in the questions and answers have been corrected. This was done by the students with very little prompting from me.

You may be wondering what the language value is of this exercise, and (quite rightly) thinking that ‘luge’ and ‘bobsleigh’ aren’t exactly useful words. I think what they got out of it linguistically was:

a) the use of the +ing form of the verb for activities

b) using relative clauses without studying tedious ‘rules’. At least for speakers of languages with Latin roots, the structures are pretty much common sense and don’t need a lot of teaching. They were able to correct ‘a person *which‘ when I pointed it out.

c) some useful vocabulary that can be used figuratively such as hurdle (as in a problem or obstacle), sweep (as in swept away)

d) the use of the passive (which they corrected without my help)

e) some lexical chunks in the questions such as third place, make a descent, sweep the floor, hold the Olympics, get closer to (something), a piece of music

f) the difference between city and country.


But it’s not perfect!

Having said all that, two of the students complained about doing it, saying it was boring and they weren’t interested in the Winter Olympics. Fair enough! I gave them some grammar exercises to do instead and they were quite happy after that.


Your feedback

What do you think? Useful/not useful?

Would you use it with your students?


Learner-centred teaching from A1: An Olympic Crossword

Crossword A1Hurdles

Since we’re in the midst of the Olympics, yesterday one of my colleagues handed me a crossword with names of Olympic sports and other associated vocab. She’d used it as a filler, but I thought I’d extend it and make a whole lesson out of it.

How? Well I started with a miming game. This entailed hurdling two chairs and nearly doing myself an injury, but gave everyone the giggles and broke the ice for the two new girls who’d joined us today. The students then took turns. Carlos’s ‘equestrian’ was particularly  interesting! In this way, and with the help of Google images, I elicited most of the vocab they’d need to do the crossword, which they then merrily got on with.

I then explained that they were going to make their own crossword about the winter Olympics. At this point there was vociferous protestation from one student ‘Teacher I’m A1 not B1. It’s too difficult!’….and: ‘We’re from Brazil! We not know winter Olympics!’. But I stubbornly soldiered on with my plan. I happen to believe that students are capable of a lot more than they (and we) give them credit for (as I discussed in my IATEFL talk at Birmingham).

I wrote the stages on the board:

  1. Find out about the Winter Olympics.  (using their mobile phones)
  2. Write the questions. Use the crossword we did as a model.
  3. Design your crossword using the grid. Colour the squares at the end of the words. Don’t forget to write the numbers for the questions.

The product


By the way, for the grid simply Google’crossword grid’.

As you can see, it generated some pretty impressive lexis for A1 learners. One of the girls exhaled a loud ‘phew!’ when they’d finished. It IS hard for them, but achievable if you give the right support. With activities like this, in contrast to using a book or a photocopy, the students do most of the work and are actively engaged with the language, which of course (we hope) makes it more memorable.

The next step is that they swap their crosswords and complete a puzzle created by their classmates. That’s today’s lesson...