Fab Idea of the Day : This is writing, not a reading comprehension (well kind of)

I always feel uncomfortable with writing activities, I feel I’m not being a proper teacher if I sit and watch my learners work for an hour, without butting in! So this activity suits my need for a bit more bustle in the classroom.

In pairs I gave the learners a list of reading comprehension questions:

  1. How were John and Tony related?
  2. Who was the eldest?
  3. Did John live in the city or the countryside?
  4. What about Tony?
  5. Where were they going when they met the leprechaun?
  6. What was the weather like that day? Was it hot or cold?
  7. Did the leprechaun tell John and Tony where his treasure was? If so where was it?
  8. Why did they get into trouble when they arrived home?
  9. What do you think Tony wrote in his diary that night before bed?
  10. Invent a title for the story.

They noticed (eventually!) that there was no accompanying text, so… they had to write it themselves. We discussed how to make the text easier or more complicated to understand, and they set to work. Obviously you can alter the questions to incorporate any recently learnt language or themes. When they’ve finished, they swap their text with another group… and it becomes a reading comprehension activity.

I love collaborative writing is a great way of encouraging sharing ideas, team teaching and general collaborative learning, and the students seemed to enjoy it too.

There are loads of activities that can be used for collaborative writing in 100 Activities for Fast Finishers too!

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End of Year wrap up: a well-being activity for learners AND teachers

I had thought of calling this article something like ” how to achieve an hour of silence with 25 teens” because that’s just what happened when we did this activity last week.

It’s actually incredibly powerful and I not only do it myself every year, but also monthly and weekly.

It has a mixture of sources, my daily journal includes a weekly, monthly and 90 day wrap up and the wildly successful society productivity programme set up by Jo Bindle.

So here’s what we did: everyone wrote themselves a letter containing the following information;


  1. Achievements this year – before you beat yourself up about what you haven’t managed to do, why not give yourself a pat on the back for what you have done.

2. What didn’t work out and Why – ok, so you didn’t achieve everything you had planned, it’s fair to note this, but more importantly why? Was it too difficult? Did you set enough time aside for it? Get the necessary help? Or as I often discover, is it still something you want to achieve or have your priorities changed?

3.  Altitude- Give yourself a mark out of ten for how you’re doing in the following domaines; family, social life, school, health and “me” (meaning how you’re feeling in and about yourself) and more importantly think of a “mini-tweak” for each domaine, something small that could bump up your score, for example health – “so I’ll replace soda with water during meals/one day a week/during the week”.

4. Goals – the secret here is not to have too many, but rather to work on three or four maximum, and especially to focus on why you want to achieve this and how you will feel when you have. Then the secret (as I mentioned in my lesson on BHAGS & baby steps) is to break down these goals into three or four achievable steps and work on doing these, so rather than looking at your out-of-reach goal of writing a novel for a whole year, look at writing for ten minutes every day instead.

Finally, a little visualisation never did anyone any harm, so we wrote a paragraph set on 1st June next year, and included everything we have achieved and changed so far. Written in the present tense this seems more reachable, as if we could actually do it.

The students were given five or ten minutes for each section, and I allowed them to write in English or L1, as they preferred (something’s in class are more important that correct verb formation as I mention in L1 or not L1) and although I added another title/section after this five minutes was up, the students were free to take as long as they wanted, some took the whole hour.

When they had finished they put their letters into envelopes and sealed them, I won’t be looking because as you can see, they’ve addressed them to themselves, not to me.


I have put them in my cupboard however and I’ll be handing them out on the first of June for them to read, revise and then re-seal until this time next year.

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Bloomifying “Giraffes can’t dance”


If you don’t know this amazing book then read it immediately, it’s fab!

I recently gave a presentation on using Bloom’s taxonomy in storytelling so I thought I should practice a little what I preach.



Lower level skills are pretty basic, our traditional pre-teaching vocab comes under this category in naming, but you can go further by describing the animals – loads of great body vocab here! The pictures are quite detailed to so it’s good fun to find various things too.


There’s a lot to discuss here, why are the animals mean to Gerald, predict what he will do, if the warthogs waltz and the chimps do a cha-cha, explain which animal dances disco, or rock and roll.


Classify animals into various groups, two legs, four legs, can fly, etc. You can produce some great Venn diagrams while you revise structures with “have” and “can”. Show the animals what they should say and do with Gerald when they see he can’t dance very well.


Comparing is great with animals, who is bigger? taller? faster? Gerald might not win the dance competition but he might win something else, identify different competitions and explain which animals would win them. (A great lesson in how we’re all different but fab too!).


Choose your favourite image, or animal, and justify why. Listen to the different types of music and prioritise them, favourites, best for going to sleep, best for a party. Watch some videos of dancing on youtube and rate the dancers.


This is where you can go as wild as the jungle animals. We had our own jungle dance, learners chose which animal they wanted to be and created their own masks. They designed posters and invitation cards, they discussed and recommended refreshments (crocodile & snake sweets, monkeys’ delight – bananas, and jungle juice in case you’re interested. They categorised the music to dance to, drew a room plan for the tables and “dance floor”.

And then we played our favourite jungle games:

Guess the Roar – blindfold one of the learners and get the others to take it in turn roaring,   guess which classmate is making that noise.

Find you friend – randomly give out pairs of animal cards, with the name or image of the animal on them depending on level and age. Learners must go round the room, making their noise or miming to find their partner. Noisy but great fun!

Finally my favourite, Sleeping Lions, learners pretend to be sleeping lions, the first one to move loses. Great for calming everyone down at the end of the party!


You can read more about our party and discover some more resources here.




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Shaking Up Grammar tests

If your teaching circumstances are anything like mine, you’ll be expected to give regular tests – or at least regular marks. It seems the marks are the most important thing to many of the stakeholders, and after a recent parents’ evening I have the distinct impression that some parents, and the kids too, don’t really care about what is being learnt as long as the results are what they consider to be good enough.

The “normal” way of testing in our school goes as follows: bit of vocab, grammar exercises (fill the gap, circle correct tense etc.) followed by written expression.

I thought it was time to shake it up instead.

  1. Let students use their notes during the test

My son’s physics teacher does this in tests, it’s a great way to encourage students to take good notes!

2. Give the students the test question in advance

A friend used to have to do essays like this at university and you can adapt it to language lessons. Recently a class wrote a ghost story in test conditions, I told them what they would be doing a week before and let them plan how they liked.

3. Give them vocabulary lists

It’s not just remembering the word, it’s being able to use it in the right context that counts, and this is a good way to test that.

4. Let the students write the questions

This is a great way of giving practice tests too, get the students to write a question or two each or in groups, then give the class all the questions to answer.

5. Let them work in groups

Depending on what you’re testing and how, why not let them work collaboratively?

Let the students do the marking, there are many ways of doing this, apart from the classic “pass your vocab test to the person behind you to mark”.

6. Why not give them a written text you’ve written and added some common mistakes and things you want them to pick out and ask them to correct it?

7. Or ask them to decide on the marking scale, how many points for spelling? register? What learning objectives are you testing and how will they validate them? etc.

And finally, how did the test go for you? Was it as you expected? Did you revise well enough? What would you do differently next time? Exam wrappers that encourage a little metacognition are always a good thing, and by encouraging students to think about their learning we encourage them to become more autonomous learners.

I’ll be talking about assessment at TESOL France’s colloquium in Paris this weekend, about assessment in the Inclusive Practice classroom to be precise, come along and say hi!

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Should learning be hard?


Today my children and I have been hard at work learning, but in very different circumstances.

I’m studying an online SENCO course with Leeds Becket university (see top photo), my son is playing a difficult match with his team, and my daughter has recently started a very challenging course in French “prepa” to eventually get into a top school (hence the nail varnish along with the school books!).

All this got me thinking about how different our experiences are, my son is in a football study programme where every year he has to pass try outs to stay, and every week if he isn’t good enough he doesn’t go to the match. My daughter’s school will throw out the bottom 25% of her class at the end of the year – no matter how good their results are.

As a teacher I can’t help wondering if the pressure my own children are under is actually helping them learn. My own afternoon of learning was spent having been sucked into a vortex of “flow”  as I studied and compared the provisions for SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) in England and France – and just like the regular education system, I can tell you they are VERY different.

In France the system is elitist, based on results and marks, many exams are competitive, meaning only the top whatever percent get through, so even if you get 80% right, if you’re eleventh and they let the top ten pass, you’re out.

This means my son’s team has the best possible players, as does my daughter’s school, but is this the best way of learning? Does their learning actually have to be so hard?

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A fishy story


I had a last minute replacement this week, so armed with my trusty board pen I entered the arena and…

Firstly we had a good laugh drawing our picture to elicit vocabulary on the theme I’d chosen, in case you’re wondering the students were aged 14-15 years old.

I then “read” them the following story…

“It was a bright sunny day so my friend, Claire and I went to the beach. We put our towels on the sand, got out our parasol and started sunbathing. Claire started reading her book but I was bored so I got up, took my flippers and snorkel and went snorkelling. It was amazing, I could see the fish swimming among the coral reef and seaweed. I even saw a shipwreck and I dived down hoping to find some treasure! As I was diving I suddenly saw something big and white out of the corner of my eye..”

The students wrote the end of the story together in pairs ( I love collaborative writing, it’s a great chance for students to teach each other and more active than silent writing in class). Those who wanted to read out their endings to the rest of the class.

You don’t have to choose the beach, any setting will provide vocabulary and a story, the woods in autumn, a shopping mall, etc.

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Positively Personalising the Present Perfect


An affirming way of practising the present perfect – as you can see students were first asked to write three of their achievements ( for some this was arriving on time in class!), they then asked questions to find each other’s achievements and reported back to the class.

Fun, positive, and activity that improved the class atmosphere, and I’ve learnt a little more about my students – which is always a good thing.

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An active way of looking at the passive


In class this week the 3èmes had the “pleasure” of tasting some yummy English sauces, after looking at some specific vocab (molasses, cauliflower, yeast, etc) they completed a worksheet saying what they thought the sauce was made of and more importantly what they thought it was eaten with.

For homework they are going to prepare to tell us about a sauce they like from their culture for next lesson, and maybe bring some to try.

This is our first approach to the passive tense, I’m not sure how much of it they’ll remember, but I know they won’t forget trying the marmite!

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Of Mice & Men: What would you do for a friend?

Spoiler alert: If you’re not familiar with the Steinbeck novella, Of Mice and Men, then do so now!

Reasons to study it in English class:

  1. It’s short – only about 30,000 words which is around one hundred pages

2. It touches a universal theme that is so important to teens – Friendship. We started our unit by writing a definition of friendship and discussing the responsibilities of friendship. At this age friends are the most important group for many kids, more influential than family, so they really warmed to this theme.

3. The end is AMAZING! We were lucky enough to watch a theatre version, (Geneva Amateur Dramatics society) at the end half the class were in tears, and even more touching – so was the actor who played George.

4. The main reason I enjoyed studying this text so much with a class was the texts I received all weekend as students finished reading the book – which wasn’t obligatory as we were going to see the play “This book is amazing Miss”, “Thank you for presenting us this book”, “I’ll never forget this story”, “you made me cry last night Miss”.

The accents and American slang was a challenge for the students ( in fact the language meant the book was banned in several US states), however the students soon got into the language, and by the second half were whizzing along.

So, if you’re looking for a way to introduce English literature into your language class then I highly recommend Of Mice and Men.

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What we’ll be doing on our first day back

Fun stuff basically! So many of my colleagues who teach other subjects spend the first lesson giving out paperwork and telling students how to lay out their ring binders and what the class rules are. I feel that with about 7 hours of that, the students need a break when they get to my class, so here’s some of the things we do:

Getting to Know Each Other

It always surprised me to realise how often after a couple of weeks the students didn’t all know each other’s names in a class. They find their friend group, stick with them and avoid any cross group interaction. I suppose Maths class isn’t the place to yell out and ask a new boy what his name is, but I feel it’s a shame that there isn’t more effort to create a class synergy. So I spend the first few lessons working on the students getting to know everyone in the class with some of these activities-

Line Out – I have the students stand in two lines facing each other. They then have two minutes to present themselves to the person opposite before moving on in speed dating style. Feedback comes by asking the group to tell me everything they know about each person.

Team building activities – such as Marshmallows & Spaghetti are a great way of encouraging students to get to know each other, and also teach them that English class is fun.

Names & Tags – To help students (and me!) get to know each other’s names I ask them to introduce themselves using an appropriate adjective that starts with the same letter to describe something about their personality, “Mad”Max was certainly appropriate, as was chatty Clara!

Write a Letter – not very original I know but I like to give students the chance to tell me what they want me to know about them in a confidential way, and writing a letter to give to me next class seems to work well. Of course they have the chance to send me a film, or twitter, FB or instagram message. one student sent me a film of her miming her day – I got to know an awful lot about her.

Getting to Know the Lesson

By doing loads of oral activities and fun stuff I spend the first few lessons showing students that it’s great to make mistakes and take risks in class, that they can ask questions and especially ask each other – I’m all for an autonomous learning and encourage 3 before me in class.

Textbook Quiz – Ask a bunch of questions about the book “What is Julie’s dog called?” “Find a picture of a London moment – have you ever been?” to encourage students to appropriate their book – and find the dictionary and grammar sections before the end of the year!

Dear Newbie – rather than spend time explaining what I want from class and how we’ll work I ask the students to spend the last lesson of the year writing a letter to future students, I then give these out at the start of the year. They can be quite revealing ” Beware Mrs H if England have lost the rugby”, “if you mention star wars you can get her to talk for hours and she’ll forget about homework” are a couple of my favourite snippets because, yes of course I read them through before handing them out.

Future Me – You are thirty years old, write a letter to your wonderful old English teacher telling her what you’ve been up to for the last 15 years and how you use English in your life.

Get to Know the Teacher

Although they’ve probably already heard more than enough through the jungle drums I always give students a chance to get to know me at the start of the year.

Numbers on Board – I write some numbers on board and students have to guess what they apply to, my age, number of kids, marathons run, average number of detentions given out in a week, kilos of chocolate I expect for christmas, etc. I let them guess a few in pairs before they call out what they think they refer to.

Hot Spot – I use the hot spot a lot through the year when students take on the character of someone from a book or a celebrity and answer questions in that style, it’s a great way of encouraging question practice and class interaction. Start of year hot spot is pretty basic, I sit in a chair at the front and students can ask me what they like – this can become a discussion on appropriacy and social barriers in class as often one student will go to far, but that’a a good way to remind students where the limits are. I’ve noticed that because we chat about life etc. some students think they can talk to me in a way they would never dream of addressing another teacher, so this can be a friendly, but firm way of setting the barriers in my class.

And finally on my first day back, I be collapsing in a heap on the sofa as soon as I make it through the door!

What about you? What have you got lined up?

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