Adaptable, Fun, Student-Centered? Too True, No Lie

November 21, 2011

Recently, I mentioned reading some great posts on Dogme and materials-light teaching (for Dogme teaching in a nutshell, see Oli Beddal’s post, here). While reading, one comment caught my attention – a comment in which a teacher talked about how he frequently uses variations of the game, 2 Truths and 1 Lie, in class, not only because it is materials-light but also (and more importantly) because it always goes down well with his students, and because it can be adapted for just about any language area.

“Two Truths and One Lie”, I thought. “I haven’t used that for a while!” And my mind wandered back to the early days of my teaching career. It’s a learning activity that I associate with the the period immediately after passing my CertTESOL. Part of the newly qualified teacher’s classroom survival kit.

But why? If it’s communicative, fun, adaptable, why did I stop taking advantage it?

With no good answer to my question, I decided to put Two Truths and One Lie’s adaptability to the test and put it to use in class last week.

My Challenge
I currently teach a number of blended courses at a large international company. Learners spend 2 hours working through a unit of Tell Me More – commercially available language learning software, and my colleagues and I are required to design and deliver the face-to-face element – two-and-a-half hours of consolidation work and productive skills development based on the online material.

Last week, the language areas that my group of B2/C1 level learners worked on on-line were lexis related to airports and, teacher’s favorite, reported speech. I challenged myself to work 2 Truths and One Lie into the lesson.

You can download my lesson notes and handouts by clicking the following link, Reported Speech 2 Truths 1 Lie

The Lesson Sequence
Rather than worry too much about tense change and “back shift”, I targeted reporting verbs, in order to expand the range of my learners’ vocabulary. I prepared a dialogue script – two friends discussing a recent travel nightmare. I initially used the script as a gapfill exercise to check some of the airport lexis that had been presented online (testing language seen online is a course requirement). After some brief teacher-centered, form-focused work on reporting and reporting verbs, I had learners use a number of reporting verbs to complete sentences about the conversation that they’d read in the previous stage. Learners then did some work analyzing the structures that follow the various reporting verbs before classifying the verbs as either “attitude” or “non-attitude” verbs (in line with the classification in Parrot).

Further consolidation work was provided by having learners listen to and take notes on a course book recording in which a couple discuss their honey-moon trip to Europe. Having compared notes, learners made reporting sentences based on the recording, using the verbs from the previous stages.

Two Truths and One Lie
I planned to use Two Truths and One Lie not only to provide fun speaking and listening practice but also as a vehicle for getting learners to use reported speech. I set up the activity, demonstrating with my own examples and having learners interrogate me. I then had them write their own sentences in order play the game before pairing them up and instruct them to start. I monitored discretely, taking notes and letting the activity run. Once the majority of pairs had finished, learners changed partners. I asked one learner to report back on the previous stage but pushed her to do so by using reporting verbs (i.e. “My partner claimed that…”,). I then instructed learners to report back on the previous stage to their new partners, using reporting verbs.

The lesson was effective in the sense that learners it provided further practice of work that learners had seen online, integrated all 4 skills, and provided study and fun (and hopefully) memorable practice of a notoriously difficult grammar area. In the final stage, learners had to be prompted, in some cases, to use the reporting verbs, but then expecting spontaneous production of new language so quickly is probably a little over optimistic.

So, Two Truths and One Lie passed my first test – it was easily adapted to fit my class last week. And I will endeavor to put to use in a different class this week too. And leads me to my final question: Is good teaching (or a least a large part of it) simply about having a repertoire of highly adaptable, easy-to-set-set up, learner-centered activities?

Focus on patterns, not just exceptions

November 2, 2011

My advanced level students seemed surprised yesterday when I corrected their mispronunciation of the words figure and feature by referring to the pronunciation of bigger and teacher. Of course, negative transfer from the L1 means that Spanish speakers tend to pronounce words as they are written and thus pronounce the u in the final syllable of the two words mentioned above. Yet, the final syllable of words in English spelled er, re, or, our, ure, ar, tend to be pronounced in the same way – /ə(r)/.

It surprises me that this particular pronunciation pattern hadn’t been pointed out to my students’ before, as they worked their ways up to an advanced level.

Surely part of our jobs as language teachers is to work with, and exploit patterns and regularities (as well as the exceptions!) in English.

Another example of this kind of thing, with beginner level students, might be showing how regular English question patterns are – e.g. Can you..? / Do you..? Did you..? Are you..? and working with this pattern, rather than over-analyzing conjugations and subject and auxiliary inversion.

It would nice to hear other patterns that you think English teachers should exploit!

In The Spirit of Dogme: 4, 3, 2 Presentations and Other Gems

October 19, 2011

Recently I’ve enjoyed reading various blogs / blog posts on putting Dogme or materials light teaching into practice in the ELT classroom. See the excellent An Experiment with Dogme, ELT Reflections, and Language Moments, for example.

As Thornbury writes in his A to Z blog, Dogme is all about “teaching that focuses on emergent language.” What this means is, rather than walking into the classroom with a pile handouts and predetermined set of activities “to do”, or language areas “to cover”, we work with the language the naturally results from classroom talk.

Spurred on by the excellent blogs and posts that I mention above, here are 3 staples of my classroom teaching over the years that seem to fit in with the spirit of a Dogme approach to ELT.

N.B. I do not claim to have invented these activities, they all come from, or are adapted from, published teaching resources.

4, 3, 2 Presentations
Basically, students prepare a 3 minute talk on a topic of their choice. In the first round they give their talks in four minutes to each other. Students then change partners and give their talks in three minutes to their new partner. In the final round, students switch partners again and repeat their presentation, but this time in just two minutes. The idea of all this being, of course, that it boosts fluency and automaticity as students get the chance to repeat their talks.

Variations / adaptations are infinite – students can be given specific lexis / chunks to use in their talks, and can be asked to tick of lexis / chunks as they hear them. A really fun one that was suggested to me the other day by my colleague Mike Rowley for higher levels, is to have specific pieces of languages to be used but also to have the listener interrupt and try to stop the speaker getting his or her message out.

15 Minutes of Today
This is nice for intermediate + learners and above. Each student thinks of a specific 15 minute period of their day and then writes down 20 things that they did during those 15 minutes. The teacher helps out here pushing students to break activities such as making a cup of coffee or checking email down into its individual actions (“I filled the kettle”, “I took a spoon form the drawer”, for example). Once students have their list of 20 activities, they read six of them randomly to their partner. Based on those six, the partner has to guess another six actions / processes from their partner’s list (e.g. “Did you boil some water?”). In a business English context, this work really well as generates a need for quite specific lexis for processes and work tasks.

Collaborative Emails Error Correction Task
This small group writing task works really well with classes of 8 to 16 business English students and in classrooms where there is a large board. You start by asking groups to think of a work problem that they can all identify with (for example, server problems, or low staffing levels) and then ask to state specifically what the problem is and who they would address this problem to. The teacher then divides the board into sections according to how many groups there are. Groups are then given time to plan and write their emails on their section of the board. Once they are done, the other groups are invited to come make any changes that they feel appropriate to the other group’s emails. This correction stage typically provokes a lot of discussion and generates a lot of language work.

Teaching Resources
Here are some resources that have helped me teach “materials light” over the years: Mario Rinvolucri’s Grammar Games and More Grammar Games is a must for so many imaginative classroom activities; Friederike Klippel’s Keep Talking has a load of good ideas; as does, of course, Thornbury’s How to Teach Speaking. And last but not least, the Humanising Language Teaching online magazine, which, while not the most user friendly website, is well worth exploring.

The Reading Process Riddle

July 31, 2009

Yesterday, my wonderful and beautiful wife (who, incidentally, is also an amazing photographer) forwarded me an email containing the old “Count the number of F’s” brainteaser. Of course, I didn’t fall for the puzzle this time, owing to the fact that I had done it before. However, it occurred to me that the puzzle does a great job illustrating a couple of important points for language teachers about the reading process.

The Puzzle
But, before we get on to the boring teacher stuff, here’s the puzzle, in case you haven’t done it before:

Quickly count the F’s n the next text – how many are there?


Most people only count 3, failing to count the F’s in the 3 Of’s. There are actually 6 F’s (I think!).

For Language Teachers

Now, 3 reasons why I deem this to be worth blogging about:

1. It shows that when fluent readers read, they don’t process texts letter by letter, word by word – rather they take in all the letters simultaneously, recognising all the letters in the word at once. Furthermore, research suggests that we recognise related pairs of words more quickly than unrelated pairs or words.

2. It demonstrates that fluent readers don’t process all of the words in a text – according to studies, we process fewer than half of the function words (words such as of, the, and to which don’t contain lexical meaning) in a text and around 80% of the content words.

3. More generally, it highlights the inadequacy of bottom-up approaches (on their own) for explaining the reading process and provides support for the view that reading more is likely characterised by the continuous interaction between top-down and bottom-up processing skills.

As Celce-Murcia and Olshtain (2000) point out:

“Good and effective reading must…be viewed as combining both rapid and accurate recognition and decoding of letters, words, collocations, and other structural cues with sensible, global predictions related to the text as a whole”

There are obvious implications here for work that we do with written texts in the classroom.

Now, what about the one about the colour and the tool?

It’s not just about the grammar!

July 17, 2009

David Nunan thinks so…Scott Thornbury too, oh, and let’s not forget Michael Lewis. Indeed, just about every contemporary ELT theorist / writer out there stresses (and has stressed for the last 30 years!) that becoming competent in a second language is more than just about learning grammar. Unfortunately the ones who really need to understand this point, our students, are the ones who need the most convincing. Over the years, on countless occasions, students have demanded more grammar in class, begged for an explanation of the rules and uses of rare tenses and antiquated forms, and, perhaps most amusingly, demanded that less time be spent having fun and that we do more exercises from Murphy and Azar. And we’ve all heard teachers being criticised for not know all the grammar rules!

Anyway, those students clearly haven’t spent enough time watching Jackie Chan who, on a recent appearance on Graham Norton’s show, was able to tell an absolutely hilarious story despite making more grammatical errors than I can possibly count. Let the video load and then watch from 5.30 for the bit that I’m talking about.

It just goes to show that communicative competence is just that…the ability to communicate!

Free English Courses

July 15, 2009

I came across a blog post today of 20 Free English Language and Literature Courses. Click here.

Now, in my honest opinion, most of the general courses seem a bit too grammar focused (see my comment above for more on that) but you may find something useful to help practice. Furthermore, the pronunciation link doesn’t work while the listening files on the American English Audio Course were, in fact, inaudible – it sounds like an American woman is talking to a washing machine.

Anyway, here are 2 (of the 20) that I think are worth checking out if you want to improve your grammar:

Grammar Workshop This is from so it’s a safe site. You register and they send you grammar practice materials each week. Grammar exercises for intermediate and advanced level students here.

Here something that I posted ages ago on another website for students about practising English for free:

There are literally thousands of websites for learners of English. Here is a short list of ones that we like:

Word Power is a website that describes itself as “a free survival guide for all who would like to perfect their spoken English language.” In the Business Word Power and you will find definitions, recordings and exercises with which you can practise business vocabulary. Many of the themes such as meetings, telephoning and socialising relate to work we do in class. And, there is also a section on football vocabulary!

Yappr – A free website which helps you learn English through videos. Highly recommended!

The British Council’s website:

And this is what the BBC has to offer:

Is this the future? Practise your English online with a native speaker for free! (after you’ve downloaded Skype):

Would you believe it? Free books online:

The Business podcast, from Macmillan, is a monthly interview focusing on working life in the UK. The Podcast offers authentic listening practice for you: