Feedback (read between the lines)

IMG_20170514_112931Today a colleague of mine stopped by to observe one of my lessons. She’s a very nice, compassionate person and she never splits hairs when giving feedback. Still, I somehow wanted to show off a bit to prove that my students and I can do well (maybe because I’m the one who observes the members of the English department twice a year because it’s required of me as the head of the department to track the students’ as well as the teacher’s progress).

She chose to observe a group of 18-year-old students whose level of proficiency varies from C1 to B1. This huge gap is what worried me most when I learned that she was coming. And she did notice it indeed. She later told me was concerned about the weaker students as she thought the content of the lesson might have been too challenging for them. I didn’t agree and I explained to her that although the students might have struggled to understand every single word in the listening exercise, for example, they had successfully completed the tasks. But, as it later turned out, this was not the only problem.

It was the first lesson of the day. She entered the room a few minutes after the lesson had started so I hadn’t managed to talk to her in order to give her some basic information about the group. I didn’t think it would be an issue, though, as we are a small school and we know one another well and we also know the classes to some extent, even those we don’t teach. However, as I’m about to explain, it turned out to be quite an issue.

The trouble was that while observing the lesson, for the whole time, she thought I was actually teaching a different course. Also, she gathered that this group is using a specific set of coursebooks. However, we don’t use coursebooks at all. The students have a different teacher for their ‘regular’ English lessons and this, in fact, is an extension to their curriculum. My lessons are topic-based and they are focused on practicing the four skills – reading, writing, listening and speaking. I imagine she must have been very confused the whole time. When I later told her that this was actually a ‘skills’ lesson, she couldn’t conceal her surprise.

What I’m trying to say it that the lesson probably looked totally out of context and out of place due to the fact that I hadn’t provided her with any information in advance. Thus, I think the observer should definitely and invariably talk to the observee before the lesson. Having said that, it really gets on my nerves when I hear all sorts of warnings from the observee prior to the lesson, such as “Oh, this is just a grammar lesson, don’t expect to witness any miracles“.

Anyway, I was quite happy with the first part of the lesson, which was actually a follow-up to the previous one. This, however, wasn’t to the good. The thing is that in a follow-up lesson, the students and the teacher usually know what’s happening because they were present the lesson before, but it may take a couple of minutes (or even more) till the observer understands where the teacher is actually headed.

Anyways, although the students seemed to like the lesson and the colleague took away a few useful activities, overall, I could have done better. I was particularly disappointed with the final part of the lesson because there was too much squeezed in and too little time left. What was the most frustrating, though, was the fact that I didn’t use its great potential.

After the lesson, my colleague said she had liked it, but I could tell there were some doubts questions swirling in her head. She asked me, for example, how I deal with errors in speaking. The thing is that as it was a”skills” lesson and the topic was moral dilemmas, I didn’t correct every single mistake – I simply didn’t want to interrupt a student saying something really personal or important. This may put the others off (especially those who are less confident speakers). This is how I explained it to my colleague. Then I pondered her question for a while and I realized that although I’m not too worried about grammatical mistakes, I almost always correct mistakes related to pronunciation. This demonstrates my priorities, I guess.

The bottom line is that not only do you get explicit feedback (when the observer says what they liked/disliked) but also feedback that is more implicit. This may come in the form of questions or puzzled looks, which are hints for a potentially fruitful discussion.

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The Alligator River story

alligator-439890_960_720Earlier today I gave my students a version of the well-known story below.  The story is an example of a moral/ethical dilemma.


There lived a woman named Abigail who was in love with a man named Gregory. Gregory lived on the shore of a river. Abigail lived on the opposite shore of the same river. The river that separated the two lovers was teeming with dangerous alligators. Abigail wanted to cross the river to be with Gregory. Unfortunately, the bridge had been washed out by a heavy flood the previous week. So she went to ask Sinbad, a riverboat captain, to take her across. He said he would be glad to if she would consent to go to bed with him prior to the voyage. She promptly refused and went to a friend named Ivan to explain her plight. Ivan did not want to get involved at all in the situation. Abigail felt her only alternative was to accept Sinbad’s terms. Sinbad fulfilled his promise to Abigail and delivered her into the arms of Gregory.

When Abigail told Gregory about her amorous escapade in order to cross the river, Gregory cast her aside with disdain. Heartsick and rejected, Abigail turned to Slug with her tale of woe. Slug, feeling compassion for Abigail, sought out Gregory and beat him brutally. Abigail was overjoyed at the sight of Gregory getting his due. As the sun set on the horizon, people heard Abigail laughing at Gregory.

This is what we did with it:

Students read the story silently. Then I read the story out loud and sketched a plot diagram on the board. After reading, I paired the students up and asked them to rank the five characters in the story beginning with the one they considered the least offensive and ending with the one they found most morally repulsive. I asked them to briefly note the reasons as to why they had ranked them in that order. Then I put two pairs together to work in a group of four. At this point, we had three groups. They presented their original orders within the group but they could rearrange them so that each member of the group was happy. Finally, we sat in a semi-circle and all the class had to agree on one, definite order.

6 pairs >>> 3 groups of 4 >>> class 

Before the discussion started, I put some functional language on the board which I asked the students to use as much as possible:

  • I think/believe/assume/suppose/conclude
  • In my view/opinion
  • From my point of view/viewpoint
  • As I see it
  • On the one hand/on the other hand
  • However
  • Having said that

Some of my random observations – ranked from the most scandalous to the most encouraging:

  1. We ran out of time (after 45 minutes) so I had to wind the activity up by making some of the final decisions. This, however, finally appeased some who hadn’t previously fully agreed with the group’s choice (“You see? I told you that Abigail is the worst of them all!”)
  2. Ss didn’t use much of the functional language. I had to tap on the board demonstratively a couple of times to indicate that the language should be used. Not that it helped a lot.
  3. Ss were so involved in the activity at times that they even used expressions such as Shut up!  I added a few phrases to teach them how to interrupt someone politely.
  4. They disagreed a lot within pairs/groups.
  5. Each pair/group came up with a totally different order.
  6. The students were still discussing the topic upon leaving the classroom.
  7. The students kept still in their places until the very last minute of the lesson (not usual on a Friday).
  8. The board was full of useful language.
  9. Ss loved the activity and were fully emerged in the task.
  10. I loved the activity and was fully emerged too.



In the following lesson, I projected the table below, which I had originally created for my own purposes. Having witnessed the heated debate, I wanted to find a rational solution to the dilemma myself. Later it occurred to me that it would be a nice way of summarizing a rather challenging topic with the class. Also, I felt that since moral dilemmas have no correct/right answers/solutions (and this one provoked a lot of disagreement among the students), it might be good to look at the same issue once again while staying cool-headed and rational. Anyway, another heated debate arose again but it turned out that most students hadn’t changed their mind at all. Hopefully, some new vocabulary was learned (cowardice, compassion, selfishness, detriment).


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On Homeland, identity and authenticity

IMG_20170501_114053I recently got hooked on a TV show called Homeland, of which I’ve just started watching the sixth season. What I love about the series is the fact that it takes place in many parts of the world, such as Tehran, Pakistan, the USA, Germany, or Libya. Being a language teacher, I particularly concentrate on the way speakers of various L1s use English as a means of communication. Also, I like to catch a glimpse of some exotic cultures as well as come across variations of English. Well, to be more precise, I only (to my disappointment) come across various accents.

Judging by the film annotation, the scripts have been written by people whose L1 is English. And as a non-native speaker, I can tell how much this fact influences the language used in the show. I mean, when a Russian guy speaks English, he speaks with a heavy Russian accent but otherwise, his English is impeccable. I haven’t noticed any signs of L1 interference, for example. There’s only one situation which implies a potential language barrier between speakers of different L1s:

A German guy says rather sharply to his girlfriend: “It’s not my fault that I don’t have a clue. I’m not a brain reader”. The American girl sitting next to him starts laughing and replies: “Or a mind reader either”.

You know, I’m a fairly proficient speaker of English but I’m quite sure I’d never be able to produce some of the complex utterances that flood out of the non-native speakers’ mouths in Homeland – especially in life endangering situations the characters encounter. My point is that the flawlessness is simply unnatural and inauthentic. I guess the authors just didn’t want to disturb the viewers more than necessary. However, if I were the scriptwriter, I would have exploited the fact that the Germans, for example, are played by German actors. I would have let them deviate from the script and play with L1 interference a bit. In other words, I would have gone further in terms of indicating a person’s national identity –  I would have gone far beyond their accent, style of clothing or color of complexion.

I’ve recently been in contact with speakers of various L1s – mainly through the work on the Erasmus+ project – and I know that language wise, one’s accent is only one of the indicators of a person’s national (cultural) identity. It’s the vocabulary or grammar they use which often reveal their true color. And I’ve started to cherish the uniqueness of each and every person’s language inventory, mainly because those people have become very close to me, which couldn’t have happened if we didn’t speak a common language, which we cutely and unknowingly distort in all sorts of subtle ways.  And I believe this is one of the most authentic scenarios one can ever encounter – when L2 is the bridge and the gateway to other people’s souls and when it doesn’t really matter how well we speak it provided we manage to get the message across.


On a seemingly unrelated note, I’ve just finished correcting my young students’ progress tests. One of the tasks was to come up with semi-fixed phrases, e.g. as black as night, as light as a feather, as heavy as lead. Most students remembered the correct versions we’d learned in the previous lessons. However, some created their own phrases, e.g as black as my T-shirt, as heavy as a brick, etc. I think I was the one to blame for this misunderstanding which I caused by playing a song called Everything at once by Lenka; the author of the lyric is very creative and comes up with somewhat unusual similes. My students probably inferred that this is the way it works with these language items. Or maybe they just couldn’t remember the right ones. This, once again, demonstrates that some individuals are brave enough to go against the flow and take ownership of the language.

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In the zone

IMG_20170413_130700Why does each workday have a different vibe even though I teach the same classes in the same classroom (mostly)?

Today was one of those days when I felt in the zone. Most of the time, I felt fully absorbed in what my classes and I were doing. And let’s be honest, it’s not always the case. If somebody had observed today’s lessons, they would have thought they are meticulously planned. Except they weren’t. I guess I was really lucky. Or did I suddenly get enlightened or something?

I had five lessons today. In the morning, before the first lesson, I had an interesting conversation with my colleague. We didn’t talk shop as usual, though. We chatted about life and most of the time, we were just reminiscing. Another colleague joined in to add some missing memories. Then another teacher stopped by and provided more pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. This, I believe, was a good start. This, I think, may have been the reason why today turned out to be a diamond among the rocks.

Anyway, my first lesson was an elementary class with a group of 12-year-olds. In the course of the lesson, I suddenly remembered that I had promised to play a song one of the kids had suggested the previous day. To be completely frank, I didn’t even know what song it was – I only knew what kind of language it contained. On the spot, I learned what they had in mind – a song called Everything at once by Lenka. Despite a complete lack of preparation, out of nothing, a wonderful lesson emerged; ideas were coming to me naturally and everything seemed to make perfect sense.

The second class was one of those regular, frowned-upon ‘coursebook’ lessons when you follow the instructions in the book and just complete the exercises. However, it turned out to be meaningful and useful too.

In the third lesson, (I was standing in for a missing teacher) I had a large class of 12-year-olds. I introduced a vocabulary game to be played in pairs, which, as it usually goes with large groups of excited kids, finally got a bit too noisy. I was happy they were enjoying themselves but I thought a cooler would come in handy at some point. Just before the lesson, I read this post on a visualization activity. At the end of the somewhat loud activity, I told my students we were going to calm down and relax a bit. I played the first 5 minutes of the video from the post above. I’d like to thank Nick Bilbrough for sharing this since it was exactly the type of activity we all needed at that moment. Moreover, rather miraculously, it perfectly fitted into my plan as the language used in the relaxation video was something we’d been practicing for a while.

Then I had a one-hour break when I did some paperwork. One always feels great when all paperwork is done, right?

Then I had a class of 16-year-olds. They are very good kids and they work really hard. What a superb combination! My plan was to revise some grammar for the upcoming exam so the students were quite motivated to focus and they participated very well without looking too stressed.

The final lesson was the icing on the cake, so to speak. I really love this class of 17-year-olds. They are into speaking activities and they invariably appreciate it when I bring some interesting topics to discuss on a Friday afternoon. I found an article called 101 Fun and Interesting Questions to Perk Up Boring Gatherings.  I half-jokingly pointed out that a final Friday lesson could definitely be labeled as a boring gathering so we might well need to perk it up a bit. At the end of the activity, it felt like a boisterous party where everybody was having a great time. To my surprise, by the end of the lesson, nobody indicated that it was already time to finish (which they usually do a few minutes before the bell rings).

I have nothing else to add …… 🙂







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Identity theft

IMG_20170308_083830Here’s a report on another no-prep activity I tried with a couple of my classes.  As the title reveals, I call it Identity theft.

The inspiration came from spy movies. The story usually goes like this: to assume the identity and physical appearance of a ruthless terrorist, for example, an agent undergoes a face-transplant surgery or puts on a type of synthetic skin.  Then, by memorizing every single detail about the terrorist’s life, he makes it so that nobody (not even the terrorist’s mother) can tell that it’s actually not that terrorist. 🙂

This is how the activity goes:

1. Demonstrate first (see point 3 below).

2. Divide the class into groups of 3 or 4 (based on my experience, 3 is the minimum while 4 is the ideal number).

3. Demo stage:

a) Invite one student to sit on the chair at the front of the classroom. Tell him/her that he/she has stolen somebody’s identity, i.e. is a secret agent who’s going to pretend to be somebody else. It’s best if he/she chooses somebody in the class he/she knows well.

b) Ask the student some easy questions which you think he/she will be able to answer without major difficulties, but add some tricky ones as well:

  • What’s your full name? > My name’s … (the name of the person whose identity has been stolen)
  • Have you got any brothers or sisters? 
  • What’s your address? (this is actually quite tricky and so far, everybody has struggled to answer this)
  • When’s your birthday? (not easy either)
  • What’s your favorite color?

4. Group work: Tell the class that in each group, person A is going to be the secret agent – the one who steals person B’s identity. Person B listens carefully and indicates with thumbs down if a question was answered incorrectly or inaccurately. Person C (or C and D if it’s a group of four) ask(s) questions. After some time they change roles.

5. Sts go back to their places: Ask Sts to write a couple of sentences each about something they learned during the activity (it should be a fact they hadn’t known before), i.e. Jane has three sisters.

From a grammatical point of view, as you can probably guess, this activity is great for practicing question formation. From an interaction perspective, it works best with groups where the students know one another quite well, but it can also be a great team-building activity.  I’d like to add that I left the actual grouping up to the students, but it’s not a condition, I guess.

And, yeah, it’s fun.




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Speech recognition listening activity

Speech recognition (also known as “automatic speech recognition”, “computer speech recognition”, or just “speech to text”) enables the recognition of spoken language into text by computers.

If automatic captions are available (on YouTube, for example), they’ll automatically be published on the video.

However, as we all know, automatic captions might misrepresent the spoken content due to various reasons, such as mispronunciations, accents, dialects, or background noise. This can be slightly irritating because the listener must always keep in mind that the transcription is unreliable. On the other hand, it is also a great learning opportunity for a language class

The other day, I played this video to a group of pre-intermediate students.


I had listened to the video beforehand, with the automatic captions on, and concentrated on the discrepancies between the spoken and the transcribed versions.

I copied the parts with the problematic areas like this:














I played the video to the class with the captions off first for Sts to get a general idea of what the story was about. We discussed it a bit as a class. Before I played the video again with the captions on, I pointed out that there might be some discrepancies. I asked the students to take notes of any errors they’d come across.

After Sts compared their notes, I projected the slips above one by one. I asked Sts to look at their notes and tell me what the problems were. These are the corrected parts:

  1. leopardess
  2. catch one bush calf
  3. do you not have your spear and your arrow
  4. looked at her husband
  5. bush calf
  6. she tore its throat open
  7. she tore its throat … bush calf
  8. bush calf
  9. bush calf …bush calf
  10. bush calf …. a stick through the bush calf’s body
  11. he said: uu uh hh
  12. come eat
  13. he ate and he

Later in the computer laboratory:

Sts worked in pairs. Each pair got a short section of the video to transcribe (with the captions off!). Note: You can let Sts transcribe with the captions on because there’s still a lot to work on in terms of punctuation. 

We put the story together and practiced retelling it as a chain activity (each pair only read their part).

But that’s another story! 🙂


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The Return of Translation – action research

The other day I watched an interesting presentation on YouTube called – The Return of Translation. Philip Kerr begins his talk with an overview of the arguments for using L1 in language teaching and then looks at a range of activities involving translation. He mentions:

  1. Reverse/back translation > learners translate a piece of text into L1, then translate it back into L2, compare versions and discuss why there are differences
  2. Assisted translation > the teacher provides a bilingual glossary including words that may cause trouble during the translation process
  3. Translation fuckups > learners look at ‘bad’ translations and discuss the causes of errors

In this post, I’d like to share some of the results of a small project I’ve done to test the first activity above. I call it a project rather than a lesson because I did the same activity (with small variations) with four different classes – on the same day.

Although I see this as a kind of action research, I believe this project perfectly fits into my no-prep activity bank as well. As I tried a couple of variations, I hope you’ll find at least one of them useful/applicable in your teaching context.

Group One

number of students: 14, age: 12-year-olds, level: A1-A2

  1. I divided a piece of a text my students were already familiar with into seven chunks.
  2. I assigned the texts in a way that two Sts in the class had the same piece (these Sts were not sitting next to each other at this point).
  3. I distributed blank sheets of paper which I had folded into halves to indicate where they should start/stop writing (see photos below).
  4. Each student then translated their piece of text into Czech.
  5. When they finished, I paired Sts up so that Sts with the same texts worked together.
  6. They compared their translations and made necessary adjustments.
  7. We sent the translations around the class for other Sts to read. Their task was to polish the Czech version. This time, they were not biased by the English versions which, by the way, they could look at but didn’t have to. Note: at this stage, they only looked at the original text when they weren’t sure about a word but otherwise they only seemed to focus on the Czech versions.
  8.  When the texts finally got to their original authors, they translated the polished versions back into English. Their books were closed at this stage but they were allowed to cooperate with their partners (who had the same piece of text).
  9. Finally, they compared the English translations against the original text in the coursebook. They marked some of the problematic areas with a coloured pen.
  10. They commented on the process as well as the results: they said which phase was easier/more difficult, more interesting, what caused trouble, etc. IMG_20170412_141056

Group Two

number of students: 18, age: 16-year-olds, level: A2+

I knew I had less time with this group so I decided to try a variation of the procedure described above:

  1. I chose two paragraphs from a coursebook text my Sts were already familiar with.
  2. In this particular lesson, Sts were sitting in a traditional seating arrangement, in pairs.
  3. Student A translated paragraph 1 from English into their mother tongue while Student B worked on paragraph 2.
  4. When they finished, I asked them to swap their products. However, before they started translating the Czech texts their partners had produced into English, I gave them a few seconds to look at the English text their partners had translated (to make it easier for them and to allow for some memorization to happen). I skipped the polishing stage this time but it happened naturally anyway during the back-translation process.
  5. They compared the English translations against the original text in the coursebook.
  6. They commented on the process as well as the results.


Group Three

number of students: 10, age: 17-year-olds, level: B1-B2

The technique I applied here was the same as with Group 1 and again, it took up the whole 45-minute lesson. However, the texts I had chosen were new to Sts. I decided to go for 5 job adverts from a page in the coursebook we hadn’t covered yet. Again, each text was assigned to 2 students. Before I revealed what we were going to do, we discussed some of the specifics of job ads, such as the style and form in which they are written.

As the language used in ads is specific (some words are often omitted, for example), Sts had to apply a slightly different approach to translation. In other words, they had to keep the genre in mind, not just the right choice of vocabulary and grammar. This was very challenging but feasible as they are more advanced than the other groups.


Group Four

number of students: 13, age: 16-year-olds, level: lower B1

With this group, I chose the same technique as with Group 2 (mainly for time constraints). I chose two paragraphs from a coursebook text on cybercrime Sts were familiar with. The activity went well until I found out that an odd number of Sts is an issue. There was no way to swap the Czech translations so that everybody had a different piece of text. So one student ended up back-translating her own translation. This, however, turned out to be another interesting variation.


My random observations/deductions/guesses/hunches: 

  1. Judging by the way they approached the task, some Sts seemed to really enjoy the activity – especially those who are not so keen on speaking activities and prefer quiet, individual work.
  2. It was motivating for those students who have a wide range of vocabulary but are not very confident speakers. It was also motivating for those who are good at their mother tongue.
  3. Many students were surprised how difficult it is to produce a decent piece of Czech text.
  4. I observed that during the polishing stage, Sts finally broke free from English and their improvements developed with each go.
  5. Most Sts felt that translating from English into Czech is easier.
  6. The self-feedback stage – after Sts had compared the English translations against the original text – seemed too quick and somewhat insufficient, from my point of view. Some Sts looked too happy with what they had produced. Thus I insisted on them physically highlighting the areas that differed/deviated from the original in some way. I pointed out, though, that deviations don’t necessarily mean errors (but they may, of course). Anyway, I suspect that the analysis should happen in a subsequent lesson – it’s simply too much to manage all the stages within one class.
  7. I’d like to add that I believe that back-translating your own translation (Group 1 and 3) has different benefits than when you back-translate somebody else’s translation (Group 2 and 4) – especially from the vocabulary retention perspective.
  8. If you don’t know which variation of the activity to choose, set your learning goals first. If you want your students to learn how to write a job advert in English, go for option 1 (back-translating one’s own translation). However, if you want them to practice translation skills as such or if you want to recycle a piece of text, choose option 2 (back-translating somebody else’s translation).
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