Helping your students succeed

img_20160730_153211In this post, I’d like to ask the reader a somewhat loaded tricky question: how do you help your students succeed in tests and exams? In your mind’s eye, tick the most appropriate answer(s):

  1. I dumb down my tests so that my students get high scores and good grades. The kids are motivated and everybody’s happy.
  2. I allow my students to cheat cooperate with their peers during exams.
  3. I show them the test beforehand.
  4. I use different ways to assess my students cause tests suck and grades are useless.
  5. Apart from teaching my students various real-life communication and learning strategies, I also familiarize them with the right test-taking tactics.


I’ve probably committed all of the acts above. Some of them were acts of mercy, others were rather acts of surrender. Either way, some of them were more effective than others, but only one of them has proven truly useful in my teaching and educational context – number 5. This is probably why I catch myself talking about learning and test-taking strategies explicitly more than I did in the past. I do so because I feel this approach creates a safe learning environment, where even the less talented language learners have something to hold on to.

These are three examples of what I do in my lessons:

1) After a vocabulary test, for example, I ask the most successful students to describe in detail how they revised for the test. This is very effective and motivating, especially with young learners, who love to talk about what they do. Also, this highlights their success in an  inconspicuous way. Older learners are also very happy when you notice their laboriously-made grids and charts lying on their desks. Anyway, at the end of the lesson, we always have a nice collection of inspiring ideas plus I usually throw in a couple of my own suggestions.

2) Before a revision vocabulary test, I like to ask my students to test each other in pairs. Today, they worked with their vocabulary lists at the back of their workbooks; Student A read the Czech words one by one and their partner, Student B, had to translate them into English. Once Student B couldn’t say the word in English, s/he had to write it down along with the Czech equivalent. After some time they changed roles. Each student ended up with a list of the most problematic words. As their homework assignment, they are supposed to ask a family member to test the problematic words they have written down using a similar procedure – anytime the student doesn’t know the word, they have to write it down again. The list will be shorter and shorter until they can say all the words correctly. I thought it’s a good idea to involve the student’s family in the learning process.

3) Reading comprehension exercises is something my students find particularly challenging. All those multiple choice and true/false exercises make them feel uncomfortable. So we start with short texts very early on. I insist on Ss underlining/highlighting the key words and expressions, and I always want evidence justifying their answer – whatever the answer is. Once the answer is incorrect, it’s difficult for them to find the proof and that’s the moment when they immediately realize the mistake. This procedure eliminates guessing, cheating and sloppy work in general. I usually take the time to draw grids on the board and we slowly go through all the answers and evidence together.


I believe that my students feel safer and are more successful if I show them that I care about the way they learn. I want them to know that success doesn’t come easy and they have to do something to achieve it. But first, they need to know what to do. In other words, it’s important to provide them with a variety of learning tools and test-taking strategies.

Do you have any special strategies to help your students to succeed?


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A lesson based on Facebook content – pros and cons

I don’t know about you but I’ve had my periods on and off Facebook; I even used to hate so much that I wanted to deactivate my account. But now I’d say I’m on good terms with it, mainly because it can be a great source of teaching ideas. I use an idea from FB at least once a week in the classroom. This is usually a warm-up or a filler. However, I’ve also been able to create a complete lesson based on a set of ideas I came across on FB.

I recently started teaching an intermediate class (18-year-olds) for which I have no coursebook. This class is called Skills and it’s mainly content-based, which basically means I don’t teach grammar at all explicitly. Instead, we discuss various topics – usually fact-related. So far, we’ve covered the Czech Republic and Prague. The next topic is the EU, which is obviously a topic most teenage students could easily live without. There’s one issue, though, which is closely linked to the topic of the European Union and which my students usually find quite thought-provoking – immigration. So I searched through FB to find something interesting to engage my students and give them some food for thought.

Below is a plan I made.

Note: if you bear with me till the end of the post, I’ll share some potential pitfalls related to teaching a lesson based on Facebook content.

Pre-reading activity

  • Make a list of 10 European countries which you think have the strongest economies.
  • Where do you think the majority of immigrants come from in these countries?


Read the abstract from this article. Compare the information it provides with your answers to the Qs above:

Here’s the text (a shortened, printed version will be given to Ss): Did you know that Polish people represent the highest percentage of the foreign-born population in Norway? Or that the largest proportion of immigrants to the Republic of Ireland hail from the UK?

These maps, created by Jakub Marian, a Czech linguist, mathematician, and artist, are based on a 2015 study by the United Nations on international migration. They show European migration split into various numbers:

  1. Number of foreign-born people as a percentage of the total population

The population with the highest percentage of foreign-born people is Luxembourg (45.9%), followed by Switzerland (29.6%), Sweden (18.5%), Austria (17.4%), Estonia (15.8%) and Germany (14.5%). The UK comes in at 13.4%. Marian then mapped which countries have been most affected by the European migration crisis. Austria and Sweden were the only European countries to register an above 1% increase in their foreign-born populations as percentage of the total, while Germany showed a less than 1% increase.

  1. Where do the majority of immigrants come from?

The highest proportion of immigrants to the UK in 2015 hailed from India; for Norway, it’s Poland; and for Austria and Switzerland, it’s neighboring Germany. Most of the Republic of Ireland’s foreign-born population comes from the UK. France, Spain and Portugal’s immigrants come from further south (Algeria, Morocco and Angola respectively). For Greece and Macedonia, FYR, it’s Albanians. Poland and the Czech Republic saw the most immigrants from the Ukraine. In many eastern European countries, Russia has provided the most immigrants.

  1. How that number has changed in the past five years

For instance, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, and Norway, which showed the highest percentage of foreign-born people compared to overall population, also saw the highest increases in immigrant populations between 2010 and 2015. The UK and Finland followed close behind. The countries with the largest migrant populations settling elsewhere were Poland, Serbia, Germany, and Romania.

After reading:

Display the following four maps on the screen one by one. Ask Ss to explain what they can see (preferably in pairs first). Note: The maps relate to the text above. As Ss have copies of the text in front of them, they can easily refer to them if necessary.








Look at this picture and briefly describe it in pairs.


Listening and reading: 

Some reports say that there’s been a huge rise in racism after Brexit. Here’s a video which presents 5 ways you can combat it.

Watch the video.

There are some comments below the video. Look at some of them and decide which are racist and which of them are anti-racist?

  • Great video! Unfortunately, this only proves that Government and law are not working as if there’d be stricter rules out there for things like domestic abuse and racism, we would be able to fight them.
  • Been a huge rise in Media propaganda about racism after Brexit – as if wanting to be in control of your own home is wrong.
  • (reply to number 2): Stop invading and bombing other countries stop lecturing and stop imposing sanctions economics/etc on other countries if you do that you can control your shit as much as you like but until then…..
  • And sadly enough not even one of the victims in the video is white L That is racism in itself…
  • It’s such a shame this video only has 527k views. Yet, a cat licking a bowl of milk gets 34 million!

Writing and speaking:

Ss write their own comments (on a piece of paper) and then share the comments in class.


Possible dangers one should take into account when doing a lesson like this:

  • vulgar language in the authentic content (comments)
  • unsubstantiated and inaccurate information
  • the content of your lesson can disappear before you teach it, i.e. the authors can delete it for some reason
  • grammatical and spelling mistakes in authentic texts

I’d recommend telling your students about all the possible dangers related to an authentic content of this sort. Let them know that they can’t trust anything that they see without verifying the information. Facebook posts are supposed to shock people – make them cry, laugh or rage. As far as grammatical accuracy is concerned, tell them that this is what authentic language looks like – even though there are mistakes, they can still learn a lot from them. And some mistakes are not even mistakes but just varieties of English.


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Grab the word

Those who regularly attend conferences know that the positive vibe one experiences there is highly addictive. I suppose that like drugs, the relaxed learning atmosphere affects the central nervous systems of the attendees and causes changes in their behavior and their mindsets. It surely does since grown-up people are willing to sit on the floor and play like kids!


So a few days ago, like every year around this time, I went to the IH Brno conference, where I attended several workshops. As usual, they were all excellent, but there were a couple of things that stood out for me.

In this post, I’d like to share an activity I liked so much that I decided to put it to the test first thing in the morning on Monday. The activity was originally shared by Ben Herbert (in the photo) and I chose the next-to-no-prep version. It comes in handy if you want your students to practice listening as well as vocabulary (and more).

This is what I did with my 14-year-olds:

I brought a few blank sheets of paper and a CD player with me to the lesson.

I quickly cut up the paper into small cards (I did this while students were doing some pair work). I put students into groups of 3-4 and I gave each group a set of the blank cards (around 15, I guess). I chose a text called The Silk Road, which my students had already seen in the previous lesson. As I had found it pretty challenging, I thought it would be a good idea to recycle it once more.

I asked each member of the group to take a pen and then I dictated some target vocabulary from the text, which the students put on the cards. I found this stage really valuable because a few students had trouble writing some of the words correctly, which consequently made them negotiate a bit in groups. Anyway, they cooperated nicely and managed to complete the first task successfully.

The groups were then asked to spread the word cards on their desks face up. I played the recording and each time the students heard one of the words, one of them (the fastest one) grabbed it. The student with the biggest number of cards was the winner. As a follow-up activity, I asked the students to place the words face down in a pile and they took turns to describe the words.

Here are some points I’d like to highlight now.

I remember very clearly that when I did the activity with my Student hat on, I used a lot of prediction (even though we didn’t know the text in advance). In other words, I simply guessed what word will come next (lexical priming comes to mind now). During the activity in the classroom, I observed my students and I noticed that some of them, like me, grabbed the word a millisecond before they actually heard it. This may have been due to the fact that they were already familiar with the text, but as I had tried it out myself before, I can claim that this type of prediction takes place even with unfamiliar texts (of course it does!).

Anyways, I think this activity is perfect for recycling texts your students find boring or long. The gamelike element makes it more exciting and you can bet that your students will fully concentrate on the task. I should mention that in the beginning, my students got too exhilarated and thus a bit loud. However, they soon realized that they must concentrate and be quiet.

There’s one tweak I’d like to include next time – I’d like to include two or three distractors (i.e. words that are NOT in the text) because it’s best if more that one word is left on the desk when the activity is almost over.

Needless to say, you can store the words in a box and use them again for revision or other vocabulary games.

Well, I’m loving this activity!🙂




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A message that made my day

20160717_181713Do you sometimes have those moments in your career when you feel you are no good? And then, when you finally surrender to the fact that you will probably never get in return what you think you deserve, something unexpected happens – something that brings all the hope back again. This is the moment when you realize that not only do you always get in return all the energy you have invested in teaching and loving your students, but you get all the recognition you’ve desperately longed for.

I’m proud to share a message I recently got from a former student of mine. Although he was always a true pleasure to work with, his kind words came to me as a real surprise.



What I appreciated most about this particular student was his amazing ability of self-reflection; when something went wrong, he immediately took full responsibility. I’m stressing this because I’ve observed that those who always criticize others for their own failures are those who rarely acknowledge the help of others when they succeed. This is one of the reasons why his words are so dear to me.



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Make space for the positive

IMG_20160807_124643It was the first week in August. We were on holiday, strolling happily around a gorgeous lake in the south of Moravia when my husband suddenly asked: When exactly do you start work this year?  I remember my inward reaction; I was shocked surprised that he felt like talking about school (he’s an educator too) in such a beautiful, carefree moment. I couldn’t understand the fact that school had come to his mind at all. I think I even panicked a little. I answered hurriedly and then my gaze fell on the lovely water surface, the wild ducks and all the lush greenery again. Work. Something so distant. A different life. Another dimension….

The thought that my husband’s question had made me feel so frustrated was even more disturbing that the feeling itself. This is the way mind likes torturing us. It creates negative feelings, which it then wants to push away, but it actually does more harm than good doing so.

Fast forward to the present moment. I start work in two days. I think it was about a week ago – when it cooled down a little and I started bumping into my students here and there – that I could again feel the pleasant tickling that I feel each year around this time. I hadn’t done anything in particular to bring this emotion about. It just came to me; the way it had been coming for years. And I was really happy because at one point I feared that I had lost some of my enthusiasm and love for teaching. But apparently, I’m back in the saddle. So, I guess, everything comes at the right time and when the time comes, it’s good to make space for the positive.

I’m well aware of the fact that many of our students feel the same way, possibly even worse. I wonder whether they get back in the saddle as quickly as we teachers do or whether the period of frustration goes on a little longer. I suspect the latter is true.🙂 Anyway, I think I’ll definitely show a little more compassion for their initial lack of enthusiasm this year.

Do you sometimes have similar feelings during the summer holidays?  How do you deal with them?



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Students used to be smarter?

IMG_20160807_193944I know that some teachers have ready-made tests and like to use them over and over again. It unquestionably has several advantages – it saves the teacher’s time and it is a reliable tool for comparison, i.e. for measuring how a current group of students differs from the previous years’ groups in terms of knowledge and skills. Or is it reliable?

I remember a colleague I used to work with who was rather exasperated by the fact that students’ knowledge and skills deteriorate from year to year so he couldn’t recycle his tests anymore. In fact, he was rather stubborn and he did recycle his tests for some time until he found out it was a waste of time and energy. His temporary inflexibility resulted in bitter disappointment on his part, as well as the students’ part. He was exasperated, as I said, while his students were frustrated by bad grades. He came up with good excuses, though; he said he’d been teaching the same stuff in the same way for many years so it must be the students’ fault – not his. He concluded: students simply used to be smarter.

I’m not sure whether it’s a good idea to recycle ready-made tests this way and I’m not even sure whether students used to be smarter. Surely, they were different. Everything was different. So, logically, the tests must be different.

I recently read an article which shared a very interesting survey. Some experts compared today’s students with their parents’ generation in terms of skills and knowledge (today’s students got the same questions as their predecessors in 1996). And ‘the parents’ lost the game. To cut it short (and simplify it), the survey showed that today’s kids had done better in maths, Czech, and science. The biggest improvement was, quite understandably, in English as a foreign language. The thing is that in the past, we used to be a communist country with a little possibility of travelling. Generally, there were few technologies, such as the internet, and few reading/listening materials, which would have helped us work on our English outside of the regular English lessons. The teaching methods at school were somewhat prehistoric anyway.

So, I believe that while recycling tests can be useful under certain circumstances, doing it just to prove that knowledge is something static and unchangeable, even from the cross-generation point of view, is not exactly beneficial.

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Blog challenge: The type of teacher I’d appreciate learning from

20160817_185050One of the most interesting definitions of a good teacher I’ve recently heard was made by Josette LeBlanc on Maria Theologidou’s blog. In an interview, Maria asks Josette what was the moment she realized teaching was her call. Josette concludes her answer saying this:

… since my graduation [from the SIT Graduate Institute], I’ve been working on becoming the type of teacher I’d appreciate learning from.

This sentence immediately stood out for me. Although I can only guess what Josette means by her words, to me, “the type of teacher I’d appreciate learning from” sounds like a perfect definition of what makes a good teacher because, after all, one always wants the best for themselves.

So, one of the easiest ways of finding out how to do our job well, or at least in good conscience, we teachers can start by asking ourselves what type of teacher we would appreciate learning from. The reader may object that we probably do it subconsciously to some extent all the time. Also, each and every one of us has different expectations and these expectations keep changing over time so what we think at a given moment is never a universal truth. But I believe it’s a good start, a useful springboard for our future professional development and most importantly, it’s good for our students’ well-being.

So now I’m going to stop babbling and I’ll get to the point – to actually answering the question. To be able to do this, I’ll have to imagine myself sitting in the classroom as a student. I’ll have to go through a list of subjects I had at school, not just English as a foreign language, which, unlike maths, for example, I learned fairly easily and quickly. I’ll probably have to picture all the teachers I remember and pick the qualities which I appreciated at that time (or which I eventually realized were positives).

So, here goes.

The type of teacher I’d appreciate learning from:

  1. Someone who’s fully present in the classroom all the time, carefully registering what’s happening around. I believe attentive presence results in fairness and prevents conflicts.
  2. Someone who’s consistent even when it’s painful.
  3. Someone who loves the subject s/he teaches and shows others how they can learn to love it. In other words, someone who can pass his/her passion/love on to students.
  4. Someone who’s compassionate but not too ‘soft’.
  5. Someone who’s realistic regarding expectations and learning outcomes, i.e. someone who demands high but at the same time enables everybody to succeed.
  6. Someone who works hard but is not a workaholic. Teachers who have no life may take things too seriously and they may end up frustrated and burned out.

Now, I invite you to do the same if you have a spare minute or two. What type of teacher would you like to become, i.e. what type of teacher would you appreciate learning from?🙂

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