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 …… 🙂








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.




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! 🙂


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).

No-prep activity bank – I’m you and you are me

IMG_20170408_112007Earlier today in class, I tried another no-prep activity I had learned from Simon Gill at the 20th P.A.R.K. conference in Brno. Simon had a presentation on drills and one of the tips he mentioned was an activity called I’m you and you are me. It immediately caught my attention since I thought the activity had a great potential.

I actually tried it three times today – twice as a short, warm-up activity after the weekend and once as a 45-minute lesson. In this post, I’d like to focus on the latter.

The class I used it with is my own class (I’m their homeroom teacher). So apart from having a clear language-related aim, I thought it would be a good idea to use it as a team-building activity, from which I could learn a bit more than what mistakes they tend to make.

I put the following structures on the board:

  1. I like
  2. I hate
  3. I always
  4. I sometimes
  5. I never
  6. I can
  7. I can’t
  8. I have got
  9. I haven’t got
  10. My …

I asked Sts to take out their pens and exercise books. I got them to write ten sentences starting with the structures above. However, they had to speak on behalf of the person sitting next to them.

When they finished, I asked them to swap their exercise books, read the sentences their partner had written and comment on them. Then they had to tell me how much they thought they know each other based on the correctness of the statements. They expressed this in a percentage.

Then I said: Well, this is how you know each other in pairs. Let’s have a look at how well you know each other as a class. Then everybody had to imagine they were one specific person in the class – Person A. Everybody, including Person A, had to write a sentence in the same vein as in the previous stage of the activity (they could choose any of the structures above or invent their own). Then we went on to pretend we were all person B. This continued until everybody had 14 different sentences (there were 14 people in the class as you can guess).

  1. Person A (they actually wrote the person’s name): Example: I am very clever and I have very good marks at school.
  2. Person B: Example: I like to walk in the forest alone and think about interesting things.
  3. etc.

Then I said: Now I suspect that everybody is curious to see what other people have written about them. We passed the exercise books around the class so that everybody could read the sentence next to his/her name and comment on it; if it was true, they ticked it, if not, they made a cross next to it and explained what was wrong.

Then I inquired if any of the sentences were offensive or if anything the Sts read about themselves made them feel uncomfortable. Nobody reacted to this so I invited the class to share the sentences again by saying them out loud. All the Sts, one by one, shared all the sentences about Person A. I asked them to do it briskly with no interruptions, i.e.

  • I’m clever.
  • I have good marks at school.
  • I’m a good student.
  • etc.

This stage was really powerful.

Well, they say that personalised activities are good because we people like to talk about ourselves. I’d say we also like to hear what other folks think and say about us (especially if it’s positive). Also, I’ve noticed that for teenage students it’s not always easy to speak about themselves; I’d say it’s much less challenging for them to express what they think about their peers and by expressing what they think about others they actually learn a lot about themselves.

You may have noticed that the structures I had put on the board were quite simple. However, from an L2 teacher’s point of view, the language the students then produced was quite interesting since I could take a mental note of what some of the problematic areas were. I particularly liked the fact that the students practised all the four skills – writing, speaking, reading and listening.

I’d finally like to add that I love the idea of the original activity because it’s much better to speak about somebody if you use *I *than if you use *he/she* or *you*. By having to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes, you don’t point to that person directly and you try to understand them. This, I believe, fosters compassion and builds mutual respect.

Summary of a plenary talk – How to achieve flow in language learning

If you try to remember some of the moments in your life when you felt really happy, you may come to a conclusion that these were the moments when you were so immersed in what you were doing that you completely lost track of time. This phenomenon is described in contemporary psychology as a state of flow. One of the pioneers of the research on flow is Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

It is argued that a flow state is characterized by the absence of emotion – a complete loss of self-consciousness. However, in retrospect, the flow activity may be described as enjoyable and even exhilarating.


In her plenary talk for the 20th P. A. R. K. conference in Brno, Christina Latham-Koenig explains that flow, the secret to happiness, can contribute to successful language learning.

She maintains that to achieve flow, activities should have clear aims, clear and immediate feedback and that there should be a balance between challenge and ability. If an activity is too challenging, teachers (coursebooks authors) should provide plenty of support. On the other hand, if an activity appears to be too easy, extra challenge is needed.

Here are some of the ways of adding extra support:

  • demonstrate an activity yourself first and don’t be afraid of TTT (take teacher talking time as extra exposure to the target language)
  • from prompts, elicit the whole sentences so that the task goes smoothly later on
  • elicit vocabulary before the activity starts
  • use scene-setters and follow-up questions as an open class activity rather than part of pairwork, for example
  • write possible responses on the board so that Sts can see them (and actually use them) all the time during the activity
  • help with ideas, not just language
  • help Sts to start the activity (this can be the most difficult part for them)
  • give Sts plenty of time to plan and rehearse

If extra challenge is needed

  • get Sts to return questions with “What about you?” responses
  • insist on Sts asking for and giving more information
  • provide Sts with more sophisticated language
  • set a time limit (and insist on Sts talking all the time)
  • insist on Sts using specific language

Christina Latham-Koenig then elaborates a bit more on listening activities. She suggests the following ways of adding extra support:

  • check the script beforehand and think of ways of pre-teaching language
  • pre-teach cultural information as well
  • get Sts to have a final listen with the script
  • pause in order to break the listening into small chunks (concentration span has gone down over years, she argues)
  • pause in order to give Sts time to write (multitasking is difficult)
  • tell Sts to listen without any task at first so that they can get used to the accent, for example

As far as the extra challenge is concerned, you can

  • just play the audio once (not twice as we usually do)
  • when doing T/F statements, ask why a statement is false
  • use the audio script afterwards for teaching some extra language

I dare say that most of us teachers would admit that we sometimes feel that an activity is a bit too challenging or not challenging enough. However, no matter how much we plan, we might not always be prepared for such a situation. That’s why I really liked Christina Latham-Koenig’s talk – she equips us teachers with a handful of useful tips on how to make our lessons more engaging.


No-prep activity bank: Decribe and draw

I’m happy to announce that my bank of no-prep classroom tips has just been extended by one more activity. Earlier today, I had a group of 12-year-olds who desperately needed some speaking practice (I thought). The trouble is that with young kids, the range of topics for free speaking practice is rather limited so I had to rack my brains a bit before I came up with a meaningful, engaging activity which would fit into my plan.

Luckily I remembered the classic, information-gap type of activity called Describe and Draw – Student A describes a picture to Student B and Student B draws what Student A is describing without looking at the picture. I normally ask students to choose images from the coursebook, but this time, unfortunately, there were no suitable visuals they wouldn’t already be familiar with.

So I searched the internet and found this page with lots of great stuff for younger children. I deliberately chose pictures crammed with people and objects of all sorts.


I adjusted the seating arrangement so that Student A could see the screen above the board but Students B couldn’t. I projected the first picture.

Student A then described all the scene using English only while Student B sketched as much as possible according to Student A’s instructions.

After they finished (this phase lasted for approximately 10 minutes), Student B was allowed to look at the screen. Needless to say, most of them stared in utter amazement at the original image – the artists were obviously shocked by what appeared in front of them in contrast with what they had just produced. Anyway, then I asked the students to swap seats and now Student B described a new picture to Student A.

I noticed immediately that the atmosphere changed a bit the second time – the artists, as well as the speakers, concentrated on the task a bit more and they started working more systematically. Both times, they used plenty of gestures and they also worked with dictionaries which I had provided earlier on. Also, I heard them ask for clarification from time to time. The situation was complicated by the fact that the partners sat opposite each other so the speakers actually saw a mirror image of what they were describing. However, based on my observations, this was not a big issue. To the contrary, it required even more clarification strategies and thus more speaking practice.

Quite naturally, the students used some useful language points, such as prepositions of place, the present continuous tense, vocabulary related to outdoor activities and leisure time, and, to my pleasure, comparatives (which we had focused on in the previous lessons).

To wind up the activity, I asked the students for some reflection. For example, I asked them which picture was more difficult/ easier to describe, nicer/more interesting/more colourful, etc. (comparatives again!).

I then put them into two groups (Student As and Student Bs). Their final task was to compare the drawings within the group and say which pictures were closest /furthest from reality, what was missing, what was really funny, what was in the wrong place, what was too big/small, etc. Overall, they enjoyed the activity and from my viewpoint, it was a really productive lesson.



Behind the scenes of your blog – feelings


Two things happened lately which encouraged me to write up this post.

Firstly, one of the most prolific and helpful bloggers in the ELT blogosphere recently started a blog challenge called Behind the Scenes of Your Blog and directly addressed me on Twitter (see the tweet below). Well, it’s too irresistible not to give it a try in some way or another. I should add that Tekhnologic’s idea was originally inspired by James Taylor’s fabulous post which you can read here.


No matter how much I hate labelling and try to avoid it at all costs, I recently got a label myself. Once in a while, students at our institution publish a school magazine for which they interview local teachers. They decided it was my turn this time and the interview appeared in the latest issue of the publication.

In the introductory paragraph, the authors (two 15-year old girls, students of mine) use the following words: a popular teacher and a blogger. It really made me smile when I read the draft for the first time. They might have called me a teacher and a mother of three but they didn’t. Ironically, I don’t think I ever mention my blog to my students but somehow they know. And they must think blogging really matters to me.

Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that the label blogger has a slightly negative connotation in the area where I live – at least to specific groups of people. I don’t fully understand the reasons behind this; I guess it’s probably because everybody blogs or makes YouTube videos these days and some people are simply not very comfortable with the idea of sharing personal stuff online. Also, I suspect that we Czechs are not used to promoting ourselves openly; we see it as a little embarrassing and to be frank, I had to overcome these emotions myself as well.

So when I read the interview, for a fleeting moment, I suddenly felt a little ridiculous again. Then I realised that the problem is the language in which the text was written. I mean, in English, the words blogger or blogging are used frequently, naturally and quite neutrally. However, when embedded in a piece of text written in Czech it somehow feels too extravagant, too trendy – even a little infantile. In other words, the word doesn’t sound serious enough for an experienced teacher working in the State Sector of education.

In this short post, I wanted to explain that a lot is going on behind the scenes of one’s blog – it’s not only about writing techniques or timing – it’s also about the way the blogger and others feel about blogging. I hope I managed to get the message across. 🙂