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.

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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.


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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.



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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. 🙂





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Translation in an L2 classroom? Yes.

IMG_20170327_110331Believe it or not, from time to time, an unexpected, real-life, natural, extra-curricular task comes up. And sometimes it’s worth giving it a chance even if it eats into the regular class time. You can always catch up so there’s no need to worry.

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to do some translations for the Erasmus+ project, namely English > Czech translations of texts the participating students had produced during an activity here in the Czech Republic. As part of the dissemination process, the English texts are translated into several European languages and they are shared on a website created by the Belgian partner.

At first, I planned to do the translations on my own, but then a cunning idea came to mind and I decided to assign the task to my students. And it proved to be a good decision in the end. As I later found out, it would have taken me ages to do it on my own.  Moreover, this type of learning experience was extremely beneficial for my intermediate students. Finally, I realised that spreading the results of the Erasmus+ project among other students in all possible ways is just the right type of dissemination.

The trouble is, though, that I don’t normally ask my students to translate texts. If I do ask them to do some translations, these are usually only sentences from Czech into English. Plus I assign such tasks to test the knowledge of vocabulary and grammar points. This time, however, they had to deal with semi-cohesive texts produced by students of other L1s – students they hadn’t even met before. This made the task a real challenge. Fortunately, the texts were accompanied by photos (and they had already been translated into several languages), which was helpful since my students had something to hold on to whenever they encountered a difficulty.

But it wasn’t an easy task anyways. I observed that my students mostly struggled to understand what the authors of the texts really meant. Occasionally, the wrong choice of English vocabulary (English was L2 for all the participants) made it impossible to decode the message. Ironically, my students also struggled with their own language, i.e. Czech. Some of the most problematic areas were, for example, an incorrect use of commas (too many or none), grammar mistakes which I think they would never make if they were writing their own texts in Czech, clumsy wording and sentence order, a tendency to avoid declension of proper names, wrong decoding of abbreviations and acronyms which needed to be translated, inappropriate use of spoken/colloquial language, etc.

IMG_20170327_110534However, I was very pleased to see my students collaborate and discuss the problems during the translation process; they asked one another for peer feedback, for synonyms, as well as for background knowledge they didn’t have in a particular field of expertise. Also, I was happy to see they used different translation strategies – some of them even used Google Translate in the early stages of the translation process, which, to be frank, I didn’t really mind as it only proved how tricky Google Translate can be. All in all, each of them approached the task in a slightly different way – some of them tended to hand the work in without any proofreading whatsoever, while others tried to refine the final product to its best by playing with words and sentence structure. Needless to say, the latter approach paid off.

My students probably didn’t see the activity as something to primarily help them learn English. However, I hope it helped them realise that translation is a difficult but rewarding skill, mainly because one needs to take into account meaning as well as a range of other issues, including form, register, style, idiom and metaphor. And some types of learner may find this type of work pleasantly challenging. Furthermore, translation requires accuracy, clarity and flexibility. It is quite time-consuming too – it took us two full lessons to finalise the products. Thus I’m well-aware of the fact that this activity couldn’t be done with every class; a highly-motivated group of fairly proficient language learners is definitely a must.

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Literal videos – the show goes on …

IMG_20170308_165728In my previous post, I wrote about the Erasmus+ project we had worked on in Diekirch, Luxembourg. I described the process of making literal videos and I announced I was planning to try this activity on a smaller scale with my own students. And I kept my promise.

This is what we’ve done so far: last Wednesday, I showed the results of the Erasmus+ project to a group of my B1 students and I suggested we could create something similar. They quite liked the idea so I asked them to look for suitable video clips they could work on.

The next day, we went to a PC room where the students worked in pairs (and a group of three). I handed out some headphones so that they didn’t disturb each other while listening to the videos.

When monitoring the class,  it struck me as surprising that two teams were describing the scenes in Czech. I implied that it was not a very good idea because then it might be too challenging and time-consuming to transfer the L1 lyrics to L2. Some of them agreed and switched into English.

One pair chose to take notes on paper while the others used a Word document. Needless to say, each team worked at a different pace and as we only had one lesson, I asked them to catch up at home if necessary.

We’ll continue on Monday and I think the products will be ready sometime next week. The most challenging part will definitely be the performance. Although this particular group of students is one of the most creative and enthusiastic bunches, singing live in front of the others is not an easy task for anybody.

Also, I’m not sure yet how we’ll present the results since we don’t have the equipment and software we had in Luxembourg. The students will probably have to find a karaoke version of the song and sing along with it, using their new lyrics, or we’ll mute the sound in the original video and they’ll sing a capella. We might also need to produce copies of the new lyrics so that we can follow easily. We don’t want to miss the jokes. I secretly count on the fact that my students are tech-savvy so hopefully, some of them may eventually come up with a way of inserting the new lyrics into the video.

There’s one more issue I’m a bit concerned about; I’m not sure how I will deal with students who are reluctant to share their results with the rest of the class. I’ll probably have to be tolerant and let them choose if they want to have a go or not. Well, it’s a process in progress so we’ll see.



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Literal Videos


I’ve just returned from rainy Diekirch, Luxembourg, where four students and three teachers from our school took part in an Erasmus+ activity. This time the activity revolved around literal videos.

A literal music video, also called a literal video version, is a parody of an official music video clip in which the lyrics have been replaced with lyrics that describe the visuals in the video. Literal video versions are usually based on music videos in which the imagery appears illogical, disconnected with the lyrics, and more concerned with impressive visuals than actual meaning (Wikipedia).

I’d never heard the concept before and I found it very interesting. Total Eclipse of the Heart Literal Video Version is probably the most famous video of this kind and this is what the students were shown first to get an idea of what they were supposed to do.

IMG_20170308_081745As mentioned above, the trick is to describe the scenes disconnected from the actual lyrics. In this particular video, there seems to be no connection whatsoever between the meaning of the lyric and the visuals, which makes the outcome of the parody absolutely hilarious.

The team of the Lycée Classique Diekirch decided to focus mainly on music from the 1980s since it was a boom of video clips with crazy visuals. The students were given a range of songs to choose from and had three days to work on their piece. On Day 3, the results of their hard work were presented.

Needless to say, the students benefitted from this collaborative activity enormously, especially language-wise. They had to come up with a new lyric which would match the original music. They also needed to get the rhythm right. Some groups even managed to come up with a rhyming version of the lyric. And they finally had to perform it live. What a challenge!

This is an example of what one of the groups did. I recorded their live performance with my smartphone so the quality of the video is very low (it’s a little shaky and dark but for the sake of demo it will suffice, I believe).

I’m sharing this on my blog because I think this idea could be easily adapted for an English class as well. Even if you don’t have all the equipment available (special software and a high-tech recording studio), you can still work on literal videos with your students in regular classes. These are the steps I jotted down while watching students work in Diekirch. While taking notes, I already made some adjustments for the procedure to suit my teaching context. I think that steps 6 and 7 can be easily skipped if necessary.


I think I’ll definitely try this with my students. I already have a particular group in mind – they are musical, creative and very enthusiastic. And I can’t wait to share the results here on my blog.


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