Monthly Archives: October 2015

International English Exams Are Approaching: Time to Work on Motivation

The White Rabbit

The White Rabbit, ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’

(Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

No matter how self-confident our students are, whenever the countdown for international language exams begins many of them start getting worried about going through that experience. That’s the time when us, teachers, have to swing into action and start building our students’ confidence so that they can achieve their peace of mind for what comes next.

Although some students may have already sat for previous international exams, some others may have not so they might not be familiar with the experience. The best way of dealing with the unknown is making it familiar. Some points I would recommend covering to address this issue are the following:

Answer sheerts1. Go over each of the sections of the exam paper and spend time on the strategies for dealing with each of the exercises. There are usually tip boxes in the course books that are about exam preparation with useful pieces of advice on ways of approaching each of the tasks. In order to reduce anxiety, students need to know the exact format of the exam, the number of parts/sections and what it is expected from them in each part. Regardless of the level, if the students are not acquainted with the exam structure and the techniques about how to do each task, then they are at a disadvantage.

2. Timing: good time management in international language exams is a must. After having received precise information about the structure and sections of the exams, students have to be trained to perform the tasks within the estimated time. And this includes not only writing their answers on their exam papers – as they are doing the exam, but also copying the answers onto their answer sheets. Most mock exams also come with the answer sheets so we can provide our students with both, exam papers and answer sheets so they can time themselves on how long it takes them to do the whole thing, just as they will do on the exam date.

3. Many of the examinations institutions have lots of videos online showing, for instance, the speaking part of the exams. It’s not enough to explain the exam situation to the students; I mean, you can explain that they are going to work in pairs/individually, the number of examiners that they are going to find in the examination room, the time it takes to perform the task, among others. Nevertheless, a video can give them a clear picture of what to expect. Tips: a. you can recreate the exam situation as such with your students and some other colleagues, depending on the number of examiners that the exam may involve; b. you can video the whole situation so that then you can reflect with your students on their strengths and weaknesses.

4. Working on feedback together: give feedback but, most importantly, practice feedforward based on your students’ performance. Provide them with the tools and any language they may need to sort out their difficulties with the different tasks. If they have the “weapons” and a clear guidance of how to anticipate problems based on their frequent mistakes, they will probably feel more confident. Teach them to be “their own teacher” by resorting to self-correction the moment of submitting a final answer to their tasks.

Earlier this year on a teachers’ course on international English exams I was shown a very nice video about standardized tests in general but that can work well with our language learners. It’s called “This test does not define you”, by Kumar Sathy. I think it could be an excellent way to round off the exam preparation. I would play the video the very last week before our students actually sit for their exams.

So, are you ready to help your students get the motivation they need to take up the exam challenge?

(Image credits: The White Rabbit from ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. Downloaded from the British Library)


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Filed under Exam strategies, Language Exams, Motivation

Off with their heads!

Downsizing: a Business English lesson using film extracts

Off with their heads!

How many times did it happen to you that you were dealing with a lesson on a specific topic and suddenly you had to change plans and digress for a class or two because the students’ needs required you to do so?

Well, the situation that I’m going to share with you right now is one of those cases. The important thing here is that far from being inconvenient or annoying, changing the course of the class every now and then to meet our students’ immediate needs is all that matters.

Context:  one-to-one, upper intermediate Business English lessons. My student had been absent for two classes but that class he could make it. He looked worried. I asked about the reason for his absences and we engaged in deep conversation: his multinational company needed to downsize. His position wasn’t at risk but he was involved in something he wasn’t feeling so comfortable with – he was part of the firing committee, and needed to choose who from his department had to be laid off and later have private meetings to tell them the bad news.

Food for thought: since our lesson for that day was not directly related to “firing and hiring” we went on with what was planned for that day. However, for the next class I did some research online to see what was available in terms of firing material that could be exploited in class. I wanted to take advantage of my student’s opinions and feelings since the content was already there for us to make use of it. That is how all of sudden I remembered this film I had seen called “Up in the Air” starring George Clooney. Does it ring a bell? It’s a comedy-drama film whose main character travels for his company in order to fire employees that working for other companies; that is to say, his company is hired by other companies to do the tough work – firing people. The thing is that now his own company needs to cut costs and they decide to implement a “virtual firing” approach instead of wasting money on “face-to-face firing meetings”. That’s why I thought it would be useful to deal with some extracts of this film at that exact time.

Next steps – speaking and listening tasks: when my student came the next class, as a lead-in task we started talking about his feelings about the situation his company was going through, the reasons that led his company to downsize, and how employees might react at the moment of receiving the news based on their personalities. Then I asked him if he thought that there was any way of firing people other than in face-to-face meetings. He said he didn’t. Later, I told him we were going to watch a scene of a film in which a new way of firing employees was introduced. I just told him to watch it and that later we would discuss it. We watched this extract: Up in the Air 1. As a post-video task we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of this new approach to firing employees and if this was feasible to be done in his working context. After he said that the whole idea seemed kind of crazy to him, he said he wouldn’t find it true to life for an employee to react in such an indifferent way the moment he is being fired. And so this led me to introduce the next video extract which was this one: Up in the Air 2. The aim of the second extract was intended to prove he was right, that it wouldn’t be so easy for an employee to accept the news that they are being fired and that they can, in fact, ask for reasons or explanations about their dismissal. And we finally ended the series of activities by watching a third extract to see what a “virtual firing” situation would be like by watching an employee reacting in the most expected way: Up in the Air 3.

Why using these extracts from “Up in the Air” for a Business English class? Well, simply because,

  • the topic of firing and hiring is a recurrent one in business English course books
  • it provides a great context to practice speaking and listening skills – students talk about their reactions, other employees’ attitudes, the reasons why a company may need to downsize, among others
  • these listening and speaking tasks that I’ve just described are also a perfect opportunity to introduce vocabulary and expressions in relation to hiring and firing: hire, employ, take on staff, recruit people, contract, dismiss, make sb redundant, fire, give sb the sack, among others.


  • whenever you are planning to work with videos that are online, make sure that you download them onto your computer just in case the internet connection fails when you need to use it. And trust me, it happens, and quite often! So my suggestion is that you use video downloader software to be on the safe side. I use aTube Catcher, which you can download for free but there many more out there.
  • Make sure the extracts aren’t too long. The “less is more” proverb works perfectly for video activities. The emphasis here is on the discussion that arises from the topic dealt with in the video and the opportunity it gives us to present new vocabulary and expressions as well.

I hope this lesson proves useful 😉

(Image credits: “Off with their heads” by Heather Wizell,, Creative Commons)

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Filed under Business English, Using videos in ELT

Winning the Headway Scholarship – could you be next?

Why not giving it a try?

Oxford University Press

Natalia with the other 2015 winners and Liz Soars, Headway author. From left to right: Inanc Karagoz (Turkey); Svetlana Kandybovich (Montenegro); Natalia Valentini (Argentina); Liz Soars (Headway author); Elena Ryabova (Russia); Erika Orban (Hungary); Xiaoyan Deng (China). Natalia with the other 2015 winners and Liz Soars, Headway author.
From left to right: Inanc Karagoz (Turkey); Svetlana Kandybovich (Montenegro); Natalia Valentini (Argentina); Liz Soars (Headway author); Elena Ryabova (Russia); Erika Orban (Hungary); Xiaoyan Deng (China).

Ever wanted to know what it’s like to win the Headway Scholarship, and spend two weeks on an all-inclusive teacher training course at Exeter College in Oxford?

Natalia Valentini, one of our 2015 winners, and Gloria Rossa, one of our 2014 winners, reveal how they found the experience.

This could be you next year – enter today!

Natalia Valentini – Headway Scholarship 2015 winner from Argentina

Every August just after the winter holidays, I’ve been experiencing this burning desire to explore what it is like to live, study or work in a foreign country. As a teacher and translator there came a point in my professional life when I started thinking that in…

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Filed under EFL teacher, Professional development, Teacher training

A “keep talking” activity


I’m the teacher of this group of pre-FCE level students who are very enthusiastic about their English lessons. Once, we were dealing with a speaking activity about “jobs” and as a warm-up activity they had to match a set of questions with their answers. The questions were: “What do you do?”, “What’s a typical day in your job?” and “What do you like most about your job?”, among others. The focus was on using specific vocabulary for different professions/occupations and typical verbs to describe the duties and responsibilities related to those jobs.

To my surprise, they really enjoyed doing that activity so, on the spot, I assigned some other jobs for each of them to talk about based on their parents’. They had so much fun that I decided I had to take advantage of their interest and think of something else. And that is how I came up with the idea of preparing a PowerPoint presentation with images of different and unusual professions together with images about what those jobs involve so that they would keep on talking for as long as the presentation for that job lasted.

My intention was to recycle the vocabulary and expressions they already know (I’m in charge of, my job involves + “ing”, I’m responsible for + noun/-ing form, I’m involved in…) but to introduce new words as well, depending on the job shown on the presentation.

This is a language-generating activity that also aims at contributing to students’ fluency. As you change slides, they have to think of specific verbs to use with the nouns and phrases shown. The teacher should wait until they have finished describing each slide in order to move on to the next; the students are the ones that will set the pace of the activity as they describe the slides. To round off the activity there is a gag at the end that students can also describe.

As a teacher, you can plan ahead which jobs you want to deal with and make your own presentations with text and images of your choice. You will see how interest-grabbing this activity can be. Here’s an example of one of the jobs we’ve worked with: Speaking task_Pre FCE

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Filed under ELT activities for teenagers, Materials design

“I’m investigating things that begin with the letter M”

The Mad Hattter (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll)


There are some things which always seem to happen in the same way. In the context of ELT we can clearly think of typical examples in terms of how some lessons are structured. That is, it’s common for a lesson on the topic of food to be related to the grammar point on imperatives. Can you guess the rest of the context? I’m sure you’ve done it already. Yes, a recipe with activities such as putting it in order, filling in the blanks with ingredients and completing with imperative verbs, among others. That’s quite predictable, right?

As a teacher, I’m not that much into predictable things and most probably you aren’t either. The chances are that if we get bored with some tasks so will our students. So, what if we find the way of giving those activities a twist so as to make them more engaging for them? While I was teaching my 3rd grade students they suggested bringing their own ingredients and following some of the recipes from the course book in class, which I thought was a very good opportunity to make use of the language in an authentic context and for a real purpose.

By now I guess you must be thinking: “where’s the new twist?” Well, here it comes: a kind of MasterChef Junior workshop but with a different aim which is not to compete but to work collaboratively to put the steps of a basic recipe in order and then follow them altogether, as participants of the show.

Children love watching the reality show so it would be a plus if we could recreate the setting so that they feel part of that TV cookery show. By that I mean: designing badges with the name of the show and their own names, making sure students bring their own aprons or toques (chef’s hat), sticking posters or signs on the walls with the name of the show, and also having all the ingredients and kitchen utensils at hand. Don’t forget to take the mobile phone or (video) cameras, too. That will allow you to take pictures or film the process so that they later watch what they have done altogether.

Since this activity was prepared for 3rd grade students and we don’t have an oven or a cooker at the academy, the recipes are of very basic food: a giant sandwich, a banana split dessert, a choco-cake that requires no baking -nothing too complicated.

So, how do we put these ideas into action? Here are some tips:

  • Decorate the classroom with MasterChef logos and stick a poster on the wall with the logo and the name of all the students. If you have a whiteboard and a projector, then you can prepare the sign on the computer and show it on the board during the workshop.
  • Give students their toques and participant badges.
  • Make sure you have a desk where all the ingredients are placed. On that table, there you should also put two envelopes: one with a recipe of how to prepare a snack and the other with a recipe of a dessert.
  • The students will have to read the title of the recipe and the ingredients they need. They will go to the desk where the ingredients are and take them another desk.
  • The envelopes also have the steps of the recipes on different pieces of paper which indicate which step it is. Each of the students has to pick one piece of paper and then they have to put them in order.
  • After that, they will start following the recipe by performing each of the tasks in the order the pieces of paper specify.
  • Once they have finished with the snack, they will do the same with the dessert envelope.
  • To set the atmosphere, use phrases taken from the show, such as: “Is everyone ready?” so that the students can answer: “Yes, teacher/chef!!”. They simply love this part. It gets their adrenaline going!

So, going back to the intertextuality in the title: I investigated a thing beginning with the letter “M” in class, namely MasterChef Junior, and it worked!  You are welcome to try this activity and then let me know how it goes. Good luck 😉

You can find the recipies and instructions and related MasterChef Junior Workshop materials for this lesson here.


Filed under ELT, ELT activities for children, Materials design