Tag Archives: Course design

Which language model should we teach?

logo new #2Listen to and download these podcasts from the iTunes Store here, our Soundcloud channel here or from this section of the blog.

In this The TEFL Show podcast we look at the various pronunciation models that teachers offer to students, with a particular focus on our experiences in Asia and some thoughts on linguistic imperialism and English as Lingua Franca.

We hope you enjoy it.

If you enjoyed this podcast, you can find the previous ones here.

The podcast music theme is under Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 International License and was downloaded from this website.

TESOL Convention 2015: ‘Gamification of your language learning course’ by Steven Carruthers by


The session started with (surprise, surprise!) a game. It was a classic bingo. The presenter read numbers and whoever got five in a row first had to shout bingo. This went on for a couple of minutes before we did some reflection.

gamification 1

The motivation was definitely very high. Without realising, we were all really focused on the task. If we were students, we would have also been practising both listening and identifying the target language, which in this case was numbers. However, there was one serious drawback. The game was very teacher-centred and there was no interaction between participants, who didn’t get a chance to practise actually saying the numbers.

This was solved with a very simple tweak. We now had to turn to the person next to us and work with them. We asked each other: ‘Do you have… (e.g. 3.476)?’ If our partner had the number, we could circle it. It continued until the first person got 5 in a row.

This time, apart from very high motivation also present in the initial task, the room was buzzing with conversations. Admittedly, they weren’t the most elaborate ones, but students would have not only practised receptive, but also productive skills. If we add some functional language to the mix:

  • Sorry, I didn’t catch that.
  • Could you say that again, please?
  • Do you mean e.g. 9835?

it will make the conversations even more productive and meaningful.

But what is gamification, anyway?

It refers to the use of game design and game mechanics in non-game contexts, e.g. English class. Its aim is to guide learners towards autonomy, mastery and purpose.

One of the crucial points raised was that when we consider using games in our classes, we need to carefully analyse what the Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) are, and how we can build these into the game. You can read more about SLOs here.

This is the basic route for writing SLOs Steven Carruthers suggested in his presentation:

gamification 3

Considering SLOs can help us determine what exactly we would like learners to achieve, how they should go about it and how we will know they have achieved the goals. In other words, we should think about:

  • game mechanics
  • goals
  • participation
  • obstacles
  • support
  • point structure
  • strategy
  • language level
  • achievement

Thinking carefully about SLOs can also help us give more concise and precise instructions. In the photo below, you can see how a very vague statement has been turned into a very specific one using the ABCs of SLOs:

gamification 4

So why bother gamifying your English language learning course? Well, some studies indicate that having a gamified structure in which students achieved badges for completing SLOs increased completion of modules. Also, even mundane tasks can be more engaging if gamified.

Interestingly, motivation and engagement are triggered by anticipation of achievement. That is, when we can almost see the finish line, when the goal is within our reach, we are much more likely to make that final push to reach it. However, too often we focus on the gap not the goal, i.e. this is how much you still don’t know; which is a rather negative way of looking at things and can thus be demotivating. On the other hand, if we were to focus on the outcomes, students are more likely to get there.

Finally, Steven showed us how taking SLOs into consideration, we can move away from a traditional grading system (top left hand corner) to one based on a achievable and relevant outcomes (bottom right hand corner) – he teaches academic listening skills:

gamification 5


Do you use games with your students? Do you incorporate SLOs? What does your grading strategy look like?

Would love to hear from you. And don’t forget to follow the blog on the right hand side to receive new posts regularly by email.


TESOL Convention 2015: ‘Building bridges between online corpora and grammar textbooks’ by Ashley Hew

One of the sessions I attended on Thursday morning after the one on apps and websites for teaching pronunciation, which I described here, was about teaching grammar in EAP settings using academic corpora.

In the workshop we looked at how Michigan Corpus, or the MICUSP, can be used in EAP classes to teach grammar. MICUSP consists only of academic essays written by students at the university of Michigan. Usually there are senior or graduate students and their work has been selected based on their academic achievements. The samples contain both native and non-native English speakers work.


If we compare it to COCA then, the samples are much more limited (i.e. only students work). However, when teaching university students, this might prove to be an advantage since the answers we get will be much more focused and relevant to the students context. MICUSP is also much less complicated to use, especially for students. While MICUSP is only written English, its equivalent of spoken English is MICASE and can be found here. They’re both free to use.

All the activities that Ashley showed us during the session can be found on her blog here.

Some of the questions you might want to ask yourself when preparing activities using MICUSP are:

  • do the samples fit the grammar explanation in the book?
  • dos sts need pre-teaching vocabulary?
  • should I pre-teach any cultural references?
  • should I focus on a particular discipline (e.g. engineering) or have a wider sample?

You can narrow down the search by discipline, NS/NNS, paper type, level, textual features and student level.

Let me and Ashley know if you use any of the activities on her blog or create your own using MICUSP.

Be flexible!

In my last post I gave some suggestions and tips on teaching mixed ability classes. I wanted to follow it up with discussing flexible and inflexible tasks, which in my opinion is the easiest way to address mixed ability classes without too much extra preparation time.

Consider these examples in the context of a mixed ability class you have. What potential problems with class and task management can you think of?

  • fill in the gaps with the correct form of the verb in brackets
  • use the prompts to make correct sentences: I wish/Mike/not smoke
  • read the text and decide whether the sentences are true or false

Some of the things that are most likely to happen in a mixed ability group are:

  • some sts finish too early and start yawning
  • some sts don’t finish the task because it’s too difficult
  • some find it really easy and start wondering what’s the point of being in this class
  • some struggle and need extensive guidance
  • some get all answers right and continue yawning
  • some get most wrong and look terribly embarrassed
  1. The three examples of tasks I showed above are what is called: inflexible tasks and are usually characterised by two factors:
  • the focus is a specific language point (or a set of points), e.g. past simple verbs, OR a prolonged focus on a listening or reading text
  • there’s only one correct answer

Consequently, some students might already know the language point and find the task too easy, whereas others will find it too challenging, and might need extensive guidance and help. Some will finish early then and get most answers correct, whereas some will take much longer and make many mistakes. In both cases students are likely to become demotivated.

Some examples of inflexible tasks include: drills, dictations, fill–in–the–gaps, multiple choice, etc. In a nutshell, there is only a small and predictable number of correct answers, which are fixed in advance.

So ideally, we want to avoid inflexible tasks, especially when the abilities in class are really mixed. Of course, the problems mentioned above (e.g. early finishers) can be addressed in a number of different ways, some of which I described in the previous post. However, in my opinion it’s much easier to add a bit of flexibility to the task design, which will solve the problems before they actually come up in class.

Look at the examples below and think how they are different from the three tasks I showed earlier, i.e. how are they more flexible:

  • use these verbs in their past form and write a minimum of 5 sentences about your weekend (go, have, drink, sleep, watch, read, like, make, do)
  • write at least 4 sentences starting with I wish
  • read the text and find at least two things you would like to tell your partner about (i.e. something surprising, something you didn’t know/understand, etc.)

2. All of the above are examples of flexible tasks , as they “tend to have a very broad range of aims, many of which only potentially rather than (ostensibly) certainly come into play. The key desideratum concerning task flexibility is that some of the aims (but perhaps not all of them) should be achievable even by the lowest level learners in your class” (Lindstromberg 2000: 2). They can also have some of the below characteristics:

  • choice, e.g. choose from a list of questions the ones you’ll ask your partner
  • quantity: partial completion is OK, and students who do less in initial stages of an activity can still participate in its later stages
  • sophistication: the students are offered freedom in terms of language and cognitive sophistication of their responses, e.g. in 5 minutes write at least 4 sentences starting with I wish. (Rationale: strong students can go beyond the 4 sentences, as well as have the freedom to experiment with more difficult language and concepts, while the weaker can still complete the task and receive praise)
  • student roles: some tasks can be so designed that certain roles will be inevitably more challenging. Lindstromberg (2000: 3) suggests this activity: in-role interview in which a lower proficiency student (a ‘novelist’ researching the criminal mind’) asks questions given on a handout while the interviewee (a ‘notorious desperado’) relies, in answering, entirely on her or his own experience and/or imagination.

Please let me know whether you’ve found this post helpful in the comments section.

Teaching 1-1: The first class

The first class can be crucial for how the rest of the course pans out. It will set the tone. Especially in a 1-1 setting. After all, there’s just the two of you. So the first set of aims to bear in mind is affective:

  • build rapport (break the ice, get to know each other)
  • motivate the student
  • set the tone for the future classes (learner-centred, relevant, enjoyable, useful)

The next set of aims concerns generating the course content, as well as the objectives and goals. The key principle of 1–1 teaching is that “the student is the syllabus” (Osborne 2005: 3). So as much as possible, the content/topic of the class should be based on students preferences, or even generated by the learner. So ideally what you want to establish in the first class is:

  • what the learner wants to know (wants)
  • what the learner doesn’t know (lacks)
  • what the learner needs to use their English for (needs)
  • what topics and activity types the learner enjoys (preferences)

All this should ensure that the course aims will be relevant, realistic and achievable.

Uff! Seems like a hell lot of work for one class. So how the heck do I go about it then?

As you can imagine, bringing and using a course book in the first class, even if one has been assigned one by the Academic department, is probably not the best solution, albeit a very tempting one. After all, you might not feel at ease coming in with nothing to the first class. Something which can prompt and focus the discussion may come in handy.

Below are some ideas for activities which involve very little prep and materials, and which can help you go about achieving the two sets of aims discussed above in a communicative way:

  1. Spidergram – write down key words or phrases which are answers to some questions about you (e.g. hobby, favourite dish, etc.). Afterwards the student writes down the phrases connected to their lives. This can be done on small separate cards which are turned one by one or all on one piece of paper/whiteboard. Student tries to guess the question. NOTE: It helps to a) identify student’s lacks b) upgrade their lg c) it is also a great ice–breaker and stimulus for further discussion. Modify the content according to the student’s level (i.e. only present simple questions) 
  2. Topic cards – cards with everyday topics face down. You/student turn the first card around and use it as a stimulus for discussion. NOTE: a) encourage the student to ask you questions (apart from the obvious communicative purpose, it also can serve as a diagnostic) b) if you already know something about the student, you can tailor the topics to match their interests, knowledge, job, etc. 
  3. Life Circles – divide the whiteboard/piece of paper into three parts: past, present and future. Put some ideas in each part related to your life. The learner does the same. Apart from being a good ice–breaker and GTKY, the activity helps elicit varied lg, which can serve to identify student’s lacks. As above, it’s a good idea to encourage the student to ask you follow up questions. 
  4. True/False – write some facts about yourself on pieces of paper. Try to make them as interesting as possible. Write at least one false sentence. The learner does the same. Turn the cards one by one. Ask questions to identify the false one. You both try to pretend all sentences are true. See who’s a better liar. It serves well to check question formation. 
  5. Needs analysis – a questionnaire which prompts the learner to express their course needs and expectations can be of excellent use for the first lesson.
  6. Meaningful objects – often 1-1 teaching takes place at student’s workplace, their or the teacher’s house. Use this as an opportunity to select some objects that are meaningful for the student, or can be used as springboard for discussion.
NOTE: all of the above, apart from their affective and communicative purposes, can be used diagnostically, i.e. identifying student’s language lacks for immediate or subsequent remedial work (you can find some ideas on how to deal with emerging language and offer on-the-spot practice here). They can and should be adjusted to the student’s level. Ease the student into the idea that they should ask questions as well as you. After all, the above are all discussion activities.
Have you got any favourite activities for the first class? Looking forward to your comments.