Saturday, January 4, 2020

Assessing Writing

Grading a piece of writing isn’t an easy task for examiners. Graders usually follow a holistic approach when grading a composition. In other words, they read through the writing test with a careful eye on content, language, and form and then decide on the overall grade/mark. This approach is easy and economical in terms of time and effort, but it isn’t without its drawbacks. It’s not accurate and the grade might sometimes be affected by the teacher’s attitude towards their students and their performance over the course. 

To avoid being biased, teachers should exchange their students’ exam papers and use writing criteria, which include scales from exemplary to limited performance. Several writing books include a writing rubric to be used by teachers in the assessment stage. An efficient rubric shows examples of good and limited writing outcomes with marks for each part. The teacher/grader could follow the rubric as a guide when grading. 

My advice is to attach a copy of the rubric with each test with marks on both and give them to the examinees. When teachers return their students’ graded writing tests, they can explain the given mark according to the rubric. So students check what went well and wrong with their writing. Even better, students should use the rubric themselves when writing a composition during the course to familiarize themselves with the features of a successful piece of writing.
Here is the writing rubric used to assess the IELTS writing exam, task two. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Top 13 Tips for Effective Teaching of English

You need to keep in mind that learning is more important than teaching. To foster learning, you should be aware of the most useful techniques a successful teacher usually does in class. On the other hand, you also need to know what prevents learning. Here are my top 13 tips for conducting an efficient and effective English lesson. Check which ones you already do and which ones you ought to focus on more in the future. 

1 .     Build an instant rapport with learners. From the first lesson, try to establish a friendly rapport with your students. Use their names and involve them equally in activities. Bring energy into the class with your friendly and nice manner from the start.

2 .     Grade your language.  Speak clearly and naturally to give the students a good input of the target language. Avoid using metalanguage, especially in low-level classes.

3.     Reduce your teacher talking time (TTT). Aim for more students’ talking time (STT). Let your students practice their English, not you. Make your class more student-centered

4.     Enhance your lessons with visuals. Use a variety of visual materials such as pictures, videos, and PowerPoint slides that achieve your lesson aims and make your lesson more dynamic. A picture is worth a thousand words.

5.     Give clear, simple instructions. Break the instructions down and use instruction checking questions (ICQs) to check if the students have understood. Or simply, ask one of the students to repeat the instructions. Don’t ask general questions like “Do you understand?” If you’re using worksheets, it’s better to chest the worksheet, point to the exercise and give instructions before distributing the worksheets. Otherwise, the students will start reading and won’t pay full attention to your instructions.

6.     Vary the interaction patterns. Don’t opt for teacher-students (T-Ss) interaction only. Learning English happens faster when students interact more with others. Pair work and group work would maximize the students’ talking time and encourage peer-teaching. Make sure your lesson plan includes individual, pair, and group work.

7.     Don’t echo the students’ answers. Don’t get into the habit of repeating your students’ words (I’m afraid I do it sometimes). When you do that, you’re sending the message to your students that you’re the authority in class and there is no need to listen to each other. Don’t echo; ask the student speaking to raise their voice if the others can’t hear him/her.

8.     Avoid Over-helping. When the students are doing a task or giving answers in pair or whole class feedback, don’t worry that they can’t make it. Don’t complete their sentences; rather, give them a sufficient time to think, reflect, and produce their answers. Use gestures, one-word prompt and if those don’t work, ask another student for help to encourage peer-support/teaching. Be the last one to speak, not the first one. Help them be autonomous learners.

9.     Circulate and monitor. While the students are working on a task, whether individually or in pairs, you should circulate and monitor them to make sure everyone is on task. You might need to help those who still do not understand, or warn those chatting with their classmates, but don’t interfere or over-help.Engage those who finish early; ask them to find five adjectives in the text, for example, or write four sentences including the new words.

10. Vary the feedback stages. Instead of constantly nominating individual students to provide answers to the whole class in a T-Ss interaction, you can display the answers for them on the white board/screen to check. You could ask some students to come to the board and write the answers for the class after a brainstorming activity. Alternatively, you can provide one student with half of the answers and his/her partner with the other half. They work in pairs to exchange the answers; that would make the feedback more student-centered.

11.  Let your Students practice grammar. Don’t worry if the students don’t get the concept of the target language 100% from the first time, they still need a lot of practice to grasp the meaning and to be able to use the TL productively. Avoid long explanations; provide adequate controlled, semi-controlled, and freer-practice activities to help the students encounter and make more decisions about the TL over a number of contexts.

12. Set a time limit. Allocate a time limit for each task to get the students more challenged and focused. Stop the activity if most of the students have finished before the time is over or give more time if most of them are still involved. 

13.  Encourage your Students to speak English more. Don’t hear or understand your students when they talk to you in their mother tongue, accept only English. 
   Would you add any other useful techniques to the above list? Let us hear from you? 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Read Listen Learn

Once English language learners start to be able to decode written words, they are advised to read outside of the class. A great part of learning a new language happens incidentally by being exposed to spoken and written forms of the language. Reading for pleasure is a great activity EFL learners do to improve their language. Graded readers, stories whose language is simplified for learning purposes, are an invaluable resource for providing good models of the target language that learners usually enjoy reading.

I have been teaching English for over 10 years and I’ve always recommended graded readers to my students because I am very much aware that reading for pleasure motivates students to read more and boost their autonomy. However, students might mispronounce new words they encounter while reading and without a teacher around those mistakes might get fossilized. This problem is solved with, an outstanding, user-friendly website that offers free fiction and non-fiction graded readers along with the recordings of all the texts. Learners would enjoy reading and listening to the stories wherever and wherever they like. The site includes various stories on different topics and levels where students can choose from. What I like about Read Listen Learn is that definitions of difficult vocabulary appear in the margin adjacent to the words they define. So, learners don't even need to use a dictionary.

I recommended the site to my students and colleagues and they utterly enjoyed using it. And now I highly recommend it to you!

Monday, February 27, 2017

How do We Get Students Interested in Reading in the First Place?

Mark Bartholomew continues his invaluable contribution to the blog by writing a second post on extensive reading. In this post, he focuses mainly on how we get language learners interested in reading.

In my post last week, I talked about what extensive reading is and mentioned that students choosing their own reading material was essential, that reading outside class should not be graded or made the subject of a test and, finally, that it should not be used as fodder for grammatical or lexical analysis. All this can be summed up as reading for its own sake, for pleasure, for an adventure in another world. 
It follows then that we, as teachers, must do everything we can to reduce the stress students feel in tackling reading in a foreign language and to increase their confidence in their own abilities to do so. 
The first difficulty that new readers are likely to encounter is what exactly they should read. If you have not done much reading before, how do you choose an author you're going to like? It's hard to trust book covers because the publishers, of course, only tell you what's best about the book in the hope that you'll buy it. Teachers are often seen as foisting difficult books - probably dictated by the school English syllabus - onto reluctant students who are bored by classics or find them incomprehensible. So, maybe teachers can't be wholly trusted. There's another issue with teachers too: if a student chooses to read at a level far below the rest of her class, then she might be seen as lazy or stupid. All in all, then, the teacher may not be the best guide.
That leaves students themselves. They might be encouraged to write a very short piece on why they liked - or didn't like - a work. This can be stuck on the shelf next to the book. Another way is for the teacher to write very brief summaries of what a book is about or, maybe, fill in a form that requires one- or two-word answers, like "Spy novel - action - intermediate - great ending". On my website,, every story and article has a 50-word summary which just does this and also includes a word count.
But the most important thing here is that students should be encouraged to read whatever they like and however they like. This includes choosing texts that the teacher may feel are far below their real language level. Don't worry about it! All the evidence reassures us that students quickly get bored with reading books that are too easy for them and move on to more challenging work of their own accord. But they make the leap once they have the confidence to do so from having completed easy stuff on their own.
And, if students find they have made the wrong choice, let them change the book for something they might be more interested in. Don't insist that they finish it. Of course, let them read printed books, on a Kindle or tablet - it's all reading after all. The medium doesn't much matter.
Naturally though, not all reading will take place outside school or university: sometimes, students read in class. Your institution may have a DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) programme where everybody on the premises - students, teachers, secretaries and cleaners - takes half an hour a couple of times a week, stops what they are doing and reads. If not, you might consider turning over some time usually spent on geography or maths to reading. After all, kids who can't read well are going to do badly not just in English but in every other subject too.
Students might, of course, choose to read the same book as their friends. Fine. Let them! Some in the group could motivate others. In some schools, kids are allowed to choose their own partners; in others, a weaker student might be paired with a stronger one - a kind of reading mentor relationship. Whatever the arrangement, it should be made so that books are discussed, even argued over. Students should be encouraged to assign roles within their groups to ensure that everyone is pulling their weight: one might be in charge of note-taking, another researching unfamiliar facts on the web, and so on.
Finally, one all-important piece of advice. Teachers should act as reading role models. Time and again, research has shown that the most important inducement to getting kids reading is the active interest of their teacher in books. So, talk every now and then about something you are reading outside school or university! Ask them what they are reading. Academics may disagree about many aspects of reading programmes and which approach is best to adopt in class to teach reading but on this one area they're all in agreement. Teachers must model the behaviour they want their students to adopt. So, carry a book around with you and leave it on your desk so that all can see that you practise what you preach.

 Photo by Anna Pasternak

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Ace Your First Class with New Students

I give my first class a lot of consideration and thought for it is the very lesson that paves the way and lays the groundwork for the whole course. The first class of each new course is probably the most important for such reasons as getting to know my students, establish a friendly rapport, explain the course syllabus, and meet my students’ needs and demands for learning English. To ensure my first lesson goes smoothly and comfortably, I introduce the prescribed textbook but don’t use it on the first day of the course; rather, I set the first lesson for students to know about their teacher, classmates, and the components of the course. Here are some ideas to ace your first lesson with new groups.

Breaking the Ice 
After students and I introduce ourselves, the first thing that comes to my mind is how to build a congenial rapport and create a pleasant atmosphere. Breaking-the-ice activities are best to start with as they make learners interact and feel relaxed with each other. 

Paper ball game: This no-brainer game is most suitable for learners to memorize everyone’s name and have fun. Make a ball out of recycled paper and demonstrate the activity by asking one student to throw the ball to you, catch the ball and say your name; then say another student’s name and throw the ball to her; she catches it, says her name and then utters someone else’s name and throws it to them. The game goes on for a few minutes until everyone remembers their classmates’ names.

What are you thinking about now: Another quick game to break the ice is to ask students to throw a ball (see above) to each other and every time someone catches the ball, she tells the class what she is thinking about right now. Encourage the others to show interest and comment on what the student has said before she throws the ball to someone else to say what he/she is thinking about now. 

Getting to know you: Draw a star with five points on the board and write five words/phrases around the star. (your nationality, age, shoe size, years of experience, etc.). Tell students this is some information about you. They work in pairs for two minutes to form questions for those answers. Elicit the correct questions and elaborate on each answer. Next, ask students to draw a star on a piece of paper and write some personal information around it. Have them exchange their papers with their partner. Students should ask each other why they wrote that information and ask follow-up questions. Demonstrate the activity by taking a piece of paper from one of the students and ask: “Why did you write 2014?”, for example.  Keep the exchange going by asking some follow-up questions. Instruct students to take it in turns to ask and answer questions about each other. 

Needs Analysis
It is also vital in the first lesson to know more about your students’ learning styles and needs for learning English. I usually find an informal needs analysis is paramount at this stage. Probing students’ individual personal goals in learning English is something we should take into consideration from the beginning of each new course. For this reason, write up the following questions on the board and ask students to write answers to these questions (adapted from Martin, 2011).
  • What do you need English for?
  • How would you like to learn English?
  • What activities do you prefer?
  • What do you find interesting about learning English?
  • What do you find difficult about learning English?
  • What do you expect to learn in this course?
  • What can you do to improve your English outside the class?
Once students have finished, get them discuss their ideas in small groups before you hold a plenary discussion about the answers. Listen carefully and take notes of students’ needs to refer to them during the course. You may want to add other questions more related to your students’ level and to the course your teaching. 

Course Syllabus
Now it is time to discuss the course syllabus and see if it or parts of it meet students’ needs for learning English. Write up the objectives of the course, textbooks, requirements and assignments, grading policy, and expectations. Clarify any unclear areas about the course and give advice on how students should do during the course to get high grades and get the most out of the course. You may also want to explain the methodology that you’re going to use to achieve the aims of the course and the rationale behind it. 

Classroom Rules
Classroom rules vary from one institute to another and from one age group to another. Yet, it is a good idea to negotiate the classroom rules with students. Don’t be very strict and let them have a say in the rules. That would make them feel they are being respected and treated as equals. I usually write the following rules and explain the reasons for them. 
  • Arrive promptly for classes.
  • Bring your books and notebook.
  • Refrain from using your cell phones; put all your phones on silent mode. If you have an urgent call, step outside into the corridor.
  • Don’t make fun of your friends.
  • Speak only in English. 

That’s all for the first class, but if you’re teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP) or Academic Purposes (EAP), it would be beneficial to have students write a short paragraph about how English would make their studies or jobs better in the future. Students read their paragraphs in groups and discuss their ideas. This activity helps the teacher gets a better idea of the students’ linguistic strengths and weaknesses.

What activities do you use in your first class? Share your ideas with us in the comment box below?


Martin, M. (2011). Approaching a first class with a new group.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

What is Extensive Reading?

I’m utterly thrilled that Mark Bartholomew agreed to write a series of guest posts for us on extensive reading. I met Mark last year and had a great pleasure in discussing the benefits of extensive reading with him.
Mark Bartholomew has worked in education as a teacher, manager, and consultant for thirty years, in secondary, tertiary and vocational education, and in many parts of the world. He is currently in Istanbul. Mark is also the co-founder of the free website to encourage (young or not so young) adult students to enjoy reading in English. It's
A lot has been written in recent years about extensive reading but it's still worthwhile trying to define what this actually means. First and foremost, it's giving kids and young adults the opportunity and guidance to read what they like. Next, it's using reading as an end in itself, not as a series of texts to be picked apart to practise a grammatical point or introduce difficult vocabulary. And, finally, there's the important premise that reading outside the curriculum should not be assessed or graded. In other words, reading should be an end in itself.

Now, let's look at each of these in turn. 
Teachers often encourage - and sometimes even force - students to read specific works by great authors. I sympathise with these teachers as I, personally, enjoy Dickens and Flaubert, for example, and can't imagine ever picking up a book about zombies. But the fact is that that's me. I cannot dictate to others what they should enjoy reading. If we want our students to read outside the curriculum, we need to let them choose their own reading preferences, whether these are science fantasy or romance or sport, to name but a few. So, away with making them read literature with a capital L! Besides, it's the quantity of what's read, rather than the quality, which determines the effectiveness of reading as an aide to learning a second language.
This also means letting kids read at whatever linguistic level they feel comfortable with. Sometimes, they just don't have the confidence to tackle more challenging writers to begin with. All the evidence suggests though that they quickly get bored with reading below their level and move onto more difficult texts. 

Next, there is a time and place to analyse grammar and use texts for the exploration of difficult terms. But using books (whether Internet-based or the printed page) that we want students to appreciate as tools for teaching grammar and vocab is wrong. Using a fovourite book as a means of refining their use of relative clauses (to paraphrase Stephen Krashen) is unlikely to motivate them to approach reading with joy or excitement. How often do we as teachers ask our classes to answer questions, like "What does 'those' in line 19 refer to?"
Finally, we have to get used to the idea that not all reading needs to be graded. Parents - and, indeed, many students - do not see the value of reading if it does not have a percentage score attached as the end result. However, if we want students to see reading as a means to lifelong learning, something that is vital in this fast-changing world where our talents continually require honing, then we need to do away with the idea of reading as fodder for MCQs.

 Hopefully, all teachers see reading as good. Books can become our companions in difficult times. They can help us escape into new and strange worlds. They can uplift our spirits and show us the best in others and in ourselves. Nevertheless, for all this to happen, we must change the ways we approach reading and treat it as a goal - not as a means to an end, like good exam results or a way to teach grammar.
In my next post, I will look at ways in which teachers can get students to start reading for pleasure. In the meantime, please do check out my website, which offers reading texts on everything from meat-eating plants to voodoo, the history of science to adapted stories by Tolstoy.
The ideas in this post are not mine alone but have been garnered primarily from:
Stephen Krashen's 'The Power of Reading' (2nd ed. 2006)
Julian Bamford and Richard Day: 'Extensive Reading in the 2nd Language Classroom' (1998)
For evidence for some of my ideas, please refer to these seminal works.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Top Five Recycling Activities

The variety of topics in commercial English learning textbooks provide learners with a large number of new vocabulary items on different subjects. However, since most coursebooks jump from one unit to another in a relatively short time, learners don't have adequate time to practice the items they have encountered and retain them in long-term memory. Learners need to encounter the new words, phrases, and chunks several times to be able to remember and use them appropriately. 
To overcome the problem of forgetting words quickly, English teachers are recommended to conduct recycling activities that ensure working on previously taught vocabulary over a number of sessions. I often include a recycling activity in my lessons as a warmer, time filler, or end-of-lesson activity. Warmers and time-fillers are best to be related to previous lessons to give learners the chance to work on the same language items in different contexts. My students often appreciate and enjoy any recycling activity that has a game-like feature. End-of-lesson recycling activities usually relieve tension after some serious work during the lesson.. 

Here are my top five recycling activities that you may find in ELT books with different variations.

Taboo: Prepare a list of vocabulary items you want to review. Put students into groups of four and give them a set of cards with a previously learned word on each. Below each target word, there are usually three taboo words the person who has the card can't use. Instruct students to put the pile of cards face down. One student takes a card and defines the target word to the rest of the group. The other students should guess the word on the card to win it. If no one guesses the word, the card goes to the bottom of the pile. Students take it in turns to pick up a card and define the word. The one with the most cards wins at the end. See here a set of taboo cards for intermediate level learners. With low-level students remove the taboo words or only include one and have students use whatever words they know to define the target word. Click here to get a set of taboo game cards for elementary. 

You should provide students with useful language for the game such as:
It’s something that you use to…
It’s someone who …
It’s an adjective, noun, verb, adverb, etc.
It’s the opposite of … /similar to

Playing taboo recycles vocabulary items and engages students in using their language skills to negotiate meanings of words. Yet, the game doesn’t test if students can use the target words in correct sentences. for this reason, I have students put the cards face down again on the table. Now each student takes a card and has 30 seconds to form a statement using the word on the card. The other students decide if the sentence is correct or not and if they are in doubt, they can consult with the teacher. If the sentence is incorrect, the card goes to the bottom of the pile and another student takes a new card. Again, the one with the most cards wins. if time doesn't allow, students could do either activity. 

Anagrams: An effective and easy activity that involves cognitive work is anagrams. It is a game-like activity, in which students unscramble words from randomly written letters. Write a list of vocabulary items for revision on the board with their letters in jumbled order (such as utelerc, nrasmei – for lecture, seminar). Get students work in pairs to unscramble the anagrams. The pairs who finishes first wins, and they are asked to come up to the board to write the words for the others to check the correct spelling. You can involve students with more productive tasks using anagrams; Click here to read more about it. 

Hot seat: it is a guess game similar to taboo but done with the whole class. Divide the class into two or three groups. Have one student from each group come and sit with his/her back to the board. Write a word on the board for the teams who have to define, explain, or give synonyms/ antonyms of the word to the students in front to guess. The student (facing the teams) who guesses first gets his/ her team a point. Next, those students go back to their seats and other two students (depending on the number of teams) come to sit in the front with their backs to the board. Continue the activity until each student in each team has a turn to sit in the front and try to guess a word. The team with the most points wins.

Bingo: A simple, fun game that involves all my students for the sense of completion it has is Bingo. It’s also one of the easiest activities to set. Write a list of 16-17 words to review on the board. Have students draw a grid with nine squares. Then they choose nine words from the list and write them in the squares.

Tell your students that you are going to give definitions of nine words from the list. Each time a student thinks you have given a definition of a word in his/her grid, he/she crosses it out. The one who crosses out all the nine words first shouts BINGO and wins. Once the game is over, you may want to facilitate a productive task using the words on the board. Get students write about five sentences using words from the list. Next they exchange the sentences with their partners to check and give feedback on the language and content. 

Find someone who: This mingle activity could be used to practice or review any
vocabulary or grammar items. Prepare 12 to 15 statements using vocabulary or concepts that relate to your previous unit of study. For example, if you taught a unit on technology, prepare statements such as the following:

Find someone who
…uses social media networks for more than three hours a day.                            
… has used online banking recently.
…plays online games.
…writes on a blog.

Announce that students will ask each other questions. Instruct students to find others who can answer their questions with “yes”. They should write a different name next to each statement. Pass out the worksheet and elicit the correct question form for each statement on the list. Now students mingle around the class asking their peers and write that person’s name on their checklist sheet and go on to the next question with another person. A student can write a person’s name only twice. Encourage students to ask follow-up questions for each statement to make the activity more conversational. If you have only one student, change the phrase "find someone who" to "remember someone who".
Do you use any other interesting recycling activities? Share your ideas with us.