Thursday, September 18, 2014

Using Reading Races in EAP/Test Prep Classes

What's the first image that comes to mind when you hear "Academic Reading?" Personally, I have flashbacks from my undergrad days lugging around the 1,000 page plus Norton Anthology of English Literature.

When I ask my students, they typically use words like "boring, business" and/or "scientific" to describe what they have to read in their IEP/Test-Prep classes.

That the material they have to read is uninteresting or even boring doesn't really surprise me: honestly, who really wants to read academic texts?

Does it really have to be like this?

However, just because the material is boring, it doesn't mean the class has to be. Instead of just telling students to read and answer a list of questions, how about we make it a little more interactive, social, competitive and (gasp) fun?

Reading Races or How to Make Academic Reading Fun

This activity (also known as treasure hunt) is all about teaching students how to read strategically. Since students need to read effectively and efficiently for their academic tasks/tests - why not have them practice these skills in an engaging environment? Here's how it works:

Step 1: Select a text or a section from a text

If you are teaching TOEFL iBT, TOEIC or IELTS, use a reading passage or, if you are using a course book, select a relevant section of the book.

Step 2: Write 6 to 12 questions

A friendly reminder about writing reading questions. Make sure your questions:
  1. are a mix of skim and scan questions
  2. test multiple academic skills

Step 3: Make copies of the questions for each group

Now you have some decision to make:
  • Do you want students working in individually, pairs or in small groups? Whichever you decide, make sure to arrange the desks accordingly.
  • When do you want students to submit their answers? After they have found all the answers or after each one?
  • How do you want students to submit their answers? Do you want them to shout them out, sprint to the board or submit them electronically using Google Forms, Poll Everywhere or Socrative
Whichever of the above options you choose, I guarantee a far larger percentage of your students will be far more engaged than if you follow the traditional approach to teaching reading. How do I prefer to do this activity? Glad you asked. I have two versions.

Word Jumble Running Dictation Reading Race

Before Class

  • Jumble the words in the questions
  • Cut the questions into strips and put half of them around the room/in the hall using Blu-Tack  

In Class

  • Divide the students into pairs
    • Student A is responsible for running around the room, reading all the questions and telling and dictating the question to their partner.
    • Student B is responsible for writing down what their partner says and putting the sentence back in the correct order. 
  • Once the students have all the questions, put up the other half of the questions and have the students change roles. For an example set of questions, please click here.
  • Next, students work together to find the correct answers in their texts. 
  • First team to successfully answer all the questions wins.

Word Jumble Sentence Strip Correction

Before Class

  • Jumble the words in the questions
  • Make a set of questions for each team. For example, if you have 18 students, make either six (groups of three) or nine (pairs) copies of the questions 
  • Cut the questions into strips

In Class

  • Arrange students desks in such a way as to allow anyone to run to the front of the room. I recommend "The Horseshoe"
  • Sit at the front of the room
  • Place each set of strips in front of you on your desk(s). If you do not have enough space, put each pile on the floor or put the questions in envelopes and Blu-Tac them to board or put them on the floor.
  • Explain to the students that they must
    1. Select someone in their group to run to the front of the room
    2. Take one slip
    3. Go back to their partner/group
    4. Put the jumbled sentence into the correct order 
    5. Find the answer to the question
    6. Write the answer (and where they found it) on the back of the slip
    7. Bring the slip back to you
    8. If the answer is correct, throw it in the recycle bin and give them a new slip. 
    9. If it is wrong, they return to their group and keep looking.
    10. First team to get through all their slips wins. 

One Final Note

ALWAYS be sure to have students cite where they found their answers. Why? The point of this activity is to have the students practice their reading skills, not test what they already know. 

Also, like all new activities, this exercise won't go smoothly the first time you try it. However, it will energize the students and ensure a higher level of participation than normally found in reading classes.

Happy teaching! 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Teaching Speaking for the TOEFL iBT with Technology

How do you prepare people to speak to a computer? Sure, our students are used to talking through a machine

CALL, EAP, Edtech, M-Learning, Monitoring, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Vocaroo, Google Drive,
Seriously, do any of your students not have a cell phone? 
but how many of them are used to talking to a machine?

CALL, EAP, Edtech, M-Learning, Monitoring, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Vocaroo, Google Drive,
Hello? Is anyone listening?
Well, needless to say, the only way to get students used to speaking to a machine is to have them speak to a machine. But how?

Enter Vocaroo.

CALL, EAP, Edtech, M-Learning, Monitoring, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Vocaroo, Google Drive,
Vocaroo is a free website that allows users to record and share their voice recordings.

How long can a recording be? 
According to Vocaroo, there is no time limit. Additionally, since the longest TOEFL speaking question response is one minute the length of the recording shouldn't be a problem.

How long are recordings stored for? 
Vocaroo says "messages will expire after a few months" so, if you want to keep your messages for longer periods of time, you should download them (more on that later).

What equipment do I need? 
All you need is a microphone and a device with an internet connection and you are good to go. How does it work?

Get a computer with a headset

Now I know you don't need to use a headset with most laptops but since your students are going to take the TOEFL, they need to know what it is like to use a headset. If you school is a test center, it would be great to use the same computers and headsets for practicing as are used for the official exam. Why? Because, as is commonly known, when students are familiar with the test conditions, they tend to do better on the exam itself since they're not stressing about the environment.

Provide students with the questions

Finding quality TOEFL materials, especially Integrated Speaking questions (3-6), can be challenging to say the least. However, there are some good books on the market (I'll be sure to put the ones I like in the Resources section soon); however, for the independent questions, be sure to check out Jason Renshaw's collection of questions here.

After you give the students the question, and give them the appropriate time to prepare, its time for the magic to happen.

Have Students Record Themselves

This process is ridiculously simple: 

Students press "Click to Record" and start speaking

CALL, EAP, Edtech, M-Learning, Monitoring, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Vocaroo, Google Drive,
Like the picture says, click on the red dot to start recording.

When you shout "TIME!" students stop speaking and press "Click to Stop" 

CALL, EAP, Edtech, M-Learning, Monitoring, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Vocaroo, Google Drive,
Again, pretty self-explanatory, no?

Save it

CALL, EAP, Edtech, M-Learning, Monitoring, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Vocaroo, Google Drive,
So far so good.

Students publish their response

Here is the fun part: now that the students have their response, what are they going to do with it? There are, in fact several options.

CALL, EAP, Edtech, M-Learning, Monitoring, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Vocaroo, Google Drive,
Choices, choices, choices.

As you can see in the picture above, students have the opportunity to share their response in several places. They could: 
  1. Email the link to the instructor or a classmate
  2. Tweet the link and use the class hashtag
  3. Create a "Speaking Portfolio" in Google Drive by copying the link into a Google Doc (for more info on using Google Drive in the classroom, click here). 
  4. Share the link on the classes' Facebook/Google+ page (If you don't think your class should have a social media page, read this). 
  5. and more. If you think of other ideas, please leave them in the comment's section. 
Finally, now that you have your students responses, you can either evaluate them yourself using ETS's Scoring Rubric or have the students evaluate each other' responses. 

Happy Teaching! 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Setting the Table for Success: The Relationship Between Classroom Arrangement and Classroom Management

During my CELTA, I did two writing skills lessons. The first was a disaster: every time I walked in front of a student they would cover what they were writing. Why didn't I just walk behind them? Well, the room was arranged like this:

Horseshoe Arrangement

traditional arrangement, Writing, Warm-up Writing, u shaped desk arrangement, horseshoe desk arrangement, classroom management, feedback, monitoring, cluster arrangement, ELT, EFL, ESL, TEFL, ELL
Horseshoe Arrangement
so that option was off the table. Needless to say, if you conduct a writing class and can't give any feedback the lesson is a failure. However, as Henry Ford said, "The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing."

What did I learn: always arrange the class for the activities your students are doing. If you are lucky enough to have desks/tables that aren't bolted to the floor, move them (just put them back for the next teacher).

For example, the u-shaped/horseshoe arrangement (pictured above) is fantastic for pair work  and activities like "Sprint to the Board" and "Writing Races." Additionally, the arrangement of the desks provides a large central area for mill drills/mingles/surveys and role plays.

But what if you want students to work in small groups instead of pairs?

Cluster Arrangement

traditional arrangement, Writing, Warm-up Writing, u shaped desk arrangement, horseshoe desk arrangement, classroom management, feedback, monitoring, cluster arrangement, ELT, EFL, ESL, TEFL, ELL
Cluster Arrangement
If you are doing projects, group work or playing a board game,  the cluster arrangement is ideal: it focuses the students' attention on the members in their group and creates a common space for them to work communally.

But what if you want students to work individually?

Traditional Arrangement

traditional arrangement, Writing, Warm-up Writing, u shaped desk arrangement, horseshoe desk arrangement, classroom management, feedback, monitoring, cluster arrangement, ELT, EFL, ESL, TEFL, ELL
Traditional Arrangement
When you need students to work individually (like when giving a test/practice test) or focus on what is going on in the front of the class (presentations) the traditional arrangement really is best:

  • no one has their back to the front of the class (cluster arrangement)
  • no one has to crane their neck to see the front of the room (horseshoe arrangement)
  • students are spaced further apart so the temptation to cheat should be lower
  • additionally, if you only use the traditional arrangement for exams/presentations, the arrangement reinforces the purpose of the days activity - students know this set up is for "x" not "y" 

One last thing, 

As for my second lesson, I kept the horseshoe but asked the students to:
  1. stand up
  2. grab their desk
  3. drag it one step forward
  4. sit down
By having the desks one step away from the walls, I was able to walk behind the learners and monitor while they were writing without making them feel self-conscious. Why do I mention this point? I've heard people say you can't do "x" in such and such environment. Truth of the matter is you can do lots of things in several environments - you just might need to tweak either the activity or the arrangement a bit to make it work!

Monday, April 7, 2014

"Red Light! Green Light!" Teaching Students How to Give Peer-Feedback During Speaking Activities

Teaching speaking sounds easy until you actually try it. Some of the myriad issues that inevitably pop up are:


Which dialect should the instructor teach? Most people will instinctively say "their own" but what if an American teacher is teaching a room full of students preparing to study in the UK? Should the American instructor really teach "sidewalk" instead of "footpath?" How about "crosswalk" instead of "zebra crossing?"


Of course you want your students to use "real English," but how do you teach slang? Similar to dialect, whose slang do you teach? What about cursing?

EAP, IELTS, Listening, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Monitoring
Should I send myself to the principal's office?

Classroom Management

A highly motivated, multilingual, intermediate to advanced class can speak in English for a very, very long time without using their L1 (unless they want to code switch but that is a topic for another time).

What about a monolingual class of beginners? How do you "make" them speak in English? What about young learners or teens? Should you punish people for using their L1?

EAP, IELTS, Listening Skills, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Monitoring
But if I can already speak English, why am I here?

And what about large classes?

Providing Feedback

Giving precise, actionable feedback to a group of this size

EAP, IELTS, Listening Skills, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Monitoring

is relatively easy.

What about this size?

EAP, IELTS, Listening Skills, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Monitoring

Thankfully, I've never had to teach a class as large as the one pictured above, but I have taught classes of up to forty and have met people who led discussion classes of 80!

Monitoring so as to have something useful to provide during whole class feedback can be a nearly Herculean task in these larger classes. Additionally, Research has shown that students need to improve their ability to notice in order to improve their language proficiency. This idea really is just common sense: if you can't recognize a sound or a structure, how are you going to produce it?  So how can an instructor provide the feedback students need so as to improve their language and have the students improve their noticing at the same time? Deputize the learners!

Red Light! Green Light!  

 EAP, IELTS, Listening Skills, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT, Monitoring

Red Light! Green Light is incredibly simple: when students do a speaking activity in either pairs or groups, one of them is going to play the role of a stoplight/traffic cop -the "stoplight" student holds up a green card as long as no one makes mistake and their partner/everyone in their group keeps talking.

However, as soon as their partner/someone in their group makes a mistake, the "stoplight" student holds up a red card and waits for the perpatrator to self-correct. If the offending student truly does not know what mistake they made or can't correct self-correct, the stoplight student (or their group) can provide them with hints (scaffolding) so as to facilitate self-correction. Once the speaking activity is completed, learners switch roles.

A Few Important Notes

First, just as a teacher cannot, and should not, provide feedback on every mistake made by a learner, neither should their classmates. It is crucial to explain to the students that they should only hold up the red card if their classmate made a mistake with the lesson's target language! If learners try to provide feedback outside of these parameters, the activity will devolve into chaos.

Second, some students are more gregarious than others and will be more willing to stop their classmates. One of the ways to encourage the shyer students to participate in this activity is to model the activity with a shyer student in the place.

Third, not everyone has access to construction paper, a laminator, or fancy signs like the ones below.

 EAP, IELTS, Listening Skills, Monitoring, Speaking Skills, TOEFL iBT

The good news is you don't need them; all the students need is their hands: hand up means "stop" hand down means "go." Students can use a book, a pencil or just about any object in their pencilcase.

Finally, and most frustratingly from a teacher's standpoint, is when one student insistently tells their classmate they have made a mistake when, in fact, they haven't. While their isn't a 100% foolproof way to avoid this situation, their are a couple of things you can do to mitigate it:
  1. Do precise controlled practice in attempt to solidify the target language.
  2. Leave a reference to the target language on the board/student's desks so they can refer to it in case a dispute arises.
  3. Have students write down any disputes they have during the activity. That way, they can skip the debate and ask for clarification during the whole class feedback section of the lesson.
  4. Last but not least, monitor effectively.  

Final Thoughts 

As I stated in my last post, avoid like the plague the desire to throw in the towel if a new activity doesn't work optimally the first time you try. This activity might not work that well the first time depending on your students' educational background as well as the culture of your school. But as all teachers know, the only way to avoid burnout is to try new things. In the words of Art Williams,
“I'm not telling you it's going to be easy - I'm telling you it's going to be worth it.”

Happy Teaching!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Reading with a Purpose: Teaching Skimming and Scanning

The first time I can remember telling a class skimming and scanning were important was about seven years ago. I was teaching TOEFL iBT prep in Hanoi, Vietnam and was trying to explain just how important it was for the students to be able to get the "gist" of what they reading (skimming) or find key words/details (scanning) in a passage. If I remember right, I even held up the sheet below in an attempt to "prove" I was right.

TOEFL iBT, Reading Skills, Speaking Skills, Writing Skills, EAP, IELTS, TOEIC
Click here to download.

Fast forward to last semester. I was teaching English 101 at University of Arizona and, as I had so many times before, was telling the students to "not read every word - scan for the main idea." And then one of my students did something that had never happened before: she asked "How?"

Yep, that's right, I had been teaching TOEFL-iBT, IELTS and EAP for years and this was the first time any student had ever asked me how to skim before. Now I could go into a very long diatribe about how on earth this woman, who was raised in the US and had attended 12 years of schooling, did not know how to skim or scan but that would be useless.

For me, the more important question was why hadn't any of my previous students ever asked me how to skim and scan? Did they really know how to and just choose not to?

No, in my mind, I'm guessing I finally had a student brave enough to ask how to do something. Bless her because, for the first time, I actually had to explain how to skim and scan.

Fortunately for me, I came up with explanation:


Skimming is easy to explain in 5 words:
  1. Big
  3. Alpha and Omega 

First, read what is big: Titles, Headlines, Headings, Sub-headers 

Next, read what is different: ALL CAPS, Colors, Bold, Italics, Different Fonts, Underlined

TOEFL iBT, Reading Skills, Speaking Skills, Writing Skills, EAP, IELTS, TOEIC
What does your eye read first? Do you think that's an accident? 
Finally, read the first and last:
  • sentence of shorter works
  • paragraph or page for medium length works
  • chapter for longer works
That's all there is to it. You can get the main idea of pretty much any document by following the steps outlined above.


Scanning is a little more difficult to explain to students but seems to be easier to do.Essentially, students take a mental snapshot of the word and then look only for that word in a chunk of text.

However, if they're using a computer, just press "CTRL" + "F" ("command" + "F" on a Mac) and then enter the word they are searching for.

Q: "What if they're scanning for a word/phrase and it isn't there?"

Great question!

A: When you start reading higher level texts, you have to start using higher level critical thinking skills.

Therefore, learners need to:
  1. think of synonyms and antonyms of the key words 
  2. scan the text for those

Final Thoughts

One final bit of advice that I wish someone would have told me when I first started teaching: avoid the temptation to get frustrated when your students don't skim/scan like experts after one or several lessons. Since it take learners several exposures to produce a new structure or lexical item naturally, we shouldn't be shocked that it takes several practice sessions to become competent skimmers and scanners. Needless to say, the more they practice, the better they will become.

Happy Teaching!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Using Picasa to Create Class Photo Sheets

If you've checked out my CV, you'll have noticed that I have taught in a lot of different settings. For example, I taught at a language school a few years back that had young learner classes on the weekends. The classes were 90 minutes long, met on either Saturday or Sunday, and had between 15-18 students in a class. Most of the teachers taught four classes a day so they'd end up having six contact hours and seeing between 60-72 kids. Not that big a deal, right?

Well the problem came in the middle of the semester when you had to do parent-teacher conferences. Now since the parents didn't (usually) speak English and the teachers didn't (usually) speak Vietnamese, there was always a local staff-member there to translate. Again, no big deal, right?

But what if you don't know who the parent's child is? That's right, you've been teaching the same class for the past three months and you don't have any clue who this parent, who is paying some exorbitant  amount of tuition, is referring to. How is that possible? Like I said before, you have 70 kids you see once a week on top of all the students you teach during the week. Needless to say, it's easy to get confused. 

classroom management, edtech, picasa
"Your child is ... Ummmm. Who's your child again?"

So, rather than recite banal platitudes to parents about their mystery child, what can you do? Well, make collages! 

Picasa, edtech, classroom management
Picasa is freeware that allows you to edit photos on your computer. It is available for Windows, Mac and (if you're willing to tinker around a little bit) Linux.

After you download and install Picasa, the real fun starts.

Step 1: Take pictures

If you have a digital camera or a camera phone, use that to take headshots of your students. Tip: make sure you take your students' pictures in the same order as they appear on your role (this point will come in handy later).

Step 2: Transfer Pictures to Your Computer

Create a folder and name it whatever the class(es) you teach is/are called so that you can easily find it in Picasa later.

Step 3: Run Picasa

When you run Picasa for the first time, it will locate and categorize every photo on your computer. If it somehow misses the folder where you put your classes headshots, you can add it manually.

Click on Import:

Picasa, edtech, classroom management

Click on Select Device and then click on  Folder:

Picasa, edtech, classroom management

Navigate to the folder and select Import All:
Picasa, edtech, classroom management

Step 4: Select the Class Folder

Find the folder containing your class' headshots on the left hand side of the screen and click on it. In the example below, my class is called "English 108."

Class Photo Sheet, Class Contact Sheet, Student Photo Sheet, Picasa, edtech, classroom management
Somehow, I don't think blurring the photos helps much :) 

Step 5: Make a Collage

This is the easiest part: click on the icon that say "Collage." 

Class Photo Sheets, Class Contact Sheet, Student Photo Sheets, Student Contact Sheets, Picasa, edtech, classroom management

After you press Collage, you will see the following screen:

Class Photo Sheets, Class Contact Sheet, Student Photo Sheets, Student Contact Sheets, Picasa, edtech, classroom management

As you can see, you have several choices for the type of collage but I highly recommend you use Contact Sheet. 

Step 6: Create the Collage

Your're almost there! All you have to do now is click on Create Collage and then print off the page.

Picasa, edtech, classroom management

"But where are the names?" Alas, that is one thing I have not figured out how to do yet - type in the students' names. Therefore, once you print out the contact sheet, you have to write the students' names by (gasp!) hand.

That's it! You'll end up finding several uses for having class photo sheets: find someone who activities, taking attendance, discussing students with members of staff and more. However, by far the greatest use I've found has been being able to address students by name after only meeting them once. Everyone likes to feel special and addressing your students by their name after the first lesson sends a clear message to the students: you aren't anonymous. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014 and Youtube: Watching videos with a purpose

Teachers love using videos in the classroom: they are engaging, multi-sensory and provide quasi-authentic language. The question of course is what do you have students do while they're watching the videos? Well, one tool I've come across recently is is a web app that allows users to take notes of online videos (YoutubeKhan AcademyCourseraUdacity) and then store and share their notes using either Evernote or  Google Drive. Why would you want to use this site?

  • Ease of collection - Instead of carrying paper copies, you just have students "share" their work with you (more on that later).
  • Tracking the process - If you are having students write essays on videos, it is a lot harder for them to plagiarize if you are tracking their work from the very beginning. 
  • Collaboration - Students can share their notes and ideas with each other nearly instantly.
  • Safe Keeping - Students "misplace" their paper notes all the time. Unless a student consciously deletes the file from their Google Drive account, their video notes aren't going anywhere.

So how do you use

1) Go to their website and press "Connect with Google Drive", video notes, CALL, edtech,

2) Paste the video clip's url into the box and press "Load video"

save image

3) Give the file a title by clicking on the area above the icons

save image

Now for the fun part. To watch the video and take notes, press play, click on the white space on the right hand side of the page and start typing. What you type will be saved automatically and synced to you drive account!

Here is a sample activity I got from Prof. Ahmet Okal (Çok teşekkür ederim hocam!)

Students watch a sketch from The Carol Burnett Show in which the entire conversation between a man and a woman in a tea shop consists of one word answers. Instead of writing what the characters say, the students write what they mean. For an example of this activity, please click here.

But how do you check to see if your students have done the activity? Glad you asked.

1) Click on share

2) You have three options:

save image

3) But what if you get an error message like the following:

DO NOT PANIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Instead, go to your Google Drive Account and share it from there.

How to share from Google Drive

1) Go to your Gmail account and click on the box looking thing in the upper right corner

save image

2) Click “Drive”

save image

3) Find the file in your Google Drive Account

2) Check the Box

3) Click on the “person plus” button

4) Now you have the same options as described before

save image
Finally, while there have been some issues in my classes (students forgetting to "share" files on time, not remembering to name them,) the overall response has been positive. However, no matter what you do there will be some bugs when you adopt new technology. Therefore, be sure to check out' youtube channel  as well as the several other "How to videos" on youtube.