Pathways to accuracy: “Somewhere Only We Know”

At the beginning of “Somewhere Only We Know” (Keane, 2004), the singer walks “across an empty land” and knows “the pathway like the back of my hand.” In this activity, the students find their way through the maze to read and understand the lyrics of the song while facing a series of challenges related to grammar and sentence structure along the way. The use of articles and possessive adjectives, or differences such as “been”/”gone” or “say”/”tell”, are some of the questions that the students will need to solve as they connect the words with a pencil or a highlighter. The students are also asked to fill in the circles with a suitable preposition. Depending on the level of the students, the prepositions that they are allowed to use can be provided beforehand (although here I’d have them think of an answer first or leave it blank if they don’t know it, check it later when they listen to the song, and then discuss any other possibilities.)


Somewhere Only We Know.pdf


There are plenty of opportunities for language analysis and further practice after the students have listened to the song and checked their answers, but you may also want to work on comprehension and discuss what the song means to each student, get them to share their ideas, and finally compare them with these words by the band’s drummer:

We’ve been asked whether “Somewhere Only We Know” is about a specific place, and Tim has been saying that, for him, or us as individuals, it might be about a geographical space, or a feeling; it can mean something individual to each person, and they can interpret it to a memory of theirs… It’s perhaps more of a theme rather than a specific message… Feelings that may be universal, without necessarily being totally specific to us, or a place, or a time…

Richard Hughes


Don’t Get Me Wrong

Making the right choices: “Lean On Me”

Working on connected speech: The Fresh Prince

The theme song from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is used here to help the students recognise and practise the various features of connected speech which make the stress pattern and rhythm of English so distinctive. Making the students aware of these differences and providing opportunities to work on them allows them to improve their listening and speaking skills and hopefully contribute to make their pronunciation even more intelligible to both native and non-native speakers.

In this activity, the students first watch the show’s introduction with no sound and take turns telling what they think the first-person story is about based on the images. Then they compare their predictions with the actual story once the lyrics are handed out. This is also a good time to play the video with sound once again and introduce new vocabulary.


Focus on sentence stress, read the first few lines and model the differences in prominence between stressed and unstressed syllables.


The students practise the lines chorally and slowly at first, tapping the beat of the song as they sing and gradually reading and singing it faster and faster. As new lines are added to the choral reading/singing, introduce new features of connected speech as needed: elision (losing sounds), linking (adding or joining sounds between words) or assimilation (changing sounds). For instance, most students will struggle with the line “I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air” unless they have worked on linking and elision first.

The group follows the same procedure with the rest of the song, playing it every now and then while checking their progress and areas that may need improving. The following audio file belongs to one of those progress checks in the middle of the lesson:

At the end, the students may be asked to think of possible implications this activity might have on everyday speech, how it could help them improve their speaking and listening skills, and share their ideas with the rest of the class. And now that they are familiar with the lyrics, you can’t miss this video in which “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” is run through Google Translate 64 times with the inevitable hilarious consequences (and a couple of subliminal lessons that any language teacher will relish!)

Fresh Prince by Rebirth Cycle, on Flickr

Fresh Prince” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Rebirth Cycle

Cooperative learning and the language classroom

I admit I sometimes feel jealous when I read other language teaching blogs I follow (most of them, actually): one-to-one settings, diligent adult students who choose to be in the classroom, or small groups at language schools where grouping students for a variety of tasks does not seem to be a problem and language appears to flow naturally and simultaneously. Yes, I know – those teachers have many years of teaching under their belt and with a good repertoire of classroom management strategies! I don’t even know if I could succeed in any of those settings, to be honest.

I belong to the large mixed-ability classroom, where a group of 26 students is considered a luxury one gets to see once in a blue moon and 30 is the norm. I belong to compulsory education and the teenage years, motivating the all too often unmotivated, transforming the infectious energy into meaningful learning, teaching after a tough Maths exam or a long passive lecture. And when it comes to language teaching, beyond basic classroom management, it is the type and quality of interactions and contributions in my classes that I’m most concerned about.

One of the challenges in mixed-ability and/or multi-level groups, for example, is that some students sometimes become over-dominant at the expense of quieter or weaker students who are only occasionally given the chance to participate equally and at their own performance level. Adopting a cooperative learning framework can help to respond to some of these problems by structuring the teaching-learning process through flexible groupings with the aim of boosting language learning through well-defined dynamic classroom interactions.

The first step consists of designing effective cooperative teams. Based on the students’ proficiency level, heterogeneous groups of four are formed at the beginning of the school year including, to the extent possible, high, middle and low achievers, both sexes, and students with different interests and motivations. Once the teams are set up, both the cooperative setting and the specific strategies we use will be characterised by all or most of the following:

1. Everybody working at the same time!

When working cooperatively, every single student in the class is working at the same time, which means more on-task time for them and more interaction going on. There is no one student doing most of the talking, or no quieter student struggling with participation. Take, for instance, a popular cooperative learning strategy such as Numbered Heads Together:

Numbered Heads Together

  • Students count off 4s (or they may be assigned a number for the whole term or year.)
  • Teams discuss a teacher-generated question or work on an activity until all members can answer it.
  • The teacher calls a number 1-4: only those students with the number called can answer.

Because the students do not know who is going to be called, they all need to make sure they can all answer the question or activity, and that they have listened to each other.


2. Less teacher talk, more student talk.

Who has not struggled to some extent with limiting teacher talk or allowing for sufficient thinking time at some point in their career? Cooperative learning strategies put the students at the very centre of the learning process and provide opportunities for quality thinking time while practising the target language.

3. Individual accountability.

Unlike informally assigned groups, where very often some students do all the work while others do little or even none for various reasons, the strategies used in the cooperative classroom are structured so that no student can coast on the efforts of others. Every student in a cooperative team is responsible for his/her own contributions to the group and learning gains. The students engaged in Think-Pair-Share, for example, need to rely on each other to carry out the task:


  • The students work individually on a question or activity before pairing up.
  • Pair shares responses and reaches a consensus.
  • Pairs share with the class.
    (Think-Pair-Square is an alternative strategy in which pairs check with the group of 4 before reporting back to the rest of the class.)

4. Equal participation.

All the students become involved in the learning process no matter their language level. Indeed, each student is encouraged to make unique contributions based on their interests and motivations, which will at the same time assist in developing interpersonal skills that can benefit communication with others. In Roundtable, it is the addition of the students’ contributions that will be reported to the whole class:


  • The teacher poses a question/activity.
  • The students take turns to write answers down.
  • It may be sequential, with one paper being passed over, or simultaneous, with four papers going around at the same time.
  • Teacher calls a number 1-4.

5. Sink or swim!

In cooperative teams the success of each member of the group depends on the success of the whole team. Apart from making sure each student does well, this positive interdependence also requires that the students make sure they can understand each other during the task, so communication strategies that allow them to speak and listen for understanding become the most relevant.

Of course, our ultimate goal is to improve the linguistic competence of each and every one of our students, who should be able to read, write, listen and speak independently in a variety of contexts and for multiple purposes. Devoting classroom time to cooperative work, though, will certainly help to promote a rich, communicative and interactive environment based on differentiation and equal participation, an environment in which the students are assessed both individually and as a team as they work together towards the same goal.

It takes time to set up a cooperative classroom that works, and strategies should be introduced little by little, but in my experience it’s not only worth it but a much better way to respond to so many of the challenges we face in the language classroom on a daily basis.

JOHNSON, D.W., JOHNSON, R.T. & HOLUBEC, E.J. (1994): Cooperative Learning in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

KAGAN, S. & KAGAN, M. (1994): The Structural Approach: Six keys to cooperative. In S. Sashran (Ed.) Handbook of Cooperative Learning Methods, pp. 115-133. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press

SLAVIN, R.E. (1992): When and why does Cooperative Learning increase achievement? Theoretical and empirical perspective. In R. Hertz-Lazarowitz and N. Miller (Eds.). Interaction in cooperative groups. The theoretical anatomy of group learning, pp. 145-173. New York: Cambridge University Press

individual -v- group by Sean MacEntee, on Flickr

individual -v- group” (CC BY 2.0) by Sean MacEntee


Avoid Randomness: Three Other Ways of Grouping Students

Team building and collaboration: Up for a challenge? 

I’m Going Back

I’m a big fan of All at C, probably the first blog with high quality teaching resources that I started following. Their superb lessons based on the John Lewis ad of the year are a classic in my classroom, so when I watched Heathrow’s Christmas advert a few days ago the first thing I did was to check their site. Call it premature seasonal impatience, but I also couldn’t help but start sketching my own activity as I look forward to further inspiration.

Heathrow’s ad is about an ageing teddy bear couple, Mr. and Mrs. Bair, who arrive at the airport and start their journey through it before reuniting with their family. The students work on the story line below in which the different situations they experience are explained with pictures. To guide them through the process, the students are also provided with a list of words that serves two purposes: to introduce difficult or unknown words (such as dangle, mistletoe or conveyor belt) and to help them to explain what is going on when using the picture prompts and establishing connections between them.


I’m Going Back.pdf

Watch the beginning of the video first until 0:12 and do the first three scenes with the students in order to introduce the characters and the context, and for the students to get familiar with the procedure. The students then work together and write down what they think might be happening in each situation. When the students have finished, watch the video until 1:00 and have them check their answers, comment on any differences, and make any necessary changes.

Finally, the students make predictions about the end of the video orally and then watch it. In the large blank circle, they work independently and draw the picture or pictures that they think best depict that final scene. In addition, they may also add three words that can help to explain their personal reaction to it. Sharing and comparing their answers with the rest of the class at the end is bound to leave a memorable, lasting impression based on each student’s unique feelings and beliefs.


Images from, Public Domain.

6 simple web-based applications for short writing tasks

There are several free websites that allow you to write any type of text collaboratively, illustrate it, create a comic or a storyboard, or even to design other more sophisticated forms of writing such as interactive stories. Most of them, however, require student registration and therefore parental permission may be needed, and they tend to be time-consuming for short writing tasks. Even so, there are still a small number of web-based applications to publish different types of writing that are extremely easy to use, supported by all operating systems and web browsers, and which can be lots of fun! This last step in the writing process is often saved as a picture, which can be then shared on a flash drive or by email — and no registration is needed.

Star Wars Intro Creator

This application allows students to write their own opening crawl and play it later. Just enter your text in each of the spaces available, including the title and a sub-title, then copy the url at the end, and finally paste it for it to be shared.


This crawl creator offers multiple publishing possibilities for creative writing. So far I have used it to have the students publish short writings based on their daily routines (waking up early in the morning can get the most epic and dramatic narrative effects from teenagers!) Introducing your lesson or project objectives, or even providing a summary of the work done at the end, are also attention-catching and memorable ways in which this tool can be used in the classroom.

Newspaper Clipping Generator and Newspaper Article Generator.

Both applications allow you to create newspaper-looking articles just by filling in the blank spaces with the newspaper name, the headline, the date, and the article itself. One of them even allows you to upload a picture to go with the article. Click on the “Generate” or “Make it” buttons and save as a picture.


These articles can be follow-up news to something the students have read, either fictional or factual, or perhaps a news item that they would like to see in the near future related to new discoveries and inventions — even some big change that will contribute to make our world a better place! The students could also use these newspaper generators to write and share what they did over their summer or spring holidays, or during a school trip, either on their own or after interviewing other classmates.


Mobile Phone Text Creator

Use ifaketext to have students write simple phone text conversations to exchange personal information or make arrangements with friends, introduce grammar or vocabulary in context (perhaps using some of your students’ names and the information you have about them to make it even more personal and meaningful), or to check comprehension of a story by having the students write a dialogue between two or three characters in it. Once again, all you need to do is enter the text, add as many lines as needed, and then save the conversation as a jpeg

Speech Bubble Editor

Simply upload an image, add speech and thought bubbles to it, and save the whole thing as a picture. Create a story or a comic, show understanding of a text by writing key sentences on a picture that is relevant to the text, compare what the people in the pictures are saying and what they could be thinking — the sky’s the limit!speech-bubble-editor

Tweet Generator

We all know about the summarising power of tweets, limited to just 140 characters. Apart from summarising a text, this tweet generator could also be used to write your personal reaction to a text, your opinion about an issue that will be discussed in class, or to highlight what each student has learnt during the lesson and share their reflections with the rest of the class. I also use it as part of a interdisciplinary project after reading some extracts from Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days”; the students then design their own trip around the world in 8 days using a variety of means of transport and writing one tweet a day in which the students provide clues about the place they are visiting that day but without mentioning the place name. At the end, the students work together to trace each others’ routes on world maps and even assess whether travel times and time zones are used correctly.tweet-creator

“Annabel Lee”

In this illustrated version of Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “Annabel Lee”, the students get engaged in three main tasks as they complete the poem:
– filling in the blank circles with a word from the word bank,
– using lexical and grammatical knowledge to find a suitable word for any rectangle, and
– matching a few verses from the poem with the pictures with no words.




But this activity can also be part of a larger lesson that focuses on comprehension and helps the students to identify story elements and  key words in a text, and then use them to write a summary. Before reading the poem, the students are asked to focus on the beginning of the story: describing the picture with the setting first, then reading the first two lines and writing the following two verses using one of the rhyming words provided, and finally making predictions about what they think their story could be about based on a number of key words. Apart from setting the scene and getting the students ready for the reading comprehension activity, this lead-in also introduces the students to summarising skills that will be practised later in the lesson


Annabel Lee Lead-In.pdf

After working on the poem and checking understanding by having the students look for words with a similar meaning in the text and complete a story map, the students choose five words from the poem that help to explain how they feel about it. This personal reaction to the text and the selection of words that determine the mood of the story will be the basis for the summary that the students will be writing at the end of this lesson.


Annabel Lee Follow-Up.pdf

Special thanks to Kena Piña for giving permission to use her brilliant illustrations in this activity and to publish it here. Please check her blog at


My younger students have just created some simple flip books at home based on the poem “Oranges” by Gary Soto to summarise the work done so far and demonstrate comprehension, share them with the rest of the class, and use them for future reference.


“Oranges” by Gary Soto

The students are now working on a sequel to the story, with some students describing the protagonists as a married couple in 20 years’ time, others writing from either the boy’s or girl’s point of view immediately after the narrative, and there’s even one student who has chosen to write a little bit more about the shop assistant and her relationship with her customers! I’m really looking forward to their writings and checking how well they are able to incorporate the narrative techniques and linking expressions we have been practising. But how did we end up here?

1. “Oranges” is a great poem for intensive guided reading in which questions are posed orally as the whole group reads the poem, engaging the students in conversations about the text. These will range from simple questions which will often require that the students provide evidence from the text to other higher-order comprehension skills such as reading between the lines, comparing two characters, analysing point of view, or explaining the meaning of words using the context. For instance, these are all questions that could be asked for the first few lines:

Line 1: Who is “I”?
Line 2: What do you think this story will be about?
Line 4: What season is it?
Line: 4 Why do you think he is carrying two oranges?
Line 7: What is “cracking”? (look at “cold”, “December”, “frost”, “my breath before me, then gone”)
Line 11: Is this his first time at the girl’s house? How do you know?

2. A lot of vocabulary was highly visual, so apart from context clues a few pictures were used to check understanding.

3. After reading and discussing the text as a whole group, the students worked on the worksheet below where the poem is divided into seven parts. For each part, the students thought of a title that summarised the scene and wrote down what the characters involved could be thinking or actually saying by filling in the thought and speech bubbles.


4. Finally, the students edited their writing in class and took it home to be published in the form of flip books, which would be later shared in class for them to find similarities and differences and comment on them.

Indeed, demonstrating understanding does not only consist of recalling information or analysing parts of a text effectively; it also involves making it personal and being able to respond to it in a way that connects with your interests and your way of seeing the world. This year the students were asked to dive into the text and choose the words they could hear, and they are now producing a piece of writing from a point of view of their choice based on whatever made more sense to them at that moment. Combined with an appropriate use of the writing skills we have been practising in the last few weeks, these choices will surely result in some memorable pieces of writing that we will all enjoy.

Like that time a few years ago when a thirteen-year-old came up to me at the end of this lesson and asked if he could make a film out of the poem. He mentioned something about Lego, and I admit I only insisted on the comprehension skills I was looking for together with other task requirements and deadlines, and largely ignored the project details that he had come up with during the lesson. A few days later he brought this video to class:

The true impact that holding high expectations for every single student that we teach has on learning, and how maximising students’ strengths — including their interests and motivations — affects and boosts language learning , should probably belong to a blog post in its own right. For the time being, let’s just put it down to the power of choice.

Orange by fred_v, on Flickr

Orange” (CC BY 2.0) by fred_v

Nickel by Accretion Disc, on Flickr

Nickel” (CC BY 2.0) by Accretion Disc

macro dime 410d by safoocat, on Flickr

macro dime 410d” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by safoocat

Bleachers by Jimmy Mallinson, on Flickr

Bleachers” (CC BY 2.0) by Jimmy Mallinson

lunch at Miss Woo by Muffet, on Flickr

lunch at Miss Woo” (CC BY 2.0) by Muffet

Red Apple Candy Aisle by Random Retail, on Flickr

Red Apple Candy Aisle” (CC BY 2.0) by Random Retail

Orange Peels by eFlate, on Flickr

Orange Peels” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by eFlate

10 Halloween songs

In this activity, the students first read a narrative ‘poem’ and complete a story map with as much information from the story as they can. After discussing the parts of the story that remain unclear or open to interpretation, the students think of a title for the story, write it down at the top, and share it with the rest of the group.


Once the students are familiar with the ‘poem’, explain to them that each verse has been taken from ten songs considered to be the top ten Halloween songs in this publication by Billboard in 2014. Their task now is to find which song each of the verses in the poem belongs to. Depending on the level of the students, this can be done by having them read the lyrics, fill in the missing lines independently or in small groups, and then check by listening to the songs, but you can also provide extra help by playing a few lines or providing extra oral prompts as needed. In all cases, although the students will be mainly using context clues to decide which line best fits each gap, they should also be asked to focus on rhyme schemes as a valuable aid in completing the task. Model the procedure and the type of thinking behind with one or two songs before having the students start working by themselves.

The songs in the worksheet can be cut out and played at random so that the students can decide on their own top ten ranking list at the end, compare it with the official list, and discuss any differences. Alternatively, after playing a few of the songs for checking or correction purposes you can have the students start guessing which song will be the next one and create further interest. No matter how you approach it, this process of reconstruction will surely get the students working on a variety of complex language skills in an engaging and meaningful way!

10 Halloween Songs.pdf

10. “This Is Halloween” – Danny Elfman (2006)

9.“Highway to Hell” – AC/DC (1979)

8. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” – Blue Oyster Cult (1976)

7. “Creep” – Radiohead (1992)

6. “Superstition” – Stevie Wonder (1972)

5. “Werewolves of London” – Warren Zevon (1978)

4. “Deal With the Devil” – Pop Evil (2013)

3. “Ghostbusters” – Ray Parker, Jr.(1984)

2. “Monster Mash” – Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers (1962)

1. “Thriller” – Michael Jackson (1984)

Guess what’s being advertised

Eleven TV ads have been cut off in the video below to allow students to make their own guesses about what is being advertised in each of them, revise and learn new vocabulary, and practise structures used to talk about personal opinion and hypotheses. Just stop the video at each question mark, write the students’ guesses up on the board and introduce new vocabulary when needed, and hold short whole-class discussions in which the students explain the clues that support their ideas.

Before watching the second part of the video, go over the students’ predictions for each of the ads and check the answers!

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Rewriting established texts: the day they got creative

The task is simple: get a newspaper article or a book page and create a new text that can be read from top to bottom using some of the words in it, be it in the form of a simple sentence, perhaps some sort of hidden message or poem, or even a snapshot from a story. And yet, there is something about manipulating established texts that makes it work so well with students, challenging meaning or tone and playing with the language at all levels.

Admittedly, erasure or blackout writing is a popular activity in L1 language arts classrooms, but there are several valuable language learning advantages it offers in the EFL classroom as well:

1. Flexibility: Students can write at their own level, from very simple sentences to more elaborate and sophisticated types of text.

2. Accuracy: No matter the level, the students engaged in this type of activity will need to draw from various language skills as they build their sentences, choosing their words carefully and discarding others when they can’t go together, or looking for that word category that should continue the sentence they are working on among the limited possibilities. In all cases, the students will be analysing the meaning and form of the language items they choose as they try to achieve a specific purpose or effect.

3. Creativity: Most of the times, when facing several options the students will usually go for the most unique, different, mysterious or entertaining due to the nature of the task itself. In general, the more different from the original text, the better.

After modelling the activity, I usually have teams of students work on a text in class so that they can get familiar with the procedure, and then assign another text for individual work. The samples below, for instance, were done last week by teenage students with certified B1 and B2 levels of English. The students worked on these at home for a few days, checked their final option with me before publishing, and then shared them with the rest of the class. Having teams of students read other classmates’ texts and come up with plausible interpretations, or discussing the type of story or context in which they would most likely expect to find each of them, are all ways that help the students analyse each other’s work and improve their reading comprehension skills.

This week we are voting for the ones we like most and will soon use a few as narrative writing prompts. Would you be able to choose from any of the samples below?