…and the classroom stars aligned – in class use of the PHaVE dictionary

It was one of those lessons where things just seemed to flow smoothly and in this case from a routine exam revision session to using a program (the PHaVE dictionary) I had hacked up not too long ago (is my head getting too big?).

The class was TOEIC revision, and we were doing some exercises related to part 5 and part 6 of the exam (the grammar/vocab parts).

One of the exercises was on phrasal verbs and this expansion activity listed some phrasal verb headers and asked students to check a dictionary to pick some particles and write example sentences.

Since I had the PHaVE dictionary available on englishbox (pirate box) on my phone I asked the students to connect to it and use that instead.

I was really pleased that they had a relevant task to use the PHaVE dictionary with as I had only demoed the dictionary in a previous session (as a resource to use outside class) and so not made much use of it in class until now.

The advantage of using such a restricted list as the PhAVE instead of a full-blown dictionary is speed of use which means more focus on the task at hand instead of depending on dictionary skill use (which is not to say such skills should not be practised).

Thanks for reading.

Jigsaw listening with BBC Engineering Connections

Engineering Connections with presenter Richard Hammond is a BBC series (though originally on  National Geographic Channel) about general engineering. Each episode looks at an engineering structure/technology as developed from earlier/other technologies.

The sometimes surprising connections lends itself naturally to an engaging lead-in. So for the example of the Formula One (F1) racing car episode (Series 3 Episode 2) one can project the following phrases taken from the introduction of the episode:

  • A revolution in artillery
  • A new design for a jet engine
  • An ancient boat
  • Protective armour
  • Swords

and ask students how these five things are related. After some time for responses and letting the students know that they are all related to a F1 race car,  there is inevitably a lot of curiosity about how some of the 5 things could be related. The lead-in could be extended to include a discussion of the various hypotheses students may have.

Students are then put into 5 groups and assigned one of the five connections to watch and take notes on. They need to be able to explain to the class afterwards the details of how their connection is related to the topic of the episode. If you have fewer than 5 groups, each group could be assigned to more than one connection or one of the connections could be seen by all groups.

The length of each connection in an episode averages to about 8 mins (a typical episode is generally about 50 mins in total).

The class discussion involves a lot of language related to engineering lexis as well as general English lexis. And even more importantly students are motivated enough to get their classmates to explain more clearly their feedback allowing them to practice concept checking questions, rephrasing etc.

The only downside is that I don’t personally like Richard Hammond and in some of the series his inane grinning can grate!

What’s that sound…?

In issue 63 of  TESOL France magazine an article by Mike Harrison (@harrisonmike) encourages teachers to use sound in the classroom. Inspired by this push I wanted to post this lesson idea.

To get students into the mood for focused listening get them to close their eyes and listen to their environment for one minute.

After a minute, ask the class to list all the things they heard in the school environment around them. Ask them to think about what the sounds might be, how near or far away they were, whether they were discrete or continuous, natural or man-made.


Then play them track 3. Dead Wood ‘Warming’ from below.

Ask them –  What kind of words could you use to describe the sounds? What images do you see?

Here work could be done on the language the class produces in response to the questions.

Some of the following words to describe sounds could be used to prompt students:



After the class has time to respond to the questions tell them that the piece of music was made in response to a photo. So what do you think the photo was? How would you describe the photo?

Again language produced here can be worked on.

Then four photos could be shown and students are asked to pick the one they think inspired the piece of music that they heard.

Photo number three of a wooden structure peeling and drying was the photo which inspired track number 3.

There can be many follow up/alternative activities should the lesson be a hit, e.g. play some more tracks from the INSTAGR/AM/BIENT project and match to photos already shown; students can draw a response to the sounds heard; they can write a story or a scene inspired by the sounds. See the one minute listening site for more ideas.


@mikeharrison recording at #vrtwebcon 2012 where he shows how to use sound effects in the classroom.

Waiting for Babel – some thoughts on using translation

I was made aware of a recent trend in the use of translation in class via this post by Willy Cardoso which in turn linked to the work of Philip Kerr.


I had done a lesson a couple of years back which involved using a French pop music video where someone had already translated the lyrics into English. The students tried to match the French lines to the translated English lines.

The video itself was interesting to the students and the task itself called for use of dictionaries and my occasional support. But before, during and after the task I had a niggly feeling about whether it was okay to use translation. At the time the school I work in (funnily enough not so much now) insisted that students be discouraged from using their native language in class. Also monolingual dictionaries are heavily promoted there. In addition my French then and now is shaky at the best of times.

My doubts got the better of me even though the actual experience demonstrated the benefits of using translation and consequently I never used translation as the main task in a lesson until recently.


From  my casual readings into the reasons for translating, the principal one in my view is  that of ‘support’ whether in terms of cognitive support (learners naturally use L1 in understanding L2) or motivational support (using material that they may be exposed to in their daily lives outside of the English classroom).

So with two groups of multi-media students I asked them to ‘help your teacher learn French‘ by translating two episodes of a very popular comedy show called “Bref” which is ideal to use since each episode lasts from 1 to 2 mins. Each group (each in turn split into four subgroups) translated a different episode that I assigned.

Also I did not give them a deadline for the work – I wanted to include some measure of motivation which I thought I could gauge by whether the groups would do the task as soon as they could.

The task also included doing a subtitle file for their translation so they also had to look up how to make subtitle files.

What was clear in class was that by framing the task as ‘help your teacher to learn French’ certainly made them curious and managed to spark their interest.

Language points

By the following week one main group had done the translations, and two subgroups from this had done it in the form of a subtitle file. The second main group had not finished the translation.

I took one of the sub-groups’ translation, projected it on the board and went through it. I asked the other subgroups to check how it differed from theirs. After a short discussion of this, which raised some useful language points, I also asked them to share with each other new words and phrases they had learnt.

The language points raised in class included use of no articles, vocabulary choice, use of tense.

I plan to use the translations the groups produced in a reverse translation exercise when I see them next, whereby I would give the translations made by group 1 to group 2 and vice versa and ask them to use Google to translate the English back into French then further revise this into acceptable French.


One limit to using translation appeared when I read the translations after class – the issue of translating humour and in particular play on words type of humour. With an advanced class maybe exploring pragmatics and context in language discourse could be useful but with lower levels the complexity involved would overwhelm. Of course I am assuming this and I may well be wrong!

In any case I would be interested in comments from bi-lingual readers able to translate the bolded words in the following which appears at the start of an episode called ‘I took the metro’:

Le tournage de cet épisode n’a pas été autorisé dans les transports en commun. Il a donc été réalisé sans transports en commun. Ne tentez pas de reproduire cela chez vous.

My attempt so far:

‘The shooting of this episode was not allowed on the public transportation system. So don’t expect it to make you laugh. And don’t try this at home.


Asked this on wordreference.com and best one seems to be:

The filming of this episode in the public transit system was not authorized. Therefore, don’t expect to be carried away by it.

suggested by member pointvirgule.

Online whiteboard to enhance reading activity

The scale of the universe is an amazing interactive animation showing the universe from the smallest to the largest. It was created by 14-year-old twin boys.

I decided to use it in a reading activity alongside trialling the use of an online whiteboard.

As students explored the scale of the universe they had to note down

  1. 5 new things they discovered
  2. make notes on 10 objects
  3. write down 10 new words they met

I told my first group  to write the above into an online whiteboard – DabbleBoard (now defunct, see picture below, names removed to protect the hopeless).

It turned out that I should have advised them to first open up a notepad, use that and then copy paste into whiteboard. Since they had difficulty entering text directly and which would disappear occasionally.

Another issue to be aware of is the temptation for them to fool around drawing over their classmates words and such like. Although this is the other side of the coin of using such a tool.

I am not sure if I would use an online whiteboard for a reading activity again. I plan to try it with a video listening activity where students would invent some comprehension questions, write them on the whiteboard and then try to answer their classmates’ questions.

Dabbleboard reading activity
Dabbleboard reading activity

(Dabbleboard reading activity)

Additional note –  a good thing about Dabbleboard is that you don’t need to invite users by email, guests can just go to web link for the whiteboard, this saves the need to collect emails.

Update 1:

Dabbleboard is somewhat buggy and you risk losing drawings, so I cannot recommend it for now. I guess I will go back to Google docs! If anyone can recommend a good online whiteboard which doesn’t require participants to login let me know!

Update 2:

Recently did this activity again and recorded the shared Google document groups used to answer the task questions (revised questions to two). The recording below is of a low intermediate group.

Update 3:

Nathan Hall () has been writing about online collaboration tools which you can read about here and here.

SoundCloud commenting and enhancing listening activities

Sometimes things are staring you in the face and you don’t know it until someone points it out. Such was the case with SoundCloud and language listening activities. I had signed up for a SoundCloud account sometime in 2009 to put up a couple of re-mixes I had made. I immediately liked the user interface, the way the audio waveform is displayed but I did not take too much notice of the commenting feature.

Then recently I read Soundcloud for listening practice by Tyson Seburn. Doh! Why did I not think of that!

I prepared a new account called English Listening, uploaded an audio file and added the 4 listening tasks that Tyson Seburn wrote in the form of 4 comments.

1. Choose two 10 second parts and write down what you hear word for word
2. Choose a two sentence part, think about it then write it in your OWN words.
3. Choose one idea from the audio and write your opinion of it.
4. Read all the opinions and comment on at least one by giving your view/opinion.

Note for free accounts you are limited to 120 minutes of audio. I also made the account private, SoundCloud provides a link which you can use to send to students.

Things to consider

  • Login IDs for students – they need to have either a SoundCloud account or Facebook account. If they have neither then they need to sign up to a SoundCloud account which is relatively painless.
  • Clearly labelled ID – so that you can recognise who is who. If for some reason this is not clear in the ID, make sure they label themselves in the comments.
  • Where to comment? – for students who are new to SoundCloud will need to point out that you can pick a relevant part of the audio to comment. For task 1 and 2 this should be straightforward; task 3 is more ambiguous since equally valid to comment as a reply to the task comment as to the relevant part of the audio.
  • Copyright issues – Always a blurry line this one for language teachers, with this particular listening I forget where I took it from and so can’t ascribe source. Assuming it is covered by non-commercial use!
  • Commenting system – is not ideal to enable deep interactions and also with very large classes it can soon become an abstract piece of artwork.

For the two groups I trialled this with I left it as an ongoing task to complete at their leisure with the proviso that they need to leave a comment/s by the end of two weeks.

(Example of student comments)