Beat the teacher

Browsing through a friends bookshelves the other day, I came across a book which until then, I’d somehow pretty much forgotten about. ‘Lessons from the Learner’ by Sheelagh Dellar (Longman 1990) is a real classic, and had a huge influence on what I did and, more importantly, what the learners did in my classes when I first starting teaching. A central objective of the book is (p1) ‘ to create more situations in which the learners can contribute, initiate, control, and create what happens in the classroom’ When I’d trained to be a teacher a few years earlier, I’d learnt lots of great activities to do with learners which involved using coursebooks, or handing out worksheets, but the idea that learners could create their own materials, and that this process could become part of their learning was quite new for me. For instance, instead of providing learners with a ready made worksheet in the classic getting to know you type activity ‘Find someone who…’,  I could enable them to create their own survey by asking them to choose the questions or even the topics that they wanted to ask questions about.

This is all very well for higher level learners, in face to face settings, but is it also possible and useful for beginners, working remotely, to create their own materials? I think it definitely is. Previously on this blog I’ve discussed a vocabulary activity that I do a lot where I have five words written on pieces of paper (all belonging to the same lexical set) and the learners have a minute to guess what the words are. Recently I’ve started adding an extra stage to this where the learners make the papers themselves, and ask me to guess their words. In the video below you can see a beginners class in Zaatari doing this extra stage, and picking 5 things which they can find in the room they are in. Of course, in this version, the learners don’t have to say out loud so many words in English, but they do have to do quite a lot of noticing. They have to go through all the things in the environment around them, think about which ones they can name in English and decide on which things are suitably challenging for me to guess. This leads to lots of decisions about the words and ultimately lots of processing of language. They also get to hear their teacher providing lots of accurate examples of words, and the obvious satisfaction of  seeing their teacher fail miserably in the task 🙂

Of course we might also want the learners to do things where they’re challenged to produce more language. Another activity I do a lot when working online is a kind of memory challenge where I ask the learners to look at a picture for a minute and then ask them some questions about it (How many X are there? Where is the X? What colour is the X? Is there a X in the picture etc) In the video below with the same class in Zaatari, the activity is reversed and the children are asking me questions to test my memory about a picture. This means that they get the practice in asking questions, rather than the teacher. It also means that I get the chance to be a bit more successful in an activity 🙂


Teaching children in Za’atari

This week a post from Julietta Schoenmann who has recently started volunteering with us with a group of Syrian children in Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan. Jules is the joint coordinator of the IATEFL Global issues Special interest group and has just returned from a week training teachers of refugees in Greece. Over to you Jules…

Ding! The screen lights up and thirteen expectant faces are looking at me from their classroom in Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan. I wave and say hello and the girls wave back. It’s 11.30 on a Tuesday morning and our lesson has started!

I’ve been working with Shadia’s class for a few weeks now and we’re getting to know each other quite well. It’s not that easy to do as nothing can take the place of being physically present in a classroom. But the platform provided by Zoom allows us to connect despite the distance between us so I’m getting to know the class slowly: the twins Aya and Asmaa, the three Meleks, Soha and Sajaa…

Jules 1 png

All the girls enjoy drawing so I try to incorporate this into our lessons wherever possible. They are inventive and creative artists, spending time on outlining the details of their families or pictures of their favourite animal. They like singing songs and doing chants too. We recently learnt Bingo! which was part of our topic on ‘animals’. I started the lesson with an animal brainstorm and asked the groups to read out their lists of animals. Then they showed me the pictures they had drawn of their favourite animals for homework. I made a note of all the animals in the pictures then we played a guessing game where I described an animal and they had to say which one it was.

I showed the class a picture of a farmer with his dog Bingo and other animals around him.

Bingo a

I described the picture and then blanked the screen and read out true or false statements to the class about the picture – they had to try and remember what they had seen and say if my statements were true or not.

Then we got to the fun part – clapping! For those of you who don’t know this song, students have to substitute the letters of the name ‘Bingo’ with a clap. The first time they sing the chorus they spell out the whole name B-I-N-G-O but for each subsequent verse you lose a letter until you’re only clapping in the final verse. For example, verse 2 goes Clap I-N-G-O and verse 3 goes Clap clap –N-G-O… I’m sure you get the idea!

Jules 2

Anyway after practising the chorus we were ready to learn the song. Time was now beginning to get a bit short but I sang the song a few times and Shadia fortunately said she knew this song so I didn’t have to worry.

We said the words together and then had a few minutes to try them with the melody before our lesson ended. Shadia told me she would practise Bingo with the class for homework.


The following week I was treated to the most enthusiastic rendition of Bingo that I have ever heard! The girls sang the song word perfect and with incredible gusto, complete with clapping for the chorus. Shadia asked me if I liked the song and I was momentarily speechless, but gathered my thoughts and told her that she and the class had done a wonderful job.

More songs to come in the future for sure with or without the clapping…


Encouraging longer speaking turns

This week we have another guest post from ELT author, teacher trainer and long- term Hands Up Project volunteer, Paul Dummet. Over to you Paul….

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I think for many of us ELT teachers it’s the mutual benefit of language teaching (as students learn, we also learn about them and the wider world) that makes it such a fascinating job. These discoveries happen through the materials that we research and use, for example with folktales, but also when we are able to draw students out and get them to speak more freely about themselves and their worlds. It’s clear that our own ability to make personal connections and to build personal relationships is the key to this. But, as I guess other teachers will have found, that’s not always as easy to do when teaching ‘remotely’, since you can’t so easily make eye contact or use other non-verbal ways to signal encouragement and empathy.

There may be other ‘restricting’ factors too:

  • the students may not be used to that kind of freer conversation in class
  • they may be naturally self-conscious or reticent (particularly in front of a native speaker)
  • the local teacher may keep nominating the same (stronger) students to come forward or may even answer themselves to avoid any embarrassing silences

Whatever the reasons, the result is that student responses are often short, sometimes one word answers, and if longer they are often mediated and aided by the teacher (not that this is necessarily a bad thing now and then, especially if it helps to build learner confidence). So I’ve found myself trying to help students to produce fuller sentences using controlled frameworks in the hope that this will in turn begin to generate a ‘culture’ of longer speaking turns. The ideas are nothing new, but they’ve proved useful with these classes, so I’d like to just share a couple of these activities with you here:

1)   At sentence level. One of the stories I tell the students is about Daniel Kish, ‘The real Bat Man’. He’s a guy who, though blind at birth, taught himself to ‘see’ by using echolocation techniques like a bat. He clicks his tongue two or three times a second and then listens for an echo. He can tell from the loudness of the echo how near an object is and he has become so good at this that he can even ride a bicycle. For the lead-in to the story we discuss characters with superpowers – Batman, Spiderman etc. – and for the follow-up I ask students what superpower they would like to have and why. When I left it at this, they tended to come back with one word answers like ‘fly’ and ‘invisible’, so I took to asking them to put their ideas into the following sentence frame. “I wish I could ….. because then …..”. (Incidentally, I teach a girls’ class and I was really moved by how many said “I wish I could help people … “)

2) At question and answer level. This can either be teacher-to-student or student-to-student questioning and can be applied to a number of different experiences. The idea is to use a table as a framework and for students to fill this in or at least think about what they will put in each box. I use this particular table after the story Nasreddin and the Dinner Party when we’ve talked about what different kinds of parties there are (birthday, wedding, house warming etc). I also elicit the questions (TYPE: What type of party was it?  GUESTS: Who was at the party? FOOD:  What did you eat? CLOTHES: What did you wear?  ACTIVITIES: What activities did you do?  LIKE: Why did you like it?) and then model the Q and A with my own answers and the local teacher’s answers.  (I also use this activity for students to talk about best present they ever received.)

 The best party I went to
Type of party
Reason for liking


3) Simple writing tasks for reading aloud. The idea here is that students write a short (personal) message that they are then able to read back to the class. I use this activity after a story called ‘The Golden Box’ where a 5-year old girl uses the best wrapping paper and ribbon in the cupboard to make a present for her father. Her father is cross with her and even more annoyed when he opens the box to find it is empty. In fact the girl has blown kisses in there for him. When he discovers this he feels awful because it’s the best present he has ever had. We then look at different types of greeting card (birthday, wedding, anniversary, get well soon, good luck etc.) and students write a message to a real friend or relative. Then they come forward and read these in front of the class. This is particularly good for the shy ones who are usually more reticent about coming forward and gives me a welcome chance to get to know them better.

greetings cardshappy birthday

4) Extended speaking turns with time to prepare. Of course, giving students more time to research and prepare what they are going to say is much more likely to yield longer answers. The story ‘Sand and Stone’ (which appears in David Heathfield’s Storytelling book) is great for this with its moral stressing the importance of forgiveness. At the end of the lesson we look at a couple of quotations on forgiveness (e.g. Nelson Mandela: “I cannot forget but I can forgive”) and then I ask students to go away and research or find a favourite quotation. At the next lesson they present their quotation, explaining it and saying why it is important to them.  (The first time they did this they fed back to their local teacher and she in turn fed back to me).

That’s it for now. As I said these aren’t new ideas, but I hope that perhaps they’ll open a discussion about what other teachers do to ‘draw students out’ and to move on from one word answers.

Poems from pictures

Picture1I was  disappointed not to be able to go to the Palestine Expo which took place at the Queen Elizabeth centre in the heart of London, this weekend. This was a huge event, expected to be attended by up to 10.000 people, celebrating Palestinian culture including music, cookery, storytelling and other spoken word events. I’d planned to go but at the last minute something came up and I couldn’t make it. I hope it was a huge success.


So, talking of Palestinian culture, here is a painting by the 17 year old Palestinian artist, Malak Mattar. I used this painting for the poetry writing competition that I launched in my regular column for IATEFL voices magazine. It was open to young learners of English anywhere in the world and the task was to write a poem inspired by the painting of maximum 50 words. Unfortunately there wasn’t space in my column to publish all of the entries so I’m publishing them all here instead (in no particular order). I hope you enjoy them and if, like me and all the entrants, you feel inspired by this painting then please feel free to write your own poem in the comments below.

1) Moon girl (by Natalia Tamas, Hungary)

Everyone looks at her like a Bright Star
She sits on a furry chair
Like she is a beauty of art
She flicks her hair which twisted in the air
She wants to be a person like you
But everyone knows that she is called the Moon.


2) Mission impossible (by Artemis Kyriakou and Ioustina Louzi -Greece)

I paid for the blood
I painted “freedom and peace”
Was it all useless?


3) (by Waed al Sufi, Gaza)

When the moon appears
We sit to read
When the sky is black we read a lot of stories
When the moon appears we read and read
Under the sky we read and read


4) Sleepless night (by Enachescu Octavia – Romania)

The sun has said its final goodbye
Now a lone light in the night sky.
Two pale blue eyes shining in wonder
Waiting for sleep to finally find her.
A raven haired beauty, alone in the night
A single book to save her till daylight. 


5)  (by Nasam Younis, Gaza)

I can see moon and the light
One day I’m go to fly
One day when heaven calls my name
One day I go to fly away
One day I will see your eyes again
I lay down and close my eyes at night
I can see moon and the light


6) Twilight’s colors (by Enachescu Octavia – Romania)

The moon is shining oh so bright
It’s wonder lighting up the night.
For a lonely girl for who to rewrite
Her story, once painted black and white
Now in the colours of twilight. 


7) A lonely angel (by Enachescu Octavia – Romania)

A lonely girl, wishing in the night
Her eyes shining in the moonlight,
A single book forgotten in her hand.
She’s dreaming they would reunite,
Soon, in a city of light.
For it was love at first sight,
Now a lonely princess, waiting for her knight. 


8) A hope for mankind (by Enachescu Octavia – Romania)

The moon is lighting up her eyes
As the last ray of sunlight dies.
Her smile and heart are shining bright
Hoping that she could rewrite
A word filled with hate and lies. 


9) Madam Rose’s lecture (by Canache Ioana-Andreea, Romania)

Madam Rose’s reading a book
Under white moon’s clear look.
Madam Rose reads during the night
About brave knights who fight!
Madam Rose’s reflecting deeply
About time passing inevitably.
About knights’ flashing sharp swords
Turning into society’s venomous words!


10) (by Canache Ioana-Andreea, Romania)

Sparkly black pearls wander through the galaxy,
Maybe they belong up there.
She doesn’t even know why,
But her eyes shine like stars,
Will her beauty wilt like roses,
Will her eyes die when Sun rises?
Beautiful Anastasie with strings of darkness flowing as her hair..
She reads a novel down the stairs.


11) A different world (by Petra Romana, Romania)

A book is a window to a different place
Where your mind can also wander and create
Once you open it there’s no turning back
It will keep you awake and trapped
Inside a world of beautiful and new
Where everything is both lovely and cruel
Words that you read from a book


12) (by Feda Al Sufi, Gaza) 

Under the clear sky,
luminous stars and light moon sat a girl,
a beautiful girl, reading a book to learn and educate to be great to get her freedom
Under the moon, sat a girl

13) (by Ghaidau Tayseer Abu, Gaza)

As if the book in your hands shines with the glint of your eyes too dim
I will make reading a language to shout to all of Palestine
I will look at the moon for nights and days until I remember the spectrum that passed it


Teachers as theatre directors

In previous posts on this blog (for example here and here), I’ve written about the importance of activities which combine controlled and freer language use; the kind of thing where learners get repeated, controlled practice of areas of language, but also where they have opportunities to use language to share their opinions and personalities with the people around them – what we might call genuine communication.

At first glance it might seem that our competition of creating a play script doesn’t really fit into this category. After all, it’s pretty much just about control, isn’t it? (Writing material that is grammatically accurate, rehearsing the lines so that they are pronounced correctly and appropriately, learning the lines by heart etc) However, as with any collaborative creative activity, good playmaking should also involve lots of free talk. Learners need to talk to each other in engaging and motivating ways in order to decide what to make a play about, to agree on how the lines should be said and the way in which people should act, and to reflect on and evaluate each others’ writing and performances. If students are working together in small groups to make plays, it might be a good strategy for them to appoint one person in each group to be the director – to be in charge of making suggestions as to the direction that the play needs to take.

But however much we might insist on English being used for this, it’s natural and understandable, especially if they are lower levels, that the students break into their mother tongue for these conversations. So here’s where the voice of the teacher become important. I think that sometimes teachers need to take on the role of theatre director, and engage in conversations with learners about the way that their plays are taking shape. In the video below you can see me trying to do this through Zoom with a group in Gaza, but if you’re in the room with them, face to face, you’ll be able to do this much more effectively. And because you’ll know your own students much better than I do you’ll also be able to pitch your English at a level that’s just right for them so that it’s a more of a scaffolded learning experience.

Playwriting for beginners

A few weeks ago, I announced that the Hands Up Project will be running a play writing competition for young learners in Palestine. You can read more about the rules of the competition here, and about some of the language learning (and other) benefits that children may get from creating, rehearsing, recording and performing a play in this post.

But as language teachers, how might we best support learners in the process of creating a play? How do we help them to develop ideas and to structure these ideas into something that is accurate and well performed, without taking over too much, and ending up writing the play for them?

Well one simple way of course is to start with a story. This could be a story that everyone already knows, or one that the teacher has told the students in class. It could even be a personal story about something that has happened to one of the students or someone they know.

  • Once the story to be worked with has been agreed upon, ask different groups of learners to write a short dialogue based on a part of the story. You could either assign a different part to each group, or let them choose it themselves. Check their work for accuracy as they are doing it, pushing them to use language at the edges of their abilities.
  • When they’ve finished ask them to think about how they would add gestures and movement to make the scene come alive. If space allows they can practice this. They should also think about how they would say the lines in order to make it as meaningful as possible.
  • When they’re ready, ask them learn their scenes by heart and then perform them in front of the class. The rest of the class can observe and comment on what they see.
  • For homework students might like to develop their scene into a script for the whole story. These could then be performed in front of other classes, presented via video conference link up to other students around the world through the Hands Up Project’s worldwide connections, or filmed and entered into our playwriting competition!
close up Jbene
Girls from Gaza performing a play through Zoom at the IATEFL conference in Glasgow


Another way of working is to start with a topic. Last year at the IATEFL conference in Birmingham I attended an excellent talk by Gobinda Puri, a teacher of English in Nepal. Gobinda works with quite large classes (40-50 students) of grade 9 and 10 students and usually encourages his learners to create plays about social issues which are widely seen as problems in Nepalese society.

His approach to helping the learners create a play follows the following main stages.

1) Students work in groups to discuss which social issue they would like to create a play about.

2) They improvise around the chosen theme.

3) They start writing a script.

4) Gobinda corrects and reformulates what has been written.

5) The students plan how they will perform it. They rehearse and learn their lines

6) They perform their scenes in front of other students.


Here is a very short extract from one of the plays that was created in this way.


Tshomo’s  Father:   Sit here. ( He pulls the cushion close to him and asks her further to sit there) Tshomo, you are grown-up now and moreover, you are female. Today we received Gylpo’s brothers who came here for your marriage with Gylpo. Nanu, you have to marry him for our prestige. We have already decided.
Tshomo:  No, I can’t papa. How come you say so? I want to continue my study.
Tshomo’sFather :  Tshomo, how can you bluntly reject this? You, little girl! You don’t know how good your groom is. Gylpo from lower hill and our in-laws have both name and fame.
Tshomo:  Papa… I can’t … (She cries and runs out of the room. In the mean time, her mother follows her to comfort her. There’s a brief silence for some time.)


So what do you think? Would these approaches work with your learners? What other strategies might there be for helping learners to create their own plays? Please leave a comment below so that we can share ideas about ways to help our students create plays in English.




Your story

This week we have a guest post by one of the latest teachers to join our ever expanding pool of  volunteers around the world, Emi Slater. What Emi writes fits in very well with the current trend in the work of the Hands Up Project to focus more on children creating stories, rather than merely consuming them. Over to you Emi…

I cannot believe that in my little village on top of a hill, deep in central England at 7am on Monday mornings I have been hearing and telling such profound and deep stories. I’ve just started working with the Hands Up Project and Nick asked me to work with a wonderful teacher called Sarah Zahran. She is also new to the project and we have had some fun over the last few weeks getting to know each other and the students despite the foibles of the Palestinian internet.  After the first lesson Sarah asked me if it was really true that there were homeless people in Britain. When I told her there were thousands she asked me “but how! you are such a rich country?”. I was reminded of the time I spent travelling around the Soviet Union on the cusp of Perestroika when people in Siberia regularly asked me if it was really true that all British people had servants. That in turn reminded me of Nick’s comment on this blog that becoming global citizens is the only way out of this mess we are in.

We started with Nassreddin and the dinner party – using the Stories Alive version about a farmer who goes to a party in his work clothes and is rejected because of his appearance.  So cross is he that the party guests only accept him after he has been home to change that he starts to pour food into his pockets, his hat and his trousers. When reprimanded for making a mess he declaims  ‘I’m giving the food to my clothes’ . ‘I think you invited my clothes to the party – not me!’ Sarah had chosen it and it seemed so perfect for a group of 13 year old girls who would presumably be interested in clothes and self-image.

But their responses turned out to be far from such shallow trivia that so often preoccupies British teenagers. By our first lesson the girls had already written out the story, drawn their own pictures and were enthusiastically retelling me the story with their pictures on line. I was blown away by their enthusiasm and asked Sarah if the girls could write down their responses to this tale.

By the next lesson the girls had written their own moralistic tales, illustrated  and even adapted them into mini plays – one about a poor black family who helped the white people despite how badly they had been treated by them, one about a man who, having lost his legs on his journey to work in England, was mocked by his own son for begging because he was too ashamed to return home, one fable depicting the ever increasing divide between rich and poor and one about a man who put a spell on some boys to stop them throwing stones at old people.  I was slightly at a loss – the stories were already so wonderful and they had already illustrated them and performed them! It seemed wrong to start picking them apart and working on language or correcting them or even developing or editing them. The girls voices were strong and clear across cyberspace and I didn’t feel right interfering with such honest, important stories. I felt like I would be threatening the whole delicate and important ethos of the Hands Up project if I started behaving like an “english teacher”. And so it occurred to me that the only thing that might perhaps be useful for the girls was to hear my version of their stories. Partly for language learning purposes (obviously by recasting and extending I was creating more complex sentences which might perhaps be useful for the students to hear and perhaps work with later) but the key reason was confirmation. Confirmation that I had understood their stories correctly, and this not just on a linguistic level but on a human communication level – did I really “get” what they were trying to tell me?  I tried to imagine what it would be like to hear someone Russian (the foreign language I know best) tell me a story that I had tried to write in Russian back to me. I decided it would probably be thrilling and so I suggested it to Sarah. The girls in Sarah’s class seemed to like my version of their stories and you can see them nodding at various points in the video. Is this them responding to my confirmation or is it because they liked or were interested in my version of their story from a language perspective?  And of course they were only my versions.  Certainly I could try harder at it making them fuller, rounder, more vocabulary rich but as Nick has been consistently saying on this blog the simplest things so often work best.

The original story created and told by Palestinian learners of English in a girls school in Jerusalem suburbs, Palestine 

A reformulated version of the same story told by Emi