The translation game

The other day I found myself suddenly having to cover an online session in Gaza because I’d forgotten that one of our volunteers wasn’t able to make it. I didn’t have any specific plans so I began by asking the boys what they would like to do in the session. Several of them said they’d like to hear me talking Arabic, so we came up with this simple and highly enjoyable idea for a game.

The boys took it in turns to come up to the webcam and interact with me.  I tried to say something in Arabic and they tried to translate it into English. Then we did it the other way round – with them saying something in English which I had to translate into Arabic.

There are four things I particularly liked about this activity…

  1. It seemed to be a great way to combine some inner with outer language use (Willis 1992) -(See one of my early blog posts for more details about Jane Willis’s way to categorise classroom discourse). In fact it seems that for the learners, the inner language – the sentences that got translated – were actually quite a minor part in comparison with all the outer language that happened around discussing the translations.
  2. The activity plays around with traditional status patterns in the classroom by turning the students into teachers and the teacher into a student. I think this is good for us all.
  3. It was a completely spontaneous activity. We thought of it on the spot but also the sentences that we asked each other to translate came up spontaneously; sometimes out of the things that we’d been saying to each other. Khalid’s idea to ask me to translate ‘I don’t have any grey hair’ when we had just been talking about this was brilliant, as was the way he gently teased me by saying ‘You will win fil mish mish’ 🙂
  4. Because of 1 and 2 and 3 it was a lot of fun.

Willis, J. (1992) Inner and Outer: spoken discourse in the language classroom in Coulthard, M. Advances in Spoken discourse analysis; Routledge p 162 -183

The Hands Up Project at IATEFL, Glasgow

Anyone who came to my talk about drama at IATEFL, Glasgow on Tuesday will have seen two groups of children performing live two traditional Palestinian stories, Jbene and The farmer who followed his dream. The performances were excellent and the audience of over 150 people from around the world were very moved by the experience. Thank you girls for the amazing show you put on, and thank you too for your teachers, Sahar Salha and Saida Madhoon for putting it all together so well.

Reverse physical stories

I’ve always liked Total Physical Response (TPR) as as an approach to language learning. It’s a safe and relatively unchallenging activity for learners, but at the same time it provides them with lots of  meaningful and highly memorable language exposure. Perhaps most importantly, it’s fun and it tends to make people laugh. Over the past two years I’ve used it a lot in the Hands Up Project, particularly in the form of physical stories where the I tell a story and ask for volunteers to come up to the webcam and act it out with me. In fact my first ever blog post was about it, and I also like this variation that I wrote about here

Recently, however I’ve started doing things the other way around. As a follow up to a physical story – often as homework – I ask the students to create their own physical stories and I tell them them that in the next session I will listen to their stories and act them out as they tell them.

In the video below you can see this happening in practice. The girls are taking in turns to come up and tell the stories that they wrote for homework. In fact it’s not just me, but also our newest volunteer Iwan who is performing the stories (Iwan was expecting to be just observing the session!) I’d be interested to know what you think of it as a technique and whether it is something that’s achievable in your classes.



A new adventure begins..

This week another Hands up project volunteer, Sibel KarataŞ, a teacher of Turkish and English based in Berlin writes about her experiences working with a large girls group in Hebron, Occupied Palestine…….

When I was first asked if I wanted to do online sessions with students from disadvantaged areas, I got really excited and a bit scared. As a non-native teacher of English, I had my doubts about whether I could have an effective communication with the students over a video conference. Not only was it going to be a strange way of communicating,  but also it was teaching students that I had no information about. Of course I would get the information I needed before the session, like their age, level, and number of students in the class. But, would that be enough to be able to really reach the students  without being amongst them, without being one of them? Would they be willing to do this, would their English be enough to understand the instructions and the story I would tell them? Would they like my way of storytelling. How about their psychology? They could be mad at the whole world including me. And most importantly, could I really do this successfully as this would be my first experience? These were the questions that were difficult to answer before diving in. After Nick’s training about how to do an online storytelling session and after I watched one of his sessions, it became more concrete in my mind. Since then, I have considered it as an invaluable opportunity to make a difference in these students’ lives and to have a satisfying experience for my career. In every session, I see that the students are so self-confident, eager and motivated, and I should try even harder to satisfy them in every session. One more thing that I am impressed with is that they are full of love, and they look much happier than most students living in much better conditions.

The session I am going to write about was with the students from Hebron, a Palestinian city. They are 13 or 14 years old and their English level is quite good.

At the beginning of the session, students performed the story they did the previous week. It was well prepared and fun to watch.

As the warm up sets the tone for the rest of the session and gives an idea of what to expect from that session, it was important to start with a warmer which was gripping and related to the story. So, I started describing a picture from the story, Nasreddin and the Dinner Party, and asked them to draw what I described. When they were finished, some of them showed me their drawings and I showed them the real picture, introducing them to the main character of the story they were going to hear in that session. Then I told the story, changing the tone of my voice according to the characters, speeding up and slowing down according to the importance of the parts. After we talked about the moral of the story, I showed them jumbled pictures of the story and asked them to put the pictures in the correct order. With the help of pictures, students could visualize the story they listened to and complete the blanks in their minds related to the parts of the story they didn’t understand fully while I was telling it.

For the next activity, I showed some of the lines of dialogues from the story and asked the students to say which character in the story said each one. Then, I showed them some sentences in jumbled order and asked them to unjumble them. In that way, they saw the summary of the story in written form twice in these two different activities. These sentences were deliberately chosen to give the complete summary of the story and to repeat new vocabulary for the students to have a better understanding. And they were ready to retell the story. Some of them were fine, some of the were great.. But all of them gave the impression that they paid attention to what I did during the session, had fun and comprehended enough to retell it in their own words. That was more than enough for me.

Retelling a story is an opportunity for the students to think about the story’s elements such as setting, characters and plot. As the students retell the story from memory, it makes them focus on how to create and organize the story, rethinking about the vocabulary and structures that they have learnt during the session. It is an effective way of developing critical thinking and speaking skills. That’s way I am planning to do a retelling activity at the end of each session.

Next week they will perform the story and I am looking forward to seeing their performance. I also want to thank their lovely and dedicated teacher, Nabiha.







Meaning-focused activities

This week we have something rather special – a guest post from Jane Willis. Jane has been a supporter of the Hands Up Project for a long time and is on the advisory panel – offering us support in bringing task based learning into the work that we do. Over to you Jane….

I have really enjoyed watching the Story Alive Project, both the clips of learners’ performances of the stories and the videos of teachers demonstrating activities you can do to prepare for story-telling.  The enthusiasm of the learners shines through!   I’ve also enjoyed reading the blogs and comments on using PP P for teaching grammar.

In this blog post, I am going to make a distinction between form-focused and meaning-focused activities,  introduce the concept of Task-based Learning and ask you some questions.

In a PPP lesson, Presentation and Practice of a grammatical structure are form-focused activities; yes, the meaning can be made clear, but the main focus is on saying and writing  the  new forms correctly.  When, in the Production stage, learners use the new structures to make their own personal sentences, these may be true, but the focus is still primarily on the form.   Learners can often do this quite well in controlled conditions while thinking about the new structure they have just been taught.   And this is useful practice, but here is my first question:  is this type of Production free enough to help learners communicate in everyday situations where they want to use English to express their own meanings?  To talk or chat to people who don’t speak their language?

When using language in real-life, we do not just speak in sentences containing similar grammar structures. In fact we don’t need to speak in sentences, we speak in meaning units.  Every day communication is meaning-focused, we use whatever words and phrases best express our meanings – our focus is on getting someone else to understand what we mean. The phrase ‘D’you know what I mean?’ is one of the commonest phrases in spoken English!

My second question for you is – how much time does the average  learner get in each lesson for individual meaning-focused language use?  to speak freely in class, (not just to practise one structure),  to interact with each other in English, maybe with the teacher, or in pairs?  to put to use whatever  language they can remember in order to find out things about each other, to play a guessing game ? To ask questions as well as answer, to compare what they did or are planning to do at the week-end, to tell stories about their own lives?  Can you work it out?  How many minutes in a week? A term?

Nick suggested re-ordering a PPP lesson on future plans . He started  with the 3rd P,  Production, but using truly  meaning-focused interactions . Stage 1 was the teaching telling the class about their plans for next Friday (meaning focussed – learners always like hearing about the teacher’s own lives and will be trying to understand), stage 2 was  learners telling each other their plans (meaning-focused), followed by  stage 3 – teacher chatting about the learners’  plans using natural conversational language containing a variety of language patterns . So Nick’s stages 1-3 are all meaning- focused  and these will  help the learners get used to taking part in  normal English interactions.  The learners may well express their meanings just using words and phrases they know, and inevitably will be making mistakes, but if their meaning is clear, they have succeeded in communicating in English and should be praised!    In Nick’s lesson, later stages 4-7 PRESENTATION and PRACTICE are more closely form-focussed, but the input is all taken from the learner’s earlier contributions with an added memory challenge to make it fun, and to make the learners really listen to the meanings of the corrected sentences.   (And note here, that if learners are not sure of their plans, they might need to express uncertainty, using words like might or perhaps….)

Nick’s  lesson is similar to Task-based learning,  (TBL) which leads from focus on MEANING to a focus on language itself and specific  FORMs.  A task is a goal-oriented activity – the goal gives learners a reason to communicate and find out things, in order to solve a problem, to find things in common or to  hold a survey. If they can achieve the goal, they have been successful in their communication (even if their English is not perfect!)

Nick’s lesson could easily be turned into a Task-based lesson by setting an explicit goal, e.g. asking learners to find out what are the three most common  plans in their class, or asking learners to decide on which person in their group  is going to have the most interesting Friday?   The laziest Friday? The most unusual Friday? The busiest Friday? etc.

  1. Pre-task: Teacher tells the class they are going to talk about their plans for next Friday.She explains the goal, g. to compare plans and hold a survey to find the most popular plans.  She then tells the class about her plans, asking them to listen to see if they might be planning the same things  (i.e. she sets a goal for listening).

2. Task cycle

2.1 Task: learners (in pairs or groups ) tell each other  their plans

2.2 Planning: One person in each group takes notes and the  group prepares to report their findings to the class. The teacher goes round to hear what each group has found out and to help them  rehearse and plan what to say.  This is a chance to give ‘feed-back at the point of need’ as learners will want to use their best English if they are talking to the whole class.

2.3 Report:  The class listens to their findings – to see how many people are planning the same things, i.e. to complete the survey, and then discuss who is having the busiest/laziest/ most interesting/boring  etc day..

Form Focus – as in stages 4-7 in Nick’s lesson.

So stages 1 and 2 are primarily meaning focused. And when learners are focusing on form at stage 3, it is in the familiar context of their own meaning-full contributions, a motivating  force.

Follow-up task: each group could write up their version of a report of the class survey, and groups can read each others’ and compare reports, spotting the differences.

Here are two other ideas for simple tasks which you could try out.  The teacher in the video demonstrates a range of story-telling activities that are task-like in that they are meaning-focused. One has the goal of getting learners to listen to guess which animal she is describing – a teacher-led task. This is a task learners could do themselves in pairs – for example:

1 Write a riddle:  choose an animal.  Do not give its name.  Write 4 things about it. See if your teacher can guess which animal it is.  E.g  It is quite small. It can run fast.  It has a small white tail. It eats grass and green things. Extra clue:  It has long ears.

2 Write a True / False quiz (5 items) about a place or a recent  event  (or  a picture or a story) the class knows about.   Write some true statements and some false ones.   Give your quiz to another group / the whole class.  Can they pick the False ones?

Free, meaning-focused activities will allow learners to ‘liberate’ and consolidate the language you have already taught them and to use other words and phrases they have acquired naturally from you speaking English to them in class.  And you will be able see how much they CAN do with their English.  Yes – they will make mistakes, but if they manage to make themselves understood – that is success!   So stand back sometimes, and let them talk freely  – the more they talk the more they will learn and the  more confident they will get.

Research into 2nd language acquisition tells us that meaning-focussed interaction, both listening  to others  and speaking,  is essential for effective language learning, and even more essential if our learners want to communicate with other speakers of English.  In many countries in the world, learners leave school after 5 years of English lessons knowing a lot of words and grammar but unable to interact in English or hold a conversation. Don’t let the same happen in Palestine!

I’m looking forward to hearing your views and your answers.


A short article on PPP and task-based learning can be found at

More TBL lesson plans on my web-site at



Learning by heart and soul

I’m very proud of what the Hands Up Project has achieved in the last 2 years. We now have around 15 different groups of children in Palestine, Jordan and Pakistan (some quite small and some with up to 80 participants!)  and we’re connecting to them each week to do online sessions. We’ve arranged live link ups between children in Gaza and children in schools in Spain, Russia and the UK, and we have a pool of about 20 teachers around the world who have done an online training course, and who are ready to start volunteering. We tell the children stories, we play games, we give them opportunities to practice their English, and, most importantly I feel, we provide them with a framework by which they can communicate with people outside the confines of their immediate surroundings. This dialogue is helping us all to develop as global citizens and it seems to me that global citizenship is the only possible way out of the mess we’re all in right now.

In this post I want to focus less on what happens during the online sessions however, and more on what happens between the sessions. I’d like to pay homage to the excellent teachers in all of the places where we work who are following up what we are doing with activities that enhance, develop and inform the content of our online sessions. Shadia, a Syrian teacher of English in Zaatari refugee camp, is a great example of a teacher working in this way.

Last Tuesday I worked with Shadia’s class online for an hour. I told them the story of Juha and the meat, from the Stories Alive book and we did some vocabulary activities related to the story. At the end of the session I showed the class this chant which accompanies the story (a conversation between Juha and his wife) and I practised it with them once.

Poor old Juha!
What are you going to do?
You bought the meat and brought it home.
But nothing’s left for you.

But that is very rude
When it’s me who bought the food
It’s me who bought the food
It’s me who bought the food

We’re so sorry Juha!
We don’t know what to do!
The cat came in and ate the meat
And nothing’s left for you.

Well, if the cat did that
then why’s it not fat?
Why’s it not fat?
Why’s it not fat?

This chant contains a lot of useful chunks of language – things which the learners might need one day in an exam, but also things which they could build into their repertoires of spoken language (we’re so sorry, we don’t know what to do, what are you going to do? etc). After the class with me, Shadia spent a bit of time in her classes with the girls, practising the chant, working our their own rhythm and tune to accompany it, and even adding gestures and movement. The result is that the kids ended up learning the chant by heart, and consequently the useful chunks embedded within it. Then on Tuesday at the beginning of the session they performed it to me (see the video below)

This way of working has many of the necessary ingredients for language learning; a clear and memorable context in which to situate the language (the story), opportunities for motivating and meaningful learning by heart (the chant), and somebody to be an audience for what is produced (me). Hats off to you girls and hats off to Shadia for organising it all in such an effective way!



Learning to do live online storytelling

This weeks post is by teacher, teacher trainer, ELT author and storyteller, David Heathfield. David is the latest person to join our pool of volunteers around the world doing a weekly session for the Hands Up Project.

I’m learning to do live online storytelling

I’ve been writing about and advocating live storytelling face to face in the classroom for years. When I agreed to do my first volunteer storytelling session online with a group of teenage girls in Gaza I needed to convince myself that I could make live online storytelling work. As I prepared, I watched video clips from the Hands Up Project and noticed how engaged and enthused the students are, so the evidence was clear. But, apart from a couple of storytelling webinars I’d done for teachers, this would be my first experience of live online storytelling.

Face to face storytelling

Storytelling is by its very nature an interpersonal, co-creative activity. An unscripted story is never told the same way twice. When doing face to face storytelling I can pick up on the subtle signals that students give off and make spontaneous alterations to my storytelling in response. I suddenly notice a look of open-mouthed wonder on one student’s face, so I might nod at that student and ask ‘Haven’t you ever made a wish, Lama?’ Or I see two students at the back of the room exchanging a knowing, conspiratorial look, so I gesture towards them and say ‘You two know what’s going to happen next, don’t you?’ In response to a student’s yawn, I might stretch and yawn myself and say, with a wink and an empathetic smile at the student, ‘Is this story ever going to end?’ When the listeners are language learners, their facial expressions will also tell me whether they are following the meaning of the story. If they aren’t, I might repeat what I just said or paraphrase it or use questions to check they have understood eg ‘So how did the rich man feel?’

Challenges of live online storytelling

But how can I do these things in front of a webcam when the image I’m looking at on the screen shows only ten of the fifty students in the class and is too unclear for me to read such subtle signals? The students are looking at my head and shoulders on a screen on another wall of the classroom so they are not even facing me. One solution is to get the teacher who is in the classroom with the students to help with the telling of the story, but as a storyteller I really want to be able to communicate with the students directly myself.


So my answer is ‘Believe!’ As long as I’m well prepared and have rehearsed the story with these students in mind, I can just tell the story clearly and with conviction to my webcam (so to students it seems I’m giving them eye contact on their screen). I just need to believe that they are as engaged as I am in this shared storytelling. I start by teaching them a call and response: I call ‘Story, story!’ and they respond ‘Tell us a story!’ We practise doing this call and response three times with increasing energy and then I begin telling the story. I pause a couple of minutes into the story and call again ‘Story, story!’ If they respond ‘Tell us a story!’ I know that they are still with me. I include in the story a reference to something we did or talked about together before the story began. For example, if the students have told me that it’s raining heavily, I might say ‘The sun was shining brightly as the rich man walked through the forest, not like the weather in Gaza today’. Or if one of the students has sung me a song, I say ‘The bird sang so beautifully for the rich man – just like Tasnim sang for us.’

The key is to be present in the room with the students and to use my imagination and all my teaching experience. This is not a video recording for an audience to be watched at another time in another place. This is live ‘you and me together’ storytelling. Even if there’s a time lag, I just need to go on with the story, believing that the students are with me. And if I find afterwards in their responses to the story that the story they have understood is different in some details from the one I told, that is evidence that they are using their imaginations, that they are creatively engaged in spontaneous storytelling across cyberspace.

So far so good

I’m still new to online storytelling – I’ve done just four online storytelling sessions with teenage girls learning English in Gaza. Thanks to their enthusiasm, I’m getting more confident as an online storyteller. Of course the teacher in the classroom with the students has played an absolutely vital role, particularly in clarifying the tasks I ask the students to do. But I have managed to tell stories directly with the students and it’s a real joy.

The video shows an extract from the second of my Gaza storytelling sessions – notice the students’ extraordinarily intuitive and creative responses.

And here are more of the wishes these students made:

  • I wish to visit Al Aqsa Mosque and pray in it.
  • I wish to be a famous scientist to make my family proud of me.
  • I wish to travel to Russia because it is very beautiful.
  • I wish to lift the siege of Gaza
  • I wish to be the king of this big world to show them who the Palestinians are and that they are great and not terrorists. 
  • I wish to travel to Jordan because my mom’s family is there and I wish to become to the first student in my class.
  • I wish to memorize the Holy Quran and I wish to be a doctor.
  • I wish all people think about others and not just about themeslves.
  • I wish a free and happy life for every country under siege.
  • I wish to travel to Britain one day.
  • I wish to have peace in our world because we miss that especially in our Palestinian society and all people know that siege has the great force.
  • I wish to travel to Paris one day.
  • I wish to learn more languages like Spanish and French.
  • I wish to visit Jerusalem
  • I wish to be a businesswoman
  • I wish to live a happy life.
  • I wish to be a teacher in the future.