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.



PPP as a framework for teacher training

In 1990, when I first took some training to be a teacher of English as a foreign language, we were strongly encouraged to use the PPP (Presentation, Practice, Production) framework for planning lessons.  Here’s a reminder of how it works…

Presentation: The teacher presents an area of language to the learners. The language area is contextualised through a written or spoken text, and typically involves clarification of meaning, form and pronunciation.

Practice: The learners practise the area of language. This is usually tightly controlled in two ways; firstly in that it is only the target area of language that is being practised, and secondly in that the teacher is available to provide assistance and feedback throughout.

Production: The learners produce the language in context. Here a situation is set up where the learners can experiment with using the language naturally. Along with the target area, they can also produce other areas of language which fit the context. The teacher monitors and may make a note of language issues which arise, but typically does not intervene.


Like many ideas which have become widely used, PPP has come in for a lot of criticism from different corners of the ELT community. Some of this criticism, has unfairly linked PPP to behaviourism. I don’t have space here to go into much discussion about this, but would just like to mention how much I learnt from reading Jason Anderson’s (2016) article, in which he strongly defends PPP, especially for more challenging contexts around the world where classes are large and where opportunities to use English are limited (like those places in which The Hands Up Project works). Jason traces PPP back to its origins in Teaching Oral English by Don Byrne (1976) and its interesting that, even then, Byrne was suggesting that the stages didn’t necessarily need to be followed in that order, and that starting with production could inform what is later presented and practised.  This emphasis on natural, free use of language at the production stage negates any links with behaviourism.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about frameworks for teacher training, and wondering whether PPP might be an appropriate paradigm for planning training sessions. If we replace ‘language area’ with the content of the teacher training programme, then perhaps PPP could provide the necessary stages in order for teachers to take on board new ideas. Two weeks ago I had the chance to try this idea out in practice when I was invited by Relief International to do some face to face training on the Stories Alive material with Syrian teachers of English in the Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps in Jordan. I only had about four hours training with each group of teachers so chose to just focus on activities that could be done before telling the story with the big versions of the pictures, and on ways of telling the story.

Presentation:  I demonstrated the material with the teachers in role as learners using one of the stories – The jackal and the crow. I also showed videos of real learners in Zaatari doing the same activities in our online classes.

Practice: The teachers worked in small groups. They picked a different story from the Stories Alive collection to work with and planned a lesson using some of the activities I had demonstrated. They tried out the activities as micro-teaching on each other. We all gave the teachers feedback on how we thought the activities would work with a real class.

Production: We were given a real class of learners for the teachers to teach using the material and ideas they had practised during the previous stage. The teachers team taught the class.

Of course, it won’t always be possible, in every teacher training context, to have a production stage where teachers try out ideas with real students. But if a class is available, it does address a problem we encounter regularly as teacher trainers, where teachers can be sceptical about whether things we demonstrate would work in a real classroom.

I also made a video showing short excerpts of the activities they used with the students which I think other teachers working in similar contexts could learn from.  Huge respect to all the teachers in the video. You did a great job!


So what do you think? Is PPP a useful way of organising English classes in the context in which you work? And is PPP a viable framework for training teachers?


Anderson, J (2016) ‘Why practice makes perfect sense: The past, present and potential future of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education.’ ELT Education and Development 19

Byrne, D (1976) Teaching Oral English; Longman

A non-communicative Christmas activity

I’ve always been very keen on information gap activities; the kind of thing where students work in pairs and where one student has one set of information and the other student has a different set and they have to communicate to somehow pool what they know. The classic example of this is ‘Spot the differences’. It usually works something like this..

  1. Student A has one picture. Student B has a slightly different picture. They don’t show their pictures to each other.
  2. They talk to each other to find differences between their pictures, using questions like ‘In your picture is there a man?’ ‘Does he have a beard?’ etc.

It’s a great way to encourage lots of meaningful communication and to practice certain grammatical forms and particular areas of vocabulary. On the other hand, when I’ve used it with low level learners I’ve often encountered problems. Sometimes learners end up showing their pictures to each other because they simply don’t have enough shared language to do the task. If either of them doesn’t know the word for beard for example, they can end up showing the pictures to each other in order to clarify meanings. The information gap is lost of course but the language gap is still there, and I think that in certain situations this can actually lead to more learning.

Here’s an example from the Hands Up project’s last session before Xmas which took place on Wednesday. Alex in Russia led the session for a group in Gaza and she asked me to take part too from the UK. She organised a really nice competition between me and the class (in which I was resoundingly thrashed!) with questions about how Christmas is celebrated in Russia. Then she showed this picture of Father Frost and Father Xmas and asked us to take it in turns to talk about differences and similarities. There’s no information gap, but there are plenty of opportunities to notice language for the learners.

Happy Christmas to readers of this blog everywhere and we look forward to seeing you in the New Year.

The Bun

We have another guest post this week – this time from not just one teacher but two! Alexandra Guzik, teaches English at the Follow me to English school in Krasnodar, Russia and Sahar Salha teaches at the Elementary co-ed “A” UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. This post is about a really nice cross cultural learning experience that they set up through the Hands Up Project. Alex’s class reworked a traditional Russian folk tale into English and then sent it to Sahar’s class for them to rehearse it and perform it. At the bottom of this post you can see a video of this perfomance, but first read their reflections on the experience.

Alex – Making the Bun


I teach in a private school where children get extra English classes. They come twice a week for a one-hour-and-a half lesson. Most of the children arrive 5-15 minutes before their lesson starts and leave immediately after the lesson is over. Most of them rush to other classes or school depending on the shift at school. At our school we give learners homework to do as two lessons a week is not enough for work on the language to progress in learning it. Therefore there is little opportunity for us to do work beyond our course.

Choosing the story

There are quite a few Russian folktales and most of them deserve to be shared with children from other countries. So before having our hands full with translation, we had to choose one folktale to begin with. The Bun (Kolobok – a type of a round bread or a round loaf) has a repetitive pattern, which means less work for translators and a good number of characters – eight. One more advantage of repetitive nature of the story is that it is easier to learn the script.

Approach to translation

I didn’t want to spend a lot of lesson time on working on the translation. So I asked my students to have a go at translating the fairytale at home as an addition to their homework. Unfortunately, it was in June and only four children attended the following lesson.  But we had a good discussion comparing each other’s translations, arguing when choosing more suitable words. E.g. negotiating on words ‘pantry’ and ‘scrape up’ caused a lively discussion because learners had three different versions for them. We used online translator, monolingual dictionaries and Google Image to reach a consensus. At last we read through the final version which everyone was happy with.

Teacher’s work

What I had to do after the lesson was to type the story in a form of a play and edit the chant for it to keep a steady rhythm.

Interesting observations:

1 Whereas in English words Grandpa and Grandma mean relatives, in Russian any elderly person might be called Grandma and Grandpa. That is why we had to add this line ‘There was once a poor old man, Grandpa, and his wife, Grandma’, instead of just ‘There was once a Grandpa and Grandma. They were poor.’

2 Some old-fashioned Russian words are used in the story, which exact meaning some learners did not know. So at first they had to find out the meaning of these words before translating into English.

3 Some learners tried to find ready-made translations on the Internet, but most of them turned out to be of too high level for borrowing them as they were. Thus learners’ effort was still necessary.


Sahar – Performing the Bun

Being in touch with Alex to do online sessions means a lot to me and my students at school. As a result of this interaction , Alex sent me a Russian story and I trained my students to perform it. I’m very happy that they liked the story.

Here are a few of the things they said about the experience .

Malak “the bun”: I’m very happy that we act this story although it’s easier than stories we performed for Mr Nick before, but I’m happier because it is from Alex ;this means we have new audience for our performance. Also I feel as I’m flying while rolling.

Ahed “the narrator”:This story is Russian ,this means that we can perform other stories in the future like French or Spanish stories.

Zeinab “the animal”: I like this story because it is like a song with its repeated lines, my brothers at home started to sing it and they don’t know what it means but they hear me. I won’t forget it forever.

Task feedback

A few years ago I attended a really interesting talk by Jane Willis at an IATEFL conference somewhere. The talk was about using task based learning in challenging circumstances, and there was a point when one of the teachers in the audience was telling everyone about her particular challenge of trying to get learners to use English (rather than mother tongue) to do group work tasks in the large classes of low level learners that she taught. I can really sympathise with this problem; teacher monitoring is so important in my opinion, in order to provide learners with they support they need in order to engage effectively with  tasks, but in a large class it’s impossible to be able to get round to everyone so it’s almost inevitable that some groups will drift off task, or revert to L1.  Jane offered many solutions to this issue. The one that really stuck out for me was her suggestion that in such cases in might be better to give priority to the task feedback stage of the cycle. If learners know that weight is going to be given to the point where they feed back to the rest of the class about what they have been discussing they are likely to make sure they are ready for this by preparing well during the group work stage.

As a teacher, it’s natural for me to incorporate lots of groupwork, so one of the things that I find rather frustrating about working through video conferencing tools is that monitoring of group work by me is impossible.  So I also have to emphasise the task feedback stage, even when I’m working with smaller groups. However, I’m actually starting to feel that there may be some benefits to spending more time on task feedback than on the task itself. For a start the learner or learners at the front have lots of opportunities for what they are saying to be scaffolded by the teacher and, because the rest of the class are listening carefully (perhaps more so because the learners face is also projected onto the big screen) they may also be learning from this interaction, even though they are not directly involved in it. I also wonder whether by insisting on English only in group stages we may actually be limiting learning rather than promoting it. Surely something useful is happening if learners are thinking things in L1 and then working out how to say these things in English in preparation for the task feedback stage which follows.

So here’s a practical example of this with a girls group in Nablus, Palestine. The basic procedure of the lesson is as follows :-

  1. I show the class two pictures of the same Palestinian dishes -one made by a teacher in Gaza, Wesam and the other made be me. I elicit one or two examples of differences between the two pictures.
  2. The students work in small groups. Their task is to discuss all the differences they can find between the two pictures.
  3.  The class is split into two larger groups. One learner from each group comes up to the front. They take it in turns to talk about differences. They can ask their groups to help them but I only accept answers from the two girls at the front. The team that keeps going for the longest by mentioning new differences is the winner.

So what do you think? Where is the learning happening? Is it happening in the stage when learners talk to each other in groups, or is it happening during the task feedback stage? Or perhaps it’s happening at both stages, or perhaps it’s happening in neither?!