What makes a good play?

I’ve just been on another visit to Gaza, this time to Beit Hanoun and Rafah areas, where I ran a series of drama workshops with children. I’ve come back invigorated and brimming with ideas, and this is down, in no small part to the incredible energy, the creativity, and the life giving force that so many people have there. In the words of the Palestinian poet, Rafeef Ziadah, ‘We Palestinians teach the rest of the world life, sir!’

boys Beit Hanoun

I wanted to use these workshops as a way for children to generate some ideas for our five minute playwriting competition. We now have a large international panel of judges who will be assessing the plays after the deadline of 31st December, including some very well known actors and ELT methodology writers, and education specialists from Palestine and around the world. Many people have been asking me about the rules and assessment criteria for the plays. So here is a checklist of key points to remember when writing and performing your play…


  • The written version of the play (the script) and the video of the play must be sent to us by 31st December 2017.
  • The topic of the play is very flexible. It must be an original piece of writing done by students but it could be based on a traditional story, a story about a famous person, a proverb, a reflection on life in Palestine, or anything else really. Teachers may help learners in correcting and reformulating the students’ work.
  • The video of the play must be a maximum of 5 minutes long and it must have a maximum of 5 people acting in it (including narrators if these are used). All the actors must attend UNRWA or Ministry of Education schools and they must be under the age of 16 before the 31st December 2017
  • The main language of the play must be English.


The judges will pick one overall winner, and a number of runners up from those which comply with all the above rules, using the following criteria.

  • The ability to speak clearly and intelligibly in English, bearing in mind the international audience who will be watching the plays.
  • Being close enough to the camera so that other qualities of the play can be easily assessed.
  • The ability to tell a good story (using suspense, voice range, appropriate speed of delivery and pausing etc)
  • The ability to act (use of gesture and physicalisation, emotional engagement, interaction with the camera etc
  • If these other points are achieved then the level of English of the participants does not matter in terms of assessment. Learners with a low level of English could be the overall winners.

So here’s an example which in my view fulfills the performance criteria very well. It was done by Batool Sager, Zaheya Arafa and Salma Shammout in Khan Younis, Gaza and was directed by their teacher, Amal Mukhairez. I should emphasise that this is not an entry for the competition since it was not written by students but by me.

The judging panel are very much looking forward to seeing your plays. Good luck to everyone!


A few of my favourite things


This week we have a post from long term HUP volunteer, Madeeha Manzur. Madeeha is a teacher in a primary school in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and every week she connects to a class of children in a school in Hebron, Palestine. But unlike most of our volunteers who tell stories or teach English by interacting themselves with the children in Palestine, Madeeha does it slightly differently by enabling the children she works with in Pakistan to do so. I think she’s doing a wonderful job and you can see by the faces of the children in the pictures that they are all getting a lot out of the experience. Over to you Madeeha…


Having altogether different mother tongues can give rise to a lot of confusion while communicating but these limitations can be used to the advantage of language learners with limited vocabulary. All they need is a topic they feel motivated about. Children love to talk about their favourite belongings. They also feel curious to know what others find favourite and why. Hence “Favourite Belongings” can be an excellent choice for a speaking lesson topic.


favourite 4

In multilingual classes where English is the only common language, students have no other choice but to negotiate the meanings of unfamiliar words and they can learn a lot from this experience.

In a recent class while connecting my classroom with Palestinian students. I made small teams and challenged students to find out as much information as possible about the favourite belongings of the students on the other side of the computer. Here’s how the negotiation happened:


Student 1: What’s your favourite belonging?

Student 2: It’s this watch.

Student1: It’s beautiful. Who gave it to you?

Student 2: My…umm…my Khala

Student 1: Who’s khala?

Student2: She is my mother’s sister.

Student 1: Oh! Aunt you mean.

Student 2: Yes! Yes!

favourite 6


This is an excellent activity to provide opportunities for language exposure, language activation and critical thinking. Here’s an extract of another conversation that went something like this:

Student 1: My favourite thing is this fidget spinner. It glows in the dark and it spins.

Student 2: Tell me again please. What does it do?

Student 1: When I turn all lights off, it glows in the dark. It becomes bright.

Student 2: Does it have a light?

Student 1: No. It has no light. It just glows. Wait I’ll show you. (Student turns off all lights and holds the glowing spinner at some distance from the computer)

They later spoke about how the spinner spins, the bearings present in the centre, how it can be dismantled and reassembled again and it’s different varieties present in the market.

Since students are writing down the information, they sometimes even ask for spellings.







The power of weeding

olive picking boys

Stephen Krashen’s big idea in ‘The power of reading‘ (1993) was that reading for pleasure, or free voluntary reading (FVR) as he referred to it , was in many cases more conducive to language development than direct teaching alone. He cites lots of research to back up his view. I read the book in the late nineties when I was teaching English to very diverse multilingual groups of adults at the Brasshouse Centre in Birmingham, and it had a huge influence on the way that I conducted by classes. From then on I started encouraging all my learners to consume graded readers as much as possible. I did this by arranging lots of activities to promote reading for pleasure in class. For my Masters degree I researched the role of drama as a way to promote reading for pleasure and I ended up writing my dissertation about that subject too.

As a language learner, I’m also aware of the importance of reading for pleasure in the languages that I know something of, and I’ve tried reading novels in Danish, Portuguese and Spanish. Of these I would say that it’s only in Danish where this has been a pleasurable experience for me however! In the other languages there are just two many words I don’t understand to make it much fun.

But maybe it isn’t all about fun. I’m now wondering whether, if we really want people to absorb the language of the texts they are reading, they probably have to do some work sometimes – certainly in terms of noticing.

I like Brown’s (1994) proposal that learners adopt a Green Cross Code of reading, in order to notice collocations in the texts that they encounter.

“When you see a word, even in particular a word with which you are already familiar, STOP, LOOK LEFT, LOOK RIGHT, LOOK LEFT AGAIN, AND, WHEN SATISFIED, PROCEED!’

As a child growing up in 1970’s Britain the Green Cross Code was regularly drummed into us at school as a strategy to get across a road safely. I really like the idea of applying this principle to reading, but maybe even this is not enough for some learners to ensure take away value to the language of texts. Maybe they need some activities which really push them to notice the language.

One such activity that I have recently started using again after a long break is the idea of Text Weeding. Like so many good ideas, I think this one comes from the work of Mario Rinvolucri, but I can’t remember in which of his many books I first read about it. I think it was ‘More Grammar Games’ (CUP 1995).

It works like this. We take a short text. This could be something from the coursebook, from authentic reading material, or a text that we create specifically for this purpose. We then rewrite the text adding in some ‘weeds’ -that is words which are not supposed to be there. Here’s one that I created for a group of children in Palestine a few weeks ago. Can you spot the 10 weeds?

The olive harvest moon takes off place all over cooked Palestine during the month of October every day year. The whole family ticket gets lost involved. It’s hard luck work but also lots of love fun. I wish I could do up it again one day break.

If you’re clever about the choice of words that you insert you can use the activity to raise awareness about some common collocations too (takes off, takes place and hard luck, hard work etc)

Of course a much more common activity with short texts like this is to do the opposite of weeding which is filling the gaps. I think that weeding encourages more processing than gap filling however. In fact I think it pushes the learners to follow the Green Cross Code of reading; to zoom in on every single word and especially to notice what goes on either side of each word.

What do you think about text weeding? Do you, or could you, use it in your classes? What other strategies do you use for encouraging learners to notice the language of texts? Please share your ideas in the comments below.


Brown, Phillip R. (1994): Lexical collocation: A strategy for advanced learners. Modern English Teacher, 3 (2), 24-27.

Krashen, Stephen (1993) The Power of Reading; Libraries Unlimited

Rinvolucri, Mario and Davis, Paul (1995): More Grammar Games ; CUP

Cuisenaire rods as visual aids in storytelling

This week we have a guest post by Armenian English teacher and teacher trainer, Ani Aloyan. I met Ani in Armenia about 2 months ago when I was running a storytelling course for teachers, organised by British Council Armenia. In this post Ani discusses some great techniques for demonstrating and checking meaning when storytelling. She’s just about to deliver her own storytelling course for teachers in a different region of Armenia now.  Thanks for the post Ani and thanks too for sharing the Palestinian story of Jbene with teachers and children in Armenia. 


In this post I am going to write about how you can use Cuisenaire rods, or any other things to hand  (board markers, pens and pencils, rubber etc.) in storytelling to make it even more engaging. Although I am a newbie in the field of storytelling, I am excited to share these tried and tested techniques for you to help your learners use their imagination and creativity, further develop their listening skills and most importantly keep their attention throughout storytelling.

I have used Cuisenaire rods (the real ones) for vocabulary teaching and setting up contexts during my English language classes and I am really impressed how effective they can be when it comes to presenting vocabulary and drilling it with your students if used correctly. I have learnt the technique in a teacher development webinar by Jo Gakonga. Here is the link to the video/webinar https://elttraining.gnomio.com/mod/page/view.php?id=207 , so you can check this out and see how they work when teaching vocabulary.

During one of training sessions on storytelling with Nick Bilbrough, our group had a task of telling a story to kids in an engaging way. The idea of the rods crossed my mind and I thought that I would try the technique out with storytelling, but I didn’t have any rods in hand. (I guess they are not even available in the market in Armenia). So I decided to use whatever is available at that time – markers, highlighters and coloured pencils.

When you teach vocabulary with rods, the focus is on the target vocabulary itself (conveying meaning and drilling pronunciation) but I decided to add my tweak to this as well. Our group chose to tell “Jbene” as an output of the training session, and as the story was not very heavy with lots of unknown words, I decided I would put the focus on content rather than on vocabulary.

I started the first line of the story which is: “There lived a married couple who had everything they wanted”. While I was telling the line, I showed the students two pens and told them that one was the husband and the other one was the wife. Once I finished, I went backwards and asked content checking questions such as – Who were they? Did they have everything? Students answered my questions correctly as they had attached meaning to these pens without which I would hardly be able to ask questions and get sensible answers from kids.

So, I told the whole story bit by bit, going backwards after every small bit and asking these content checking questions. By the end of the story students were able to convey the content of it with some language mistakes which didn’t impede comprehension.

You can watch the video here:





Still images and language learning

Still images, or tableaux, are a common convention used in the field of educational drama. They basically involve the learners working together in small groups to create a human statue of a frozen moment in time. The still image could depict a key event in a story (for instance when Cinderella’s sisters try on the glass slipper), a social problem (eg. a dysfunctional family), or a word or concept (the beach or a robbery).  I recently spent a week doing a lot of still image work in a series of drama workshops with children from UNRWA schools in different Palestinian cities. Here’s one that was created by some children in Hebron on the topic of exams.

exams - still image

Wherever you are in the world, I think you’ll be able to identify with some of the universal aspects of exams which are portrayed in this image: the struggling boy at the back, the confident one who’s already finished in front of him, the ‘cheating’ that’s going on at the front, and the teacher’s reaction to this.

In multilingual classes where English is the common language this activity generates a lot of useful discussion in English at the planning stage, but in a monolingual class, however much we insist on English being used, it’s almost inevitable, in my experience, that learners will plan their still images in their mother tongue. This doesn’t matter at all, in my opinion, as English language development can happen at the feedback stage. Here the role of the teacher becomes very important in providing opportunities for language exposure, language activation and critical thinking.

For example with the above still image, the teacher could ask questions which expose the learners to language (Who’s the teacher here? Who’s happy? Who’s trying to ‘cheat’? etc). They could follow this us with questions to activate language (What’s Sahar’s job? How does Khalid feel? What is Ahmed doing? etc), and they could also ask more open, personalising questions to generate more critical thinking ( What do you see here? What’s Maryam thinking? What’s going to happen next? Which person do you sympathise with the most? Why? )

Of course, with classes that are new to this technique, as was the case with the most of the learners I worked with in Palestine, they may need a lot of support before creating their own still images. With the same group in Hebron, we did a stage where I invited two learners up to the front and basically told them how to position themselves (see below)

group composed still image

The conversation then went something like this :-

Me: Who are they?
Learner 1: Teacher and student
Me: OK. Where are they?
Learner 2: In school
Me: I see. What is the teacher doing Ibrahim?
Learner 3: She help student.
Me: Yes, she’s helping the student


Me: What if this is in a restaurant, Yousef?
Learner 7: Waiter show menu and say this mut’abel very good
Me: I see, yes it looks like she’s recommending the mut’abel, yes?


Here’s another activity which I think works quite well as a preparation for learners creating their own still images. I invite one learner to come up to the front of the class and to make a still image on her own of anything she likes. This works best, in my experience, if they don’t think too much about what they are doing. Now another person comes up and spontaneously creates a statue which interacts in some way with the first. A third learner now comes up and says a sentence to explain what she thinks is going on, using ‘Once upon a time…’ as a sentence head. For the image below with a girls group in Gaza (in which I was demonstrating the activity) the third learner produced a sentence like ‘Once upon a time a man tried to steal a woman’s bag

fight scene

Learners can come up in threes and take it in turns to create their own spontaneous images in front of the class, with each of them having the chance to be one of the three roles. These kind of activities are great in my opinion for encouraging creativity and for providing a very memorable context in which to situate language. I find it interesting how, when we look at still images like these, our minds automatically start imagining stories. What stories can you see in the still image below (also created by the girls’ group in Gaza) ? Is it about a girl who found a missing kitten? Is it a marriage proposal? Have some gold prospectors just found a nugget of gold in a river? Or is it something else?


Have you ever used still images in your classes? If so, how and for what purpose? Please leave a comment below.





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) ‘..how 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…