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?!


The power of drama

This week we have a guest post from Henritte Sudah, who teaches English at Zababdeh girls secondary school, Jenin, Palestine.

When I went on the training course with Nick in Ramallah about using stories in teaching English I was unsure about whether I would be able to apply it in my classes. Some of the girls in my class have learning difficulties and they don’t know how to read or write any English at all. But as soon as I had told the first story to the students they were very excited about singing the song and acting it out. I could hear the children singing the song to themselves in the playground long after the class had finished. For the play, one student explained to everyone else what their roles should be and they worked the whole thing out on their own. The children who took part in these performances now come to meet me very morning at the school gate. So now I am proud that I am part of this project, but most of all I’m proud of my students.



Staging a lesson around a story

Over the past two months, along with doing lots of online sessions myself, I’ve been running several series of online training sessions with dedicated teachers in many different places around the world, who have given up their time to volunteer with the Hands Up Project. A few weeks ago, a teacher on one of the courses asked me if she could see some videos of whole sessions, so as to get more ideas as to how to stage an online lesson around a story.

It’s true that all of the videos on our youtube channel for teachers have so far just focused on individual activities led by the teacher, or performances of plays and chants by children. I’m about to rectify that however, with this video of a complete 45 minute session led by Alexandra Guzik in Krasnodar, Russia, with Sahar Salha coordinating things from the other side, with her class of girls at the Elementary co-ed “A” UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun, Gaza.

Alex first got in touch with me back in May to see if we could arrange a link up between her class of kids in a private language school in Russia and a class in Gaza. You can read about what happened here.

Now Alex is a volunteering once a week, working with a group in the Sahar’s school. There are lots of really great things happening in this session in my opinion (you can watch it in full below) Here are a few of the key things for me.

  1. It’s a very nice example of teacher as audience. Alex is an audience for the homework which she’d asked them to do at the end the of the previous session (find out some interesting facts about animals). She’s also an audience for their performances of their stories and chants. Like all good audiences, she’s actively listening to what the children are saying and, by this empowering them immensely – not least for Rania, the student who was so visibly pleased to be able to communicate with Alex in Russian.
  2. It’s a very well staged lesson. Alex builds on what they did for homework, thereby emphasising the fact that learning English isn’t just something that happens in class time. She also provides a nice balance between teacher input and student output in the whole session, and she includes some really motivating and learning rich pre-story and post-story activities.
  3. There’s a strong focus on communication. I’m coming to the conclusion that video conferencing isn’t that great for accuracy work, like drilling or any form of pronunciation practice, especially when the internet connection isn’t very strong. It is very good however for negotiation of meaning. In fact the difficulties with the connection seem to push everyone to rephrase things and to try to speak more clearly and loudly so that the message gets through.  This can only be a good thing, and there are lots of examples of it in this extract.
  4. It’s very effective team teaching. Alex has planned the session but she allows space in what she’s doing for Sahar, the teacher at the other end, to control much of the session too. And whilst Alex is driving the narrative of the class, Sahar is managing everything on the ground in Gaza, knowing which students to bring in for certain activities, and scaffolding and supporting what they are saying.  The interaction between them when they are deciding what to do is also excellent exposure to comprehensible input for the children. How often do children in contexts like this get the chance to hear two super advanced speakers of English, modelling dialogue in English about things which are directly related to the children?




Your song

I’ve been so busy lately I haven’t had much time for blogging, but this week we’ve got something special – a guest post from Amal, an English teacher who works with teenagers at the UNRWA school in the Khan Younis refugee camp, Gaza. Last week we arranged a live link up between her students and a group of grade 12 students at a secondary school here in the UK. Here’s Amal’s post about what happened…..

For the last three years my colleagues and I have been working on a project that aims to explore different cultures, learning about different countries around the world and creating global citizens.

One of the best ways to achieve this was by bringing an international dimension to everything we do at school. Our students have been introduced to a global dimension in the school curriculum and in their lives, and the entire school has been  involved in a variety of activities.

Communicating across cultures is one of the challenges that we need to cope with as it gives students a real access to the world and shows them the fun side of learning English, history, geography…etc.

Last Monday Nick arranged an online session in which kids from Gaza and Britain interacted using a video tool called Zoom. Students from totally different backgrounds were engaged in spontaneous conversations about their cities, hobbies, holidays, music and hopes for the future. Furthermore, my students performed Dabke and, in return, students from the other side sang ‘Your Song’ by Elton John brilliantly.

At the end of the session, we had a mixture of emotions, thoughts and feelings. My students walked back home talking joyfully about their new experience with people from the outside. They were recalling some funny moments and sweet memories. I loved how they were trying to imitate the way that the British students were uttering words. They were happy, excited, full of hopes and bright colourful pictures.

A siege of ten years and three cruel wars couldn’t stop those students from interacting and showing the world what cool things they have.



Worth a thousand words


Despite all the hype about learning styles in recent years, it’s a well known fact, backed up by research, that our ability to remember images outperforms our ability to remember other forms of data, such as written words, sounds, or smells. In one study, cited in Medina (2008), people were shown 2500 different images – each one for just 10 seconds. Several days later they managed to remember which images they’d seen with 90% accuracy. After a year the recall rate was still very high at 63%.

I think that one of our jobs as language teachers is to make use of this fact as much as possible. We can do this through exploiting the pictures in the coursebook wherever we can, and by linking them to the words, chunks and grammar that we want the students to learn or practice. We can also do it by bringing in other images to class and doing lots of language related activities with them.

Here are a few pictures from different stories from the Stories Alive material. Before telling the story to the class, I’d suggest that there are lots of activities that we might do using pictures like these, with the purpose of both helping them to follow the story later, and to develop and practice their English. Below are five different ideas. In the Stories alive notes for teachers at the back of the book, you’ll find many more.


Elicitation of key language

Look at the pictures, one by one but not necessarily in the correct order, with the whole class together – either as large blown up flash cards (preferably A2 size), or using a data projector if available. Elicit vocabulary from the class about what they can see in the picture. You could ask the children to call out suggestions for what they can see, or alternatively ask them to put their hands up and take suggestions one by one. Whichever way you do it, it is really important to make sure that everyone is clear about which element of the picture is being referred to so that they can learn vocabulary from their peers. A good way to do this is to point at the part of the picture they are talking about as the learners say the words.

The questions that we ask during elicitation can provide a lot of support for learners. So we could ask for example, ‘What’s this person doing?’ to get the response ‘Leaving’ but with lower level learners we could provide even more support when it’s needed by using a closed question, like ‘Is he arriving or leaving?’

For example:

Teacher: What can you see in this picture?
Student: Person.
Teacher: A person or some people
Student: Some people
Teacher: What’s this man doing?
Teacher: Is he arriving or is he leaving?
Students: Leaving            etc…


02.G colour copy


Picture visualisation

Choose one picture which shows one of the key moments in the story. Look at it yourself but keep it hidden from the students. Describe one element of the picture and then try to engage the students in dialogue to get more information about it. For example…

Teacher: There’s a boy sitting. He’s not sitting on a chair. Where do you think he’s sitting?
Student: ….Table….. Sofa
Teacher: No not a table or a sofa. He’s not inside. He’s …..
Student: …Outside
Teacher: Yes. He’s outside. He’s sitting outside on …..
Student: شو يعني أرض با نجليزي؟ 
Teacher: Yes that’s right he’s sitting on the ground. (mimes) He’s sitting on the ground in front of a….
Student: house
Teacher: No, not a house
Student: Tree.  شجرة  صح؟
Teacher: Yes a tree.  He’s sitting on the ground in front of a tree. He doesn’t look happy. He looks sad. Why? Why does he look sad? etc etc.


When you feel you’ve got as far as you go with this, show them the picture so that the students can see how it compares with what they imagined. In this kind of dialogue with the class you are trying to provide a safe ‘scaffold’ in which the students can notice and experiment with new language. You want them to understand what you are saying but at the same time you’re trying to push them a little to work at the limits of their abilities and to engage with new language. There is potentially a lot of learning that can happen in such a situation.


Remembering detail

Choose one of the pictures from a story and display it so that everyone can see it clearly. Tell the class that they should look at it for a minute and try to remember as much detail as they can. Now take the picture away and start to ask questions about the detail to see how much they can remember. For example

There are two animals in the picture. True or false?
The crow is on the left. True or False?
Is there an apple in the picture?
How many flowers are there in the picture?
Where is the chicken? etc

You could do this as a memory competition with one side of the class competing against the other. With a low level class it’s a good idea to write some of these question types mentioned above on the board to use as a model. You could now do the same activity the other way around. That is, the class can see another picture from the same story but it is hidden from your view. They ask questions to you to see how much you can remember. You score a point for each question you answer correctly. They score a point for each question you answer incorrectly. Finally the same activity can be done in groups with the remaining pictures from a story. After studying their picture, one learner from each group asks questions to the other people in her group to test their memories. They can swap pictures with a different group if they finish quickly.


lion and mouse image

Whole class sequencing of the pictures

Six or eight different learners come to the front of the class and each is given one of the large pictures from the story in a jumbled order. They hold the pictures up in a line so that everyone can see them. The teacher now discusses with the rest of the class what the order of the pictures could be. The students at the front change their position according to the order that is agreed. For example..

Teacher: So which picture do you think goes first? Faten?

Student: Khadija picture
Teacher: Why do you think it’s Khadija’s picture that goes first Faten?
Student: Because man and boy looking to mountain.
Teacher: Because the man and the boy are looking at the mountain? Do you agree everyone? Students: Yes
Teacher: OK Khadija. Can you please move to the front of the line? Now which one is next? Etc..

This activity could either be done before listening to the story (as a way to generate ideas and vocabulary, and make the listening process easier) or after listening to the story (as a way of checking that they understood it). By doing it with the whole class together you are providing a very useful model of the kind of language that students can use if they do the same sequencing activity in groups using the smaller versions of the pictures.



Something beginning with…

Display all of the large pictures at the front of the class by sticking them to the board, or use a projector if one is available. Think of something that can be seen in one of the pictures. Tell the class the first letter of the object and see if they can guess what it is. You could use the line ‘ I spy with my little eye, something beginning with…’ to introduce each word that they have to guess. When you’ve done a few examples the students can do the same activity in groups. This activity works well as a follow up to elicitation. For an extra challenge you can play the game using two words instead of one. So it would be ‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with b h  (blue hat) ’ or ‘I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with o j (orange juice)’.


How do you use pictures in your classes with your students. Please add a comment below and let’s start sharing ideas.


Medina, J (2008) Brain Rules; Pear Press


Teacher’s aren’t doctors but sometimes we’re made to feel like we are 🙂

I was at a conference recently and a teacher came up to me with a wry smile on her face. ‘I have a problem,’ she said. ‘You know that chant you did in your workshop last year? It goes like this …Juha! Juha! What are you going to do? The cat came home and ate the meat and nothing’s left for you!.…Well it’s become a complete ear worm for me. It keeps coming into my head when I’m trying to concentrate on something else. Please give me something to get rid of it!’

Earworms can certainly be frustrating. I’ve been listening to a lot of music by the Cuban musician, Silvio Rodríguez, recently and I have an earworm for part of this song at the moment.

My earworm goes like this..

Que maneras más curiosas
de recordar tiene uno,
que maneras más curiosas:
hoy recuerdo mariposas
que ayer sólo fueron humo,
mariposas, mariposas
que emergieron de lo oscuro
bailarinas, silenciosas.

Mariposas is a very beautiful song and the words are beautiful too. In English it means something like this…

What most curious ways
of remembering one has,
what most curious ways:
today I remember butterflies
that yesterday were only smoke,
butterflies, butterflies,
that emerged from the dark,
dancers, silent.

I’ve probably just heard it too many times and I would quite happily fill my head with other things, but this little snippet keeps popping up, especially when I’m trying to write. It’s driving me a little crazy.

But if we think about it from the perspective of the second language learner  (I am a lapsed learner of Spanish) then earworms might actually be useful. Could it be that they are part of the cure rather than the affliction itself? I very rarely hear spoken Spanish these days, so having a stretch of naturally connected speech that I keep turning over in my head can only be a good thing in terms of giving me a connection to the language. If we are in a situation where we don’t get that much exposure to the language we are learning, (which is the case for many learners around the world) then an earworm is way to provide some quite focussed listening practice, albeit from an internal, rather than external, voice. If I listen to Silvio Rodríguez singing I can hear that my version isn’t the same of course. I can’t play it on the guitar, I’ve got an English accent and I can’t do it anywhere near as fluently as he does. But the point is that it is MY voice in my head that is singing Mariposas, and by doing this I’m constantly reaffirming to myself that I’m a fluent speaker of Spanish. At least in my head I am! 🙂

One of the things that I’m trying to stay focused on at the moment is turning the Hands Up Project into a charity. It’s the right thing to do because it will allow me to access other sources of funding, but it’s also quite a complex and time consuming process. While this is going on, and while the kids in Gaza are starting their summer holiday, I’m going to take a break from writing these blog posts for a while. In the meantime here’s one of the chants from the Stories Alive book, performed brilliantly by a student in Gaza. If it becomes an earworm for you then the blame lies with me, and I apologise in advance!

Jbēne! Jbēne! As white as cheese! Come with us to the Christ-thorn trees.

Jbēne! Jbēne! Stuck in the tree! You can’t get down. You can’t get free.

Jbēne! Jbēne! As black as night! Stay with the sheep till the morning light.

Jbēne! Jbēne! As white as cheese Marry me! Marry me! Marry me please!

Jbēne! Jbēne! As white as the moon. Marry me! Marry me! Marry me soon!