ELT Traveller box

about teaching English to young learners, web tools and iPad teaching


Surprise in the ELT classroom: an inspiring #ELTChat

Last night I took part in #ELTChat . It’s always very motivating to read and contribute to each other’s reflections and teaching ideas. After all I first got the idea of blogging right from one #eltchat on twitter. I would definitely add it as “must have” in a teacher development plan :-).

The topic of this week was Bringing the surprise element into your lesson, you can read the transcript here.

You’ll get several ideas on how to surprise your students either you teach university students, BE, one-to-one or teenagers, like I do.

In the chat @SueAnnan mentioned the book 52 by The Round  (authors Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings). I love it. Today I was reflecting about it and I thought how helpful a book like this can be for teachers, especially teenager teachers.  They can surprise their audience in a very reflective way.

I start thinking I should give my students a “subversive” lesson once a week. 🙂 I’ve only tried (and sometimes adapted) only a few of the activities in the book so far.

There are many  ideas in the book, from poetry to justice. Lesson 8 Dress is part of the book sample (you can download it here) and one of my favourite. I’ve recently tried it.

The lesson – #8 Dress

I came to class dressed very elegant (as I was going to a wedding), quite unusual for me, and I tried not to laugh looking at my students’ faces. I started the lesson as usual and for the first 5 minutes nothing really happened. They were expecting me to work on past simple, and I was starting to do so when a shy student from the first raw asked about my skirt. “Why are you wearing such a nice and elegant skirt to come to school?” It was clear she didn’t approve that :-). Teenagers can be very straightforward sometimes! I wrote why on the board, and asked the student to repeat the question to the class. The conversation magically started. The very good thing was that I was playing the role of the moderator. I divided the class into groups and asked them to figure out how to dress in specific occasions and why. A lot of new vocabulary items came out.

When the bell rung, a girl said “But teacher, we didn’t even take a pen!”

That was the point…and they got it!

In the following lessons I focused on consolidation activities. It was easy, they remembered most of the things we discussed.

Teachers often complain about how difficult is to manage teenagers with no written support. Several questions keep rolling through my mind:

Do teenagers need minimal inputs to develop critical thinking? Should teachers start thinking out of the box and support them?


Storytelling tools for ESL students #1 Storybird

I believe storytelling is a very powerful teaching resource for young learners. They feel comfortable with it, and when they read or listen to a story they stop caring about “understanding every single word” of it. Very often they let the story flow, and enjoy themselves.

Teachers are used to work on storytelling activities to engage their learners. This is definitely true also for me, but what is the balance among different skills activities?

I used to focus more on receptive skills – listening and reading tasks usually followed by comprehension activities or semi-controlled practice (complete the sentence, re-write it etc.). To be honest, I was quite afraid of using free-production writing task with young elementary learners. Then I thought it was time to change, and I started using Storybird with my classes.

Storybird is an amazing creative writing tool. Students can create their own art-inspired stories, collaborate and give feedback on other’s stories.

It is free, and it gives teachers the chance to sign up for a teacher account and manage students without emails. You can create assignments, and even build your class library.

How to use it in class –   Younger teens

  • Start reading a classic book, or part of it, in class. I use graded readers (A1/A2) of famous stories like The Wizard of Oz, Alice adventures in Wonderland etc. This will take around 6-8 lessons, and it will give students a model story. At this point it is useful to focus on character’s descriptions, setting, time, organisation of events.
  •       When the book is over, ask students to write/tell/present a summary of the story based only on pictures. Find pictures on the web, mix them and then distribute them to the class, each group can work on a different part of the   story.
  • It’s time for a Storybird! Put students in pairs, set up a class on your teacher profile and give them an assignment. You can specify the number of pages, grammar tenses, specific functions you want students to use etc. At the end they can publish their stories on the site and/or buy them.

You can even have a Book Club Ceremony 🙂


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Teaching listening to teenage learners #1

Using top down strategies

The more you can predict, the easier it becomes to understand” (Lingzhu, 2003).

Shadows - by @eltpics

Much of my teaching has been with Italian teenage elementary learners (CEFR A1-A2) in quite large classes (around 30 pupils). Because of the number of students the situation has not always been simple for listening activities and most of my learners often complain about how frustrating listening can be. One of them has recently made the following comment: “ When I listen to a story in Italian I’m able to understand everything before the end, when I listen to it in English I feel I don’t understand anything!”. I then asked him: “How do you listen in Italian?” All the class reacted with a choral “I don’t know!”. Younger teenage elementary learners often completely avoid the role of context and co-text in L2 even if they unconsciously use them in L1. This was the principle motivation behind my choice to investigate how to train elementary learners to predict in listening class. This is the first of a series of articles about the analysis of top down/bottom up strategies when listening, the issues for learners, and some suggestions for teaching.

Top-down and Bottom-up processing

According to Richards (2008) two different kinds of processes are involved in understanding spoken discourse. These are often referred to as bottom-up and top-down processing. Both processing are applicable to reading and listening.

Bottom-up processing (BUP) refers to the use of the listener’s linguistic competence. Therefore, the direction of bottom-up processing is from language to meaning.

Top-down processing (TDP), on the other hand, refers to “the use of background knowledge in understanding the meaning of a message” (Richards, 2008:7). Background knowledge refers to the knowledge of the world that the listener has developed in his/her life. It may be previous knowledge about the topic, situational knowledge, or knowledge stored in long-term memory about the events and the links between them (Richards, 1990). Richards refers to this background knowledge as schemata and scripts that a listener activates to understand a text. Top-down processing consequently goes from meaning to language.

In order to have successful comprehension both bottom-up and top-down processing are needed. According to Richards (1990) bottom-up processing alone is often not sufficient for comprehension, so the listener should be able to make proper use of top-down processing.

I will now focus on some approaches to the teaching of top-down processing and predicting content in particular, therefore bottom-up processing will not be further discussed.

Top-down processing: subskills

As stated above, in using prior knowledge about people and events comprehension proceeds from the top down. Examples of top-down processing subskills include:

  • assigning places, persons, or things to categories;
  • inferring cause-and-effect relationships;
  • anticipating outcomes
  • inferring the topic of a discourse
  • inferring the sequence between events

(Richards, 1990:52)

A good strategic listener is usually able to select and plan which subskills will activate in a particular situation. I have noticed that in second language learning top-down processing ability in listening is not very well developed. In this respect I believe the ability to predict content plays a key role.

Predicting content: context and co-text 

According to Goh (1998), predicting enables the listener to anticipate the next part of a text, such as a word, a phrase or an idea. Therefore, the process of prediction involves listeners in selecting useful information from their own general experience and knowledge in order to identify text content (Lingzhu, 2003). Continue reading


Comics in ELT: Have fun!

When I was younger I used to read detective comics called Julia, it was a quite popular monthly publication in Italy so many of my friends were also reading it, and we were having fun sharing ideas and comments on the character, sequence of events etc.  In January I attended a brilliant EVO session on Storytelling for young learners. Surprisingly, one of our tasks was to explore and use some tools to create comics. What a great task! I immediately got the inspiration to use it class, it was a success.

Why comics?

Comics have always been a lot of fun for young learners and teenagers, the use of pictures and the clear context help them to practically visualise a situation. Creating a comic they develop the ability to plan a sequence of events, and to set a suitable context.

What tools?

There are many interesting comic creation tools. Here is a short list of the once I have used so far, but there are many more to try!

 Stripgenerator: It’s easy to use and doesn’t require a registration for students.

Bubblr: you can create comic strips with Flickr pictures and add bubbles!

ToonDoo: you can create your comic book and even upload and modify pictures for your comics.

Make beliefs comix: create your comic, easily select emotions, objects, baloons and panel prompts.

Classroom ideas!

Participating in the EVO session and following Janet Bianchini’s Scoop, I got many practical classroom ideas. Here are the most popular among my teenage students.

Practising new grammar structures > I have used comic strips to practice and improve the ability to ask questions.

I first gave students the structure of the strip (example: 4 pictures, 2 characters in each picture). Then I asked them to write at least 4 questions and answers at the Present Simple.

Imaginary interview > I asked students to write an imaginary interview to an imaginary character. We had an initial brainstorming on the character (age, appearance, skills, job, personality). Once students got the idea they planned and then wrote their interviews.

Practising vocabulary > Students were asked to create a comic strip using the words given or a specific context.

Storytelling > Students write comic strips based on personal anecdotes.

Comic strips are also very good for teachers to create interesting handouts for boring grammar rules 🙂

Further reading: Doing some research on this field, I found this very interesting presentation by S. Hendy.

Tap into the world of comics