learning grammar through context

putting grammar into context. Recently I’ve been struggling (not for the first time, obviously) to find some nice way to teach/ revise a grammar topic, and by “nice way” I mean something different from exercises (which are great, but mostly as a homework) and videos featuring the grammar usage (which are good too, their drawback being that they showcase a structure but don’t make a student use it). The topics high on my list now are gerund/ infinitive and passive (different tenses). In all cases I was dealing with one-one students, hence not much opportunity for all those great speaking activities that would more or less naturally involve using passives or gerund/infinitive structures.

The way that seems to have worked for me and my students is very much personalised, which I know is not always good (at least, it can’t be easily copied, it wouldn’t necessarily work for all the others out there if it had worked for one or 2), but at least I’ll just share what I did, and if you think it’s worth it, you could try and do the same for a different context.

Anyway, here is what I did:, 2 cases:

  1. the student: a young woman, a co-owner of a company delivering farm goods to people. Is keen on everything to do with food and nature. I thought an idea of a wastED restaurant could interest her, so I

a) compiled a short text describing Dan Barber’s initiative (here are a lot of picturesque examples http://www.wastedlondon.com/scrapbook , and in “press” section there are a lot of good texts too)

b) asked my student to share her thoughts about the initiative (which could be quite controversial, too)

c) offered her a list of gerund/ infinitve phrases to complete, with regard to the WastED story:

Dan Barber…
  • tries
  • makes people
  • suggests
  • enjoys
  • decided
  • looks forward to
  • thinks there’s no point in
  • wants people to stop
  • wants us to remember (not)


    • The WASTed restaurant lets
    • Such projects make us not forget / remember
    • A lot of people don’t mind (e.g. eating “reusable food”)

2) the student: a male working for Russian search giant, quite fluent, but not too accurate. At our previous class we both noticed he was making a lot of errors in Passive Voice usage, and it was quite logical to revisit the topic, even though he’d definitely studied it in the past. For that reason, we needed smth more sophisticated than the usual (exercises, talks about how this or that process is usually carried out). As our recent topic has been Open Source software, and he’d introduced me to Google’s Open source site

So I just rephrased a couple of sentences from their main page so that each of them used different passive structures, but wrote the grammar parts in Russian (see the brackets for the English versions):
  • Thousands of open source projects используются в Google to build scalable and reliable products  (are used in Google)
  • Millions of lines of code уже были выданы Гуглом under open source licenses for others to use (have already been released by Google)
  • A healthy ecosystem используется for the sustainability of open source for all these days (is being used)
  • At Google open source всегда использовался to innovate (has always been used)

This short exercise made my student think (!), remember the appropriate structures, think again and in the end, get it right, which was just what I wanted him to do. To wrap it ip, I also asked him to watch a short video featuring TensorFlow (Google’s Open Source library)  and then to comment on how/where it can be applied, how it was developed, how long it has been used etc, using the Passive Voice again.


Surely, both tasks are not very easy for students, and they should be something that follows (a lot of) controlled practice and a great deal of memorising and checking (especially in gerund/infinitve case). All in all, however, this approach proved to be a good one for revisiting the topic and putting the grammar into active usage.

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Retelling the text without noticing it, a trick?)

 I’ve been a firm believer in deep and profound work with texts for a long time. No need to repeat that it (and “texts”, obviously can stand for listening/ videos) has tons of benefits, acquiring vocabulary from the context and having a lot to discuss among them. After getting students to read a text and clarifying all the unclear bits/ new words and maybe going through the usual, like comprehension questions
etc, it really pays to ask them to (simply,  old-school style) retell the text,  but the problem is, it could look bad. Or not bad,  but just not very “adult-like”  teaching.
Since I mostly teach quite adult and professional people, it often feels quite counterintuitive to ask them just to retell the text. Don’t know though, it might be just my problem. (Or is it yours too? Let me know). So as some inner feeling wouldn’t let me just make them retell the contents, I have to disguise the retelling task and make it look “decent”  and appropriate for adults.
 So my favourite way to go about it (and it also helps to focus on the vocabulary) is to  write out some key expressions/ words from a text,  mostly featuring new and useful vocabulary items,  in the same order as they appear in a text.
 Ask a student 1) to see if everything is clear on the list 2) how all these words and phrases are connected to the text.
 And the second point is of course what in the end results into the text review /retell, often without the person actually noticing it.  So my usual question to go with such a list would be “can you remember how all these words and phrases were used in the text”? And, after some thinking time, a student would usually come up with a more a less structured summary of what they’ve read.
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a song to remember for a before a New Year time

I’ve stumbled upon a great song, just an English teacher’s dream!)) thanks to the site http://www.tefltunes.com/ ! the song is all about how smb is going to do smth next year and about New Year resolutions.

not too actual now, but I’ll leave the link here just to be able to find it at the right season

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apartment renovation: teaching English for virtually any topic with authentic materials

Are there many ESL materials that would encourage speaking about a flat renovation/redecoration or repair? Surprisingly, they are scarce! and the ones existing are not what I want them to be, to tell you the truth. So after some really focused search, looking through all the books I posessed or managed to find online I still didn’t have anything worth considering as a teaching material. And as one of my students specifically asked for that topic for the several classes to come (her interest has quite a plain reason as she is in the middle of , I had to do something!

I wanted the materials to be thought-(and speaking)-provoking, full of good words, preferably the ones that could be used to talk on some other subjects as well..and also I wanted something interesting!

So here is a couple of things that worked for me andf my student (though I’m still wondering why the renovation topic isn’t covered in usual ESL books. Or am I wrong?)

  • some text on flat decoration from http://commonenglisherrors.com/housekeeping-jargons-homerenovation-phrases/ . I used certain parts of it, making it look like several people were sharing their intentions on house renovation and housekeeping.
  • videos: I was lucky to discover IKEA home tour, the series on home remake. The episodes are around 3 mins, are made by the American IKEA, many of them have simple Enlgish spoken with different accents, and could be used not only to start a talk about home design but also about many other things (like shopping, home, tastes etc) . I went for an episode no 113 for a start;). I’d say some of them could be used at intermediate level and upwards.
  • one more thing that’s not directly connected to home design but could still be a logical continuation is discussing the concept of “home exchange” and that’s what we are going to talk about next time with my 1-1 student. So far we’ve just touched upon the sunject slightly and she seemed to be quite engaged. During my (re)search I came across a site knok.com where there is a nice “success story” of one of their users. I took it as a starting point and will see soon if it was a good choice ..

if you know some good materials to do with home repair/ redesign, please let me know!

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using famous songs to revise tenses: thanks, U2, Beatles and others

Do you often get students who is really confused about tenses? “I living in a big city”, “they speaks Spanish” and even “he is has been …”. oh and… “future? how do I make future? ” I am sure you’ve been there too)

So I’ve been thinking about one more way to revise, refresh and structure the tenses quickly and in a fun way, and surely songs are just a great way to do that. As I needed to cover very basic tenses mostly (with one of my students who is struggling to get his head around all this “grammar” and to be honest is not a very “grammar person” at all – he just wants to speak, and grammar is not important. You’ve heard that too, right?)

Songs were a good choice because he likes music (and who doesn’t?) and lines from songs are usually very memorable, so it wouldn’t be too hard to recall a cliched phrase like “I will survive” and then make another sentence using that model, like “Ok, I will call you” . But I couldn’t use just one song, because even if I found something covering Present Simple, Present Continuous, Past Simple, Present Perfect and Future Simple, it would be too hard for him to get it – his level can be assessed as pre-int low. So all this didn’t leave me much choice and I decided just to crop several songs that everyone knows – for the benefit of English Grammar 🙂

What I came up with is a 1:47 min file containing 8 song extracts (from Gloria Gaynor, U2, Beatles, Susan Vega, Queen etc) and a simple worksheet to go with it(taking into consideration that that student of mine needed smth really easy to grasp). I just asked him to listen to the extracts, complete the gaps in the song lines, match them to the right grammar tense, and then make his own examples (positive, negative, question) for each of the tenses. I am sure the task might be much more profound, but I decided not to make it too complicated and proved to be right. It worked pretty well for him and helped to structure the tenses and to revise the forms. Although I can’t say his tenses are immaculate now 🙂 , this was at least one of the steps to make him just a little more confident in using them.

Here are the mp3 and .doc files, hope you’ll find them useful too:)

grammar song mix English

UPD> Can’t think of a way to upload an MP3 file here, so if you need it, pls let me know and I’ll mail it to you. Alternatively, please teach me how to upload it here))))

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“I’ll be back” post :)

I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages! (not a very original start, I know. But it’s still true. and it’s actually 2 posts).

So I’ll be back (soon, really soon) with 2 posts, one containing an audio file with some very well known songs helping to review the main grammar tenses, and the second featuring a movie extract to tap into a number of great adjectives to describe behavior.


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teleconferencing – a nice video to start with

Have you noticed how scarce the teleconferencing materials are? especially for higher levels. And for one-to-one? A struggle!

but while I was looking for some decent materials and came across this:

it can be called authentic material, but it’s not  a usual videoconference vide0 – it looks more like a stand-up comedy thing. It’s David Grady’s “conference call”, and it’s brilliant – for a start, and for some advanced students who are experienced in teleconferencing.


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A Direct TV commercial to teach narrative tenses

Coming back to post about a commercial (or rather, a series of commercials) that can be used as a tool to train (or refresh) narrative tenses. The good thing about this commercial is that it describs and follows a chain of events, one being more or less the reason for the next. The language is pretty clear and not too fast, so I suppose it could be taken to Intermediate classes and upwards.

Here is the commercial I decided to stick to: Direct TV (don’t attend your own funeral) The main thing about it is that it’s fun. The commercial starts with somebody being bored with waiting for a cable guy, looking out of the window anbd seeing something he was not supposed to see…. and finally the guy ends up attending his own funeral. What a story!

direct tvOn YouTube you will find the whole selection of Direct TV commercials, and you might choose a different one for your class – they all follow the same chain pattern.

I used it at the beginning of a lesson, when I wanted my one-to-one student to mentally refresh the narrative tenses. By that time we’ve already spent some time working with stories, but the grammar needed a little more work, so this ad came in very handy.

After watching I asked him to relate the story back to me, starting from the end (attending the funeral), and telling what had led the man to this sad ending. It can probably be also used as a guessing and predicting activity or as a base for a writing task. It could also serve to introduce the grammar topic, too.

What would you do about it? What do you think about the commercial?

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a mental note)

I have two things that I’ve been meaning to write about for some time now: a commercial that can be used to teach and train narrative tenses and my experience of teaching English to a young learner using Lego people (Lego Duplo actually,  borrowed from my son 🙂 )

one day (and hopefully soon) I’ll write about both….

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(authentic) resources for an HR English course

HR picI’ve recently finished teaching a one-to-one HR English course (which lasted, on and off, about 18 months), and I feel it would be good to share some materials I’ve been choosing, using and sometimes creating.

The situation

The course started off with a standard Oxford Business English “English for Human Resources”, but I soon got an opportunity to see that this book was not enough, and my student required much more: more authentic, more real-life, more challenging. I would say, the book is perfectly fine for pre-service students or junior HR employees, but my student is an HRD (which meant she didn’t need to be told how things are usually done in HR – and that’s the main ingredient of a usual HR English book), and her English, with some reservations, was around upper-intermediate.

As her level of English was already quite high, I opted for authentic resources to supplement and expand the book, and at first stages it was not too easy for her, especially reading the articles. However, when I look back at the results now, I can appreciate how much better she’d become. And another thing that immensely helped me use almost any of the materials for her benefit and to make a class really good and full of speaking opportunites, was of course her readiness to speak: as she is a proud employee of her company, she was always happy to tell and explain how some procedures and processes are carried out there, as compared to what we’ve listened to or read about, and what the up- and downsides of that could be. So this was the case of interesting classes both for the student and the teacher – I got a chance to hear a lot of great things, stories and practices.

Remembering how sometimes I was having hard time finding something really appropriate for the course, I thought I would try to make a list of some of my now favourite resources that you could also take to your HR English or just Business English class


A small collection of good motivation&success quotes – could be nice to start a lesson with if you ask students to match up and comment on the motivation and success quotes .

Infographs worked quite well for our lessons, especially if they were fresh and actual, because then my student could compare the data from them to the data she knows. CIPD site was generally a good source of reading, and sometimes you can find interesting infographs there, too. This one, on employees’ engagement, had looked quite interesting to me before the lesson, but at the lesson the info actually proved to be completely different according to my student. That, however, didn’t make the infograph useless, because (and it’s a thing I’ve often noticed again since then) a material very different from the student’s experience can be discussed even more intensively: first, a student can recount what they see there, then comment on it telling what is different from it in their setting, and what is better, and what is worse… and so a material that looks almost inappropriate for that student, appears to be very rich and thought-provoking indeed.

HR blogs that I’ve only discovered recently (when I was almost desperate in my search for interesting materials) became a great source of shared experience, inspiration and good vocabulary for my student. I really regretted not having come across them earlier. These resources helped me find good blogs and blogposts for my classes: http://wheniwork.com/blog/top-10-human-resources-bloggers-you-must-follow/ This is, for instance, one oа the posts (and the blog in general) I particularly liked: http://www.hrbartender.com/2014/recruiting/employees-need-success/ . The language in it (unlike in some other blogs) is pretty simple and yet the ideas are strong give a lot oа opportunities to think and speak. Generally I like taking blogposts to classes because they bring a feeling of equality, let a student relate to the mentioned issues, and all this, of course, results into more engagement and more speaking (and writing, definitely) opportunities

Speaking about reading, I have an important note to make: at the beginning of the course there was a lot of usual around-business vocabulary, words like suppply, demand, purchase, percentage, etc, that my students should have known and felt she needed, but still had difficulty remembering. And how happy was I to notice (and to share with her, too) that after having read and discussed extensively she finally seemed to memorize and to confidently use most of the words and phrases. I guess we have to thank here the fact that such words occurred again and again in the materials and we paid special attention to them. I suppose it could be named a sort of “narrow reading” in terms of repetition of the same words – so that she had no chance of not remembering them, after all.

The topic of what role an HR should play was quite productive and we came back to it several times throughout the course. Here is a blog post on various HR’s roles and personae I brought with me to one of our first lessons.

Another big thing was, of course, the future of HR and employment, and we spent several very fruitful lessons around “HR by 2030”. We started off with the book called “Leadership 2030”, or rather, its review on Amazon, and then continued with the report “Fast Forward 2030: The Future of Work and Workplace”, which brought us a lot of great vocabulary (and vocabulary revision&repetition, too), along with some interesting trends, looking realistic and unrealistic. Interesting and certainly provoking a lot of discussion.

One more topic that could work not only for HR, but generally for any Business English class is speaking about the language being used by professionals, and especially about the buzzwords, ot special lingo that you can hear in offices overused in some cases. I luckily came across a great article about such words and phrases at a great Mind Tools site (definitely worth looking at!) : lingo and couldn’t resist the temptation to take it to class, having made it into a worksheet first. It started an interesting talk about business language and comparing English office language to Russian office language (which is full of English words) and also let her learn some idioms and remember&refresh the others.


A brilliant Meet the Boss TV Interview: Best Practice HR tips from  Liane Hornsey, Google VP Operations http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRsJbpppvEU + a simple task for watching, before you actually discuss what was said. Google HR VP gapfill . For my student it was just the right kind of material: it was interesting for her to see how things work in Google, and then she could explain how everything in her company (also an IT company), and why it is the way it is, and what should probably be done differently in the future.

Of course, we used TED talks. Some of them were quite general – like “8 secrets of Success” by Richard St John, and some were more focused on Women in Business, like this one, based on Cheryl Sandberg’s talk, and some were more focused on work and motivation, like the one from Dan Ariely. I used the script and gap-fill made by Vicky Loras for the first part, and supplemented it with a questions for the parts 2 and 3: dan-ariely_gapfill

One more highly productive area to discuss was (un)happiness at work. I even came across a professional Chief Happiness Officer. I wouldn’t say he strikes me as a great speaker, but the topic of happiness at work itself looks like a good thing to discuss. We started with 2 slides from the presentation listing the factors for unhappiness at work and I asked my student to predict which factors would be key ones, and then we watched more important bits of the video, cheсked her ideas and listened for the 5 ways to stay happy at work. No surprises there, but still: most of the ideas were accompanied by some best practice stories, and all this was quite an engaging listening for her.

One more thing, very niched though, was a videoconference on salaries in IT (my student’s company is in IT) – forecast for 2014. We could do a lot of listening, and then it became a good opportunity to see if the forecast had been right (because we were discussing it already in 2014) , and to speculate about the future. The video is almost an hour long, but we watched only about 10-15 minutes and left the rest as a homework. As a task I created a kind of matching exercise (there are several people speaking, so the task was to match the beginning and endings of the phrases, and then to remember who said what and what the context was. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the task anywhere).

As my student’s company has several projects in cooperation with Turkey and UAE, the cultural issue was quite important. I used several videos to prompt the talk about culture, and the central one was naturally Dr Foons Trompenaars interview on cultural dimensions: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JqNI8le1bF4

By the end of our course the issue of dealing with crisis in an organization, overcoming it and adapting for the future has became important, and the materials appeared to be scarce. But after some research I came across an article “New Work World Requires HR Overhaul” and a video that became a great source of inspiration and speaking practice. Here is a small matching exercises and some prompts for discussion I made to structure the talk: Talent match . If you start discussing the article, it will be just logical to continue with the video “Redesign and reskill the HR function” + there are more webcasts around the same topic.

And so these are more or less all of the most interesting and motivating materials that I could remember. Hope some of them work for you and your students too.

Posted in authentic materials, Business English, HR, materials writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments