Sumo: A Student-Approved Game to Kill 5 Minutes.

Have five minutes before break time that you need to kill? Enter Sumo, the most fun your kids will have all class. And the next class. And the next.

Levels: Elementary

Ages: Children

Materials: Flashcards

Seat your students in a large circle to function as the ring. Divide the class into two teams. One student (wrestler) from each team enters the ring and stands face to face with the other. Not too close together. A meter is or more is ideal.

Both wrestlers put their hands behind their back in a way that they can hold a flashcard (put there by you), keeping it hidden from their opponent. Put one minute on the clock. The point is for students to maneuver so that they can see their opponent’s flashcard and call it out before the opponent sees theirs.

Students aren’t allowed to use their hands for anything but holding the flashcard, nor are they allowed to talk unless it’s to call out the flashcard. The other students are only allowed to cheer on their teammate (they’ll often try to cheat by telling their teammate what’s on the opponent’s flashcard).

Sumo isn’t the most communicative game in the EFL/ESL teacher’s arsenal, so use it sparingly and never at length. But when it comes to killing 5 minutes, except no substitute.

IELTS Writing: Cohesive Devices

Writing on the IELTS test is arguably the most difficult of the four sections. Not only does it require high level vocabulary and grammar, but also the ability to think and express oneself in a structured, logical manner. Cohesive devices, sometimes called discourse markers or linking words, provide the language for this framework.

Simply put, cohesive devices are words or phrases that signal to the reader (or listener) that something important is about to happen. Perhaps it’s indicating the start of a list of reasons (e.g. ‘to begin with’, ‘the first thing is that’) or demonstrating contrast (e.g. ‘on the other hand’). Cohesive devices are the nuts and bolts that hold the content together. The start of this very paragraph uses a cohesive device (‘simply put’) to show that a summary is coming.

IELTS writing cohesive devices
Click on the picture for a free PDF.


Students struggle with them!

Cohesive devices are probably the most difficult expressions, other than idioms, to incorporate naturally into a response. If students aren’t misusing them, they’re almost certainly overusing them.

Let’s look at a cohesive device horror script:

For example, to begin with, I don’t know how many ways cohesive devices can be misused, although it’s quite a bit. On the other hand, if you use them well, they’ll boost your band score although it’s debatable by how much. However, you should try to use them for two reasons: first, because it’s an important part of the band score, and second, it helps the reader understand your intentions whereas no cohesive devices makes for an unstructured mess. Finally, I think cohesive devices are really important.


Students need to know that even if they use cohesive devices in a grammatically correct way, that doesn’t mean they’re being used properly. The sample text above is a classic example of students trying to shove square pegs into round holes. The language jumps out at you in a bad way, and not just because it’s underlined. That being said…

Cohesive devices are important.

Coherence and cohesion are 25% of the total writing band score, so their importance can’t be understated. Here are the public band descriptors for them:

bandsIELTS coherence and cohesion

Look at Band 5:

  1. Is there an overall progression? Think of a story. There must be a beginning, middle and an end, and each part should connect to the next, otherwise you end up with a jumbled, disjointed mess.
  2. Inadequate, inaccurate or over-use of cohesive devices. The sample paragraph above clearly falls under this description. It was cohesive device overkill.
  3. May be repetitive because of lack of referencing and substitution. Here’s a nightmare of a paragraph:
    • “There are two reasons why we should use cohesive devices. The first reason we should use cohesive devices is that they help the reader understand the organisation of our response. The second reason we should use cohesive devices is that they’re an important part of the band score.”
  4. Let’s try that again using proper referencing and substitution:
    • “There are two reasons why we should use cohesive devices. The first is that they help the reader to understand the organisation of our response, and second, they’re an important part of the band score.”

Band 7

  1. Logically organises ideas. Clear progression throughout. To achieve band 7, the overall organisation must be tight. There’s no room for a misplaced or disconnected idea. However…
  2.  …uses cohesive devices appropriately although there may be some under/over use. Even Band 7 allows for some misuse of the language, some being the operative word.

Bands 8 and 9

  1. …manages all aspects of cohesion well…attracts no attention… I think the key takeaway here is that when used properly, the reader shouldn’t even be aware of the cohesive devices used. Employing them seamlessly is the goal.


A sample IELTS Writing Task 1 :

The charts below show the reasons why people travel to work by bicycle or by car. Summarise the information by selecting and reporting the main features, and make comparisons where relevant. Write at least 150 words.

IELTS Writing Task 1 Pie Chart

Here’s a sample response:

The first chart shows the reasons why some people in the UK prefer to cycle to work. Conversely, the second chart gives reasons for those who choose to go to work by car.

The highest percentage of those who favour cycling say that this is because riding a bicycle to work is healthier than driving. 30% of them gave this as a reason. The same amount of people, 30% say that they cycle to work because it causes less pollution. 13% of people cycle to work because it is cheaper than driving. Surprisingly, a similar amount of people said that they cycled to work because it is faster than travelling by car.

In contrast to this, the percentage who prefer to travel by car because it is more comfortable is 40%. The two least important reasons for going to work by car, with 14% and 11% respectively, is that people need to carry things to work and that it is safer than cycling to work. Finally, 16% say they prefer driving because it is faster than cycling. This contrasts with the cyclists who ride to work because it is faster than driving.

In general, it seems that the majority of people who cycle to work do this for health and environmental reasons. By contrast, those who travel by car want to have a more comfortable journey over longer distances.

Forget about the other scoring rubrics and look at the response in terms of coherence and cohesion. It starts with a clear introduction of the charts and what they show. The first body paragraph addresses the ‘cycling’ chart, the second describes the ‘driving’ chart. The contrasts are presented appropriately with cohesive devices (e.g. ‘In contrast to this…’, ‘by contrast’). The all important overview comes as a conclusion at the end introduced with a cohesive device (‘in general’).

Practicing Cohesive Devices

It’s not enough just to give students a list of words and phrases and tell them to start practicing, yet this is often the approach of teachers and students alike. Each cohesive device has nuances in meaning and usage so that memorizing a list would be pointless.

Look at ‘because’ and ‘because of’. ‘Because’ is typically followed by a subject + verb while ‘because of’ is followed by a noun or noun phrase. Students typically can use ‘because’ quite easily but ‘because of’ can cause problems if not practiced.

Focus on one skill at a time, whether it’s comparing or contrasting or giving reasons. Choose one or two of the cohesive devices and practice them until you’re certain they’re being used correctly. In my experience it’s better not to use a cohesive device if you’re not sure it’s being used correctly.

Language Frames

One of the best ways to practice these devices is using ‘language frames’. If practicing Task 1, give students a chart or graph, or an essay topic for Task 2. Then choose a skill (e.g. comparing) and get students using it about that topic.




Along the same lines,

In the same way,

1. _______ and ___________ both show ________________

2. _______ and _____________ are like in that they both ____________.

3.  __________ and _____________ all show _____________.

4. Likewise, both are __________________

5. Similarly, ___________ and __________ are __________________

6. In the same way, _______ and __________ are __________________.




  1. The surest way to get better at using cohesive devices well is to analyze IELTS writing answers. Find examples of high scoring sample responses and break them down. How does one paragraph connect to the next? How are the sentences connected? Now find lower scoring responses and do the same. Try to find out exactly what went wrong.
  2. Read. Read and read and read. Every good writer, whether of blogs, novels, magazines or instruction manuals, is a prolific reader. Read critically, looking for how paragraphs are connected, how contrast is shown, how information is relayed in a logical way.
  3. Write. If you’re not writing an IELTS Task 1 or 2 per week, you’re not going to improve, at least not as quickly as you’d like. Find a topic online and write a response, then compare your answer to the sample response. Find a friend or a generous teacher to mark your writings. Beg if you have to. Just not me.


Dice Game: Talking About the Past

Levels: Pre-Intermediate to Academic (IELTS/TOEFL)

Ages: Teens and Adults

Pairs/Small groups

If your students are like mine, they habitually forget to change tenses when speaking about the past. This fun activity gets them using Simple Past with familiar questions that could easily appear in Part 1 of the IELTS Speaking test. I’ve even used it with strong elementary classes with a little pre-teaching of vocabulary.

Make it competitive by having students tally their points for each roll. When one student is speaking, the others should focus on Simple Past mistakes which cost the speaker points.

Download the Simple Past Dice Game.

Get more Dice Game ideas.

5 Reasons Why Your English Lessons Suck

Have you ever planned an English lesson that you thought would be a real cracker, one you were sure was going to set the class afire, only to find it fizzled like a wet fart when you actually tried it out? You’ve seen the looks on your students’ faces: boredom, indifference, perhaps even disgust as the stench of your own ineptitude wafts around the room. English lessons aren’t easy.

To make matters worse, whilst wallowing in failure, perhaps you blamed the students for their unresponsiveness, or the lesson topic itself for being a real dud. Not your fault, right?

Your Fault

One of the main struggles teachers face early on in their careers is a lack of English activities outside the book that remain relevant to the teaching points. It’s not enough to play a meaningless, time-killing game for half an hour when your students are paying to actually learn the language. You wouldn’t do that, would you?

To make things even more difficult, much of a teacher’s success hinges on making the lesson not just productive, but engaging, entertaining if you will. It’s not easy.  Students are demanding. They don’t just want to learn English, they want to have fun doing it. That’s a tall order, especially for someone as boring as you.

What can be done?

Perhaps it is indeed your activities fault. Some activities and lessons just aren’t that great. Some are flat out boring. The same goes for classes. That said, I’d mortgage the house I don’t have to bet that the common denominator in all your failed lessons is you. Yes, you are probably the one mucking everything up.

So, with all that in mind, let’s look at 5 reasons why your lessons suck.

1. Your students don’t understand you.

Communicating with people of limited English ability is an art that takes a long time to master. It’s hard growing up in a world where language is taken for granted and then being thrust into a situation where this is taken away. Frustration often takes over for those teachers fortunate enough to recognize what’s happening. Many teachers never get to that realization. Most overestimate how much their students understand.

don't understand

Fixing this means concentrating on three things: grade, pace and brevity.

  • Grade — the appropriate level of vocabulary and grammar. You can’t use the same words and constructions for elementary students that you would for advanced students. Now’s not the time to show off your erudition with million-dollar words.
  • Pace — the speed at which you’re talking. Have you ever heard someone speak in a language you’re not familiar with and it sounded as if they were auctioneers? Slow down. If you’re speaking slow enough that it starts to feel condescending, you’re probably at the right pace.
  • Brevity — expressing things concisely. See the next point.

2. You talk too much.

No surprise there. You’ve probably been hearing it your whole life. It practically goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway and make it bold. The more you talk, the less your students understand.

talk too much

More bad news —  you’re not that interesting. Just because your meditation retreat in Chiang Mai was a real eye-opener doesn’t mean it has to be a mouth-opener too. Wasn’t it silent meditation? That’s a noble, if obviously difficult, objective. Take a page out of the Buddhist monk’s playbook and consider the value of an unexpressed thought.

This cascades into the next point:

3. The more you talk, the less your students do.

Higher Teacher Talking Time = Less Student Talking Time

student talking time

I suck at math, but even I get that the more time you spend talking in class, the less time your students have. I don’t know if there’s an ideal ratio of TTT to STT, but the best I’ve seen was probably 40:60.

Many students have little chance to communicate in English outside of class, so facilitating opportunities for them to speak isn’t just a goal, it’s the goal. Creating these chances is of paramount importance in your English lessons.

It does take some time to give instructions and check for understanding. Often the actual practice time given to students is not much longer than what it takes to set up the activity.

Activities shouldn’t drag on and on. It can be difficult to sustain English-only communication for longer than five minutes at the lower levels.

With this in mind, using TTT for anything other than facilitating student production of English becomes superfluous. You simply don’t have time to waste by yapping away irrelevantly about your last vacation.

4. Your activities aren’t connected to the lesson

A lot of teachers assume that playing a game in class instantly relieves the boredom of the book and that having fun is what students really want anyway. Students do want to have fun, but throwing in a game that has no relevance to the lesson smacks of an unprepared teacher who is just making things up as he or she goes along.

what's relevant

It takes very little effort to connect an activities to the English lessons. Look no further than the lesson’s theme or grammar point. Are you teaching about food? Make sure your game or activity features food somehow. Are you teaching Simple Past? Use it!

Students aren’t stupid. Activities purely for the sake of entertainment are transparent and will eventually alienate the students who are there to learn.

5. Your activities are inefficient.

Too many games consist of two teams with only one student of either team involved at any given point while the rest of the class looks on idly, twiddling their thumbs, or worse, becoming distractions and thus a classroom management problem. Don’t complain when students start checking their phones or pulling hair or speaking their native language when your activity hasn’t given them a chance to do anything.

When you’re planning your English lessons, keep an eye out for ‘efficient’ activities– anything that has all the students communicating at once. These will almost by necessity be activities that are done in pairs or groups of three.

Larger groups = less ‘Student Talking Time’

large group

Once the group size reaches four or larger, it’s too easy for weaker or shyer students to get lost in the mix. Keeping groups to three or fewer affords more speaking opportunities per student.

Final Thoughts

It’s worth remembering that the first three points all relate to ‘Teacher Talking Time’. Most English lessons become disasters when the teacher makes the lesson more about him/herself than the students. Use your talking time to set up an activity, then shut up and let your students take over.