How Many Different Fruits Can You Name In Two Minutes?

Need a quick warm-up for your lesson and don’t feel like preparing in any way, shape or form? Lists are the saviors of the slothful!

Put students in pairs and make sure only one of them is writing (the point is to have them working together.) Give them two or three minutes to make a list on any given topic. Get a stopwatch app for the computer (or phone if necessary) so your students can see the time ticking away. And make it competitive. Whoever can can list the most things is the winner.

What topic should they write about? Connect it to your theme or your grammar point, if at all possible. Teaching fruit? Make a list. Teaching about hotels? List everything in a room. Teaching Simple Past? List as many verbs as possible, or things they did last week.

This activity works for all ages and abilities, from children to adults, beginner to academic, but the best part is that can be adapted to virtually any topic. If you truly can’t think of one, have students list all the reasons they hate you. They’ll need more than a few minutes, of course.

The Most Likely Reason You Suck at Teaching and 7 Not-So-Easy nor Immediate Ways of Improving It

Are you a budding new teacher, so fresh from your training course that the certificate is still hot off the press? Then first, let’s address the ten-ton pachyderm in the room — you suck at teaching. That’s why you clicked on the link, right? You don’t like your classes, and they most certainly don’t like you. Why would they? You’re not particularly attractive. You’ve got the personality of a cow. Spittle gathers in the corners of your mouth when you talk and your breath smells like rancid onions. If you think that’s bad, you should hear what your students say about you behind your back.

Perhaps you think this is overly direct. Hyperbolic. Even insulting. And you’d be right, but unfortunately it doesn’t make the point above any less true. If you’re new, you’re just not good. It’s okay. A good proportion of experienced teachers aren’t that good either, so don’t feel that you’re alone. Awareness is the first step.

‘But wait,’ you say. ‘Not me. I’m different. I paid attention during the training course and took notes. I’m going to set the class on fire with my English-teaching prowess.’

If this is you, it’s time for an ice-cold bath with Dunning and Kruger:

Dunning Kruger

If, having perused this graph, you identify with the ‘Valley of Depair’, pat yourself on the back as you’re already ahead of the curve. This is precisely where you should be.

If, on the other hand, you feel confident you know what you’re doing, look closely at the summit of Mt. Stupid. That’s you up there, the Edmund Hilary of TEFL. The best advice I can give you is to reiterate the simple observation above, that if you’re a new teacher, you suck. But that advice will fall on deaf ears because not only do you suck at teaching, you don’t even know that you suck. Nobody at the top of Mount Stupid knows where they are. At least the people in the Valley of Despair are aware of their own suckitude. Not you. You’re special. You’re on the wrong side of the Dunning-Kruger effect. And you’re not alone — the slope is littered with the carcasses of teachers who glimpsed their own inadequacies and didn’t survive the fall.

So this post is only for those lying there helplessly in the Valley of Despair. If that’s where you started out, congratulations. If you’ve fallen there from the lofty heights of stupidity,  welcome back to Earth. Let me help you claw your way out of this hole you’ve landed in.

But first, more bad news. Becoming a better teacher, like everything else, requires hours and hours of repetition, hard work, and trial and error before achieving anything close to mastery, if there is such a thing. If you came here for a quick-fix guide to being awesome in a classroom, you’ll have to kindly look elsewhere. The only thing I can do is point out the weaknesses most new teachers have at the outset, and perhaps provide some signposts to keep you moving in the right direction whilst avoiding some of the obstacles and pitfalls you’ll likely encounter.

So, without further ado, let me introduce the most likely reason you suck as a teacher:

You’re boring. 

There. I said it. I know that’s tough to hear, especially after your mom’s told you your whole life how special you are. You’re some kind of special, alright, just not the kind that works in a classroom. Think back to when you were a student. Who was your favorite teacher? Why? Who was your least favorite teacher? Why? Chances are the word boring is going to crop up somewhere in your thoughts.

As a student, nothing is more deflating than walking into a class knowing you have to endure hours of your teacher’s limp dishrag of a personality. A good question to ask yourself is whether you would want to attend one of your own classes as a student. I know I wouldn’t.

But aren’t we fighting DNA here? Aren’t boring people irrevocably boring? To some extent, perhaps. Not everyone can be Gordon Ramsey, but we can certainly learn something from the more charismatic people we’re jealous of.

Here are 7 useful guidelines to ensure your lesson isn’t one long drool-pooling snooze-fest:

1. Be energetic.

Seriously. Bring. The. Energy. Chug a coffee or mainline a Red Bull or snort a pile of sugar if you have to. Do whatever it takes. You can’t expect your students to bring energy into the classroom; you have to provide it for them. At the end of your class, you should be pinging and so should your students.

If you’re teaching in a private language school, your students may have been at work or school the whole day and they’re studying on top of an already busy schedule. You’re fighting nature, here. People are going to be exhausted and reluctant to put in more than the minimum amount of effort required. It’s up to you to snap them out of their malaise.

2. Have a sense of humor.

How could you, yes you, possibly be funny? I was wondering the exact same thing. But you don’t need to be Jerry Seinfeld; you need to be Rowan Atkinson. Remember that if you’re teaching EFL, your students won’t get your witty repartee or observational brilliance (lol). What they will get is physical humor. Slapstick. Mr. Bean doesn’t need to say a word to get people to understand and laugh at his shtick.

The point is that students will be reluctant to contribute if the they’re learning in an oppressively serious environment. Students need to see mistakes not just as inevitable, but necessary for learning. This is especially important in cultures where mistakes are considered a loss of face. Students need to overcome this fear, and humor is possibly the best way. Be self-deprecating. Laugh at your own mistakes.

3. Be entertaining.

If you stick around long enough in the biz, you’ll hear the term ‘edutainment’ bandied around in disparaging terms. It typically refers to teachers who do nothing more than play stupid, education-less games in their class with the sole objective of killing time or garnering positive reviews from students. While this does happen, students typically see through teachers who offer nothing more than an hour’s worth of hangman. That leaves the ‘edu’ out of edutainment.

Edutainment, to me at least , is the art of generating interest in something that’s not inherently interesting. Perhaps the theme of your lesson is clothes. Yawn.  Edutainment means taking a boring book exercise and acting like it’s the most interesting thing they could possibly be doing. You have to sell your lesson and the activities within it through the sheer power of your own enthusiasm.

What if you’re neither a naturally enthusiastic or entertaining person? What if you’re introverted?

4. Develop an alter ego.

You can’t be introverted in the classroom. You just can’t. It’s boring. It’s embarrassing. It reminds everyone of their own insecurities. You need a split personality. Take every quality you wish you were (start with good-looking and intelligent) and make it your classroom persona. Develop a Superman to your Clark Kent. Project confidence, even if you feel none. Fake it til you make it.

5. Give a shit, or at least pretend to.

Nothing is worse than a teacher who looks like he or she would rather be somewhere else. Teaching isn’t your calling? No problem. Act like it is. Why would your students care about a lesson when it’s painfully obvious that the teacher doesn’t? The classroom isn’t the place to be sullen, brooding ruefully over pathetic life choices. You have the rest of your sorry existence for that.

6. Develop fun, engaging and educational activities.

Here’s the best part. Perhaps you are an indolent, ill-humored and uncaring introvert. There is still hope. Not much, mind you, but some. What you lack in personality you can make up for in content. What you need is to acquire and stockpile weapons of mass instruction — activities. Ask your colleagues. Read books. Scour the Internet for foolproof activities that even you couldn’t screw up. You don’t have to be entertaining or interesting if your activities are. It certainly helps, but it isn’t absolutely essential.

Have some fun activities? Great. My final point.

7. Keep activities short and sweet.

What do Lost, The Office, Happy Days and the Simpsons all have in common? They all went on way too long. If you want to maintain interest in activities, they can’t drag. Aim for no more than five minutes. Break up longer activities into shorter, more manageable activities.

You don’t want your students to feel totally settled at any one point. Keep them on their toes. And just because they’re enjoying the activity doesn’t mean it’s the wrong time to end it. Remember the true secret to showmanship — always keep them wanting more.

7 Ways to Spice Up Boring Listening Activities in the Book

I hated listening activities when I first started teaching. I had no idea what to do with them besides just listening and answering the questions. That’s the point of listening, right? You hear it or you don’t. Check the answers and move on.

My students’ weaknesses in this particular skill discouraged me more than it did them. Only a few of the students were able to hear or understand anything. The gap between their abilities and what was being taught in the book seemed insurmountable. I got through the exercises as fast as possible and moved on to speaking activities which were far more manageable, productive, but most of all, fun.

I was slow to learn the answer to this problem, and we both know you’re lost in the weeds, so I humbly offer my hard-earned lesson as a bit of direction out of the morass:

Make your listening activities speaking activities.

Let’s be honest, listening is boring. Few of us in everyday life can listen for more than a few seconds before we have to commence our own blathering, particularly you, as if you had something interesting to say. So you can imagine how difficult it it is when you’re attempting a three-minute-long listening activity about a boring topic in a language that isn’t your own.

Break it up.

If you ever hear of the term ‘scaffolding’ in an EFL context, just know that it’s a stupid word that was invented by an armchair academic to make himself feel smart. It means nothing more than breaking difficult tasks into small, more manageable parts.

Have a look at the following listening activity:

listening activities

The coolest thing about this exercise is that it’s made for pairs; students A and B listen for different information in the same conversation. This instantly turns into a Q&A speaking activity, but more on that later.

What you don’t want to do is just play the audio and have students start filling in blanks. That is precisely the opposite of scaffolding. Start small and simple and go slow. Let’s see how many different mini-activities we can make out of this one listening exercise.

Activity 1: Pre-teaching vocabulary

Vocabulary is always a good lead-in. Don’t assume your students will know every word in the recording or even the questions in the book. Identify a few of the more difficult ones you think your students will struggle with and teach them the meaning beforehand, remembering of course to show rather than tell. For more advanced classes, this activity can be done first in pairs by asking if the partner knows the meaning of a particular word.

Activity 2: Predicting Answer Types

Newer teachers give predictions short shrift, if any notice at all, yet this is one of the few ways students can actually improve exam-style listening activities. Even elementary students can begin learning this all-important skill.

Start with Student A.  Ask them what they can predict about the answer. Given that this is from an elementary book and skills are weak, they’ll need a lot of modeling and prompting.

  1. He works for a ____________ company.

Ask them if the answer will be a noun, verb or adjective. Here, it could be an adjective or a noun collocation with ‘company’. Perhaps write a few examples on the board. (e.g. ‘big’ company; ‘insurance’ company etc.).

2. He has ___________ daughters.

Ask them what the answer could be. A number, perhaps. Or an adjective.

For lower-level or weaker classes, you may need to walk through each question with them as a class, making predictions together. Pre-intermediate students and above, though, should be able to work in pairs, making predictions together. A minute or two should suffice.

Activity 3: Predicting the Language

In listening activities such as this, each of the statements appears to be the answer to a question. Why not try to anticipate what those questions will be? Again, for pre-intermediate and above, this is another pair activity. Give them five minutes to write out the questions together (writing alone is boring and uncommunicative.) For beginners, do the activity together as a class.

1.  He works for a ____________ company.

A question might be, “What kind of company does he work for?” Write it on the board.

2.  He has ___________ daughters. “How many daughters does he have?”

And so on.

Activity 4: Drill

Don’t let a good drilling opportunity go to waste. You’ve just written some questions on the board. Drill them chorally and individually and in groups. Clap or tap the stressed words. Above all, make it quick and keep it natural.

Take notice — students haven’t yet begun the book exercise and we’ve already done four activities. Boom, scaffolding.

Activity 5: Listening

We’re finally at the objective — listening and filling in the blanks. Listen twice, minimum. Be responsive to students who may want another crack at it.

Activity 6: Checking Answers

After your students have listened and completed the gap fill, you check the answers as a class and move on, right? Of course not. That’s just what new (i.e. bad at teaching) teachers do, like you. You’re missing another short speaking activity. Why not have students check their answers together in pairs? This is a bit harder to do in activities like the one above where students A and B listen for different information, but we’re not so unimaginative we can’t make it work, are we? I’ll speak for myself I guess.

One easy way to do it is to swap listenings. Just trade books and listen again. Student A now listens and checks B’s information and vice versa. They discuss together for a minute and then you can check it as a class.

But wait. Rather than just having students call out the answers, listen again and have them tell you to stop when they hear the answer. You stop the recording, then they tell you what the answer is.

Activity 7: Q & A

Remember those questions you had your students write in Activity 3? Let’s come back to those. Have students swap questions, so that Student B is asking about Student A’s information and vice versa.

For example:

Student B: What kind of company does he work for?

Student A: A marketing company. Where does he work?

Student B: In London.

At this point we’ve squeezed seven listening activities out of one, and our short little book exercise is all of a sudden at least half an hour long. Of course, not all of this needs to be done for each listening, but some does, otherwise picture your students perched atop rickety scaffolding, holding on for dear life in your disaster of a lesson.

Scaffolding Listening Activities

Chanting isn’t just for religious weirdos

Chanting has always scared me. Whether done in religion or a protest ruled by mob mentality, chants have always conjured in me images of irrational masses calling for blood. Like that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the priest rips the still-beating heart out of a sacrificial victim to the delight of a chanting, brainwashed cult. Yikes.

But this unthinking nature of chanting that disturbs me is its strength in an EFL classroom. Mastery only comes through repetition, and chanting ingrains language in a way that allows students to focus on sounds rather than meaning. Chanting lends itself well to absorbing intonation and sentence stress, and phrases that are difficult to pronounce are often rather easy once a rhythmic component is added.

Suppose your target structure is ‘I want _________’, and the vocabulary is fruit. Have one student leave the room so he/she can’t see as you hide a flashcard (e.g. apples). Invite the student to come back in and look for the flashcard while the rest of the class chants ‘I want apples.’ The group chants louder if the student is approaching the flashcard and quieter if walking away from it. They keep on chanting until the student finds the flashcard.

For added fun, put the class in teams and time the students as they look for the flashcards. The team with fastest time wins. The winning team can then rip the hearts out of the losers, chanting all the while.

Temple of Doom Heart Ripped Out
Kali maa shakti de!



Orange is the new saffron

The word orange entered the English lexicon only in 1512, deriving from the French word pomme d’orange, referring to the fruit. The French word derives in turn from Italian, Italian from Arabic, and Arabic from the Sanskrit naranga. What a journey.

Prior to 1512, saffron was used to describe shades of orange, along with ġeolurēad (yellow-red) for dark orange and ġeolucrog (yellow-saffron) for light orange. ‘Red hair’, ‘the Red Planet’ and ‘robin redbreast’ were also colorful terms for the hue.

Spiral Wings

If I told you that the word ‘helicopter’ is a pairing of two separate words, you’d probably think ‘heli’ and ‘copter’. You’d be wrong, of course, as always. Think helix and pterodactyl.


1 a combining form meaning “spiral”; used with this meaning and as a combining form of helix in the formation of compound words.


1 a combining form meaning “one with wings” of the kind specified.

One Breath

Struggling with ways to make reading fun? One Breath is a nice change-up from the standard ‘read aloud’ activities that accompany a typical reading lesson.

Put students in small groups. One student reads aloud at a time, the objective being to read as far as he/she can using only one breath. The winner is the one who can go the furthest. Then invite the winner from each group to have a go in front of the whole class, making it a tournament of sorts.

Don’t forget to model it! Students love watching the teacher go blue in the face.