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.

Warming Up With Sound Effects

A fun, active and hilarious way to get students into English mode, this warm-up works for almost every age and level.

Cut out the cards from the handout and give one to each student. Each student is given a sound effect (e.g. a car horn)  to make while other students have to guess what it is. Tell students they’re not allowed to show other students their cards or reveal what’s on it.

Students will mingle, find a partner and start sounding off. They should take brief notes about the other students’ sound effects. There are 14 in total, so to make it competitive, you can have students race to discover the other 13.

A: Vrrooom!!

B: Are you an airplane?

A: Nope. Guess again.

B: Can you repeat it?

A: Vrrooom!!

B: Are you a motorbike?

A: Guess again?

B: A car?

A: That’s right!

Download the Sound Effects Handout.

Supporting ESL Student’s Writing — educational research techniques

ESL students usually need to learn to write in the second language. This is especially true for those who have academic goals. Learning to write is difficult even in one’s mother tongue let alone in a second language. In this post, we will look at several practical ways to help students to learn to write […]

via Supporting ESL Student’s Writing — educational research techniques

3 Simple yet Fresh Activities for Teaching Teens English Through Clickbait

Teaching teens English is hard work. They’re a flaky, temperamental, hormone-filled species with the attention spans of moths. One minute they’re this way, next minute they’re that. It’s hard to come up with activities they can get into. It’s even harder to keep track of what they’re into and what they’re not, but those who are successfully teaching teens English have one thing in common:

They find ways to connect to teens’ wants and interests.

Great teachers know what music their teen students are listening to, what movies they’re watching and what Youtube channels they’re following. Can you name a teen vlogger? A video game that everyone is playing?

Keeping up with trends and fads may seem, well, for teens, but students take notice when teachers take an interest. It helps build rapport and more importantly, respect. It’s almost cloyingly sentimental to say, but every student’s favorite teacher is the one who cares.

Here’s the best part:

You don’t have to actually share these interests with your students, although it certainly doesn’t hurt if you do. Awareness is enough. You merely have to find a few ways of engaging those interests.

It’s not enough to just have a teacher-student chat about hobbies and interests. The trick (and goal) for teaching teens English is creating activities which are current and relevant to their lives that get students talking to each other.

What is one thing we have in common with teens?

One thing we certainly share with them is that we’re information junkies. Sure, the content we’re looking at may be different, but the ways it’s delivered to us remain the same. Have you ever read an article because the clickbait was just too enticing too ignore? So have your students.

Clickbait Elements

What’s awesome about this is that teens should instantly recognize that this isn’t some tedious exercise that only exists in a moldy textbook. This is real-world application. Play it up. Everyone has dealt with clickbait. We see it every day.

Lets mine those elements of clickbait for some teaching activities your teens can get into. You decide the delivery, they decide the content.

1. Clickbait Headlines

There’s nothing quite like clickbait. I confess to spending countless hours diving deep into the wormholes of the Internet because of it, clicking on videos or the next article just to see what’s next. For instance:


The lion eats the man? I certainly hope so, and I’m damn sure clicking on that link to find out. That’s the hook that the clickbait dangles from — I’ve got to know what happens next.

Show your students a few examples of clickbait headlines. In pairs or groups of 3, they can make some predictions. What do they think happens next? Does the lion eat the man? Hell, let the manga nerd draw a picture of it.

Next, naturally, is for students in pairs or small groups to make their own headline. 5 minutes should be enough to write one. When they’ve finished they’ll rotate their papers. With the headline they now have, they’ll again make predictions about what they think the story would be about. They discuss it for 2 minutes and then rotate papers again and so on.

2. Top 5 Lists

Top 5 Dumb Ways to Die

Humans love lists. Our brains are wired for them — creating order out of chaos, sifting an overload of information into parsable chunks fit for digestion. ‘Parsable chunks’ — that’s band name material.

Name your top five bands, movies, foods. We all come into these categories with opinions. What topics would catch your teens’ interest? Make it it clickbaity:

Top 5 Ways Students Cheat

In teams of two or three, students have 5 minutes to write their top 5 cheating methods. The timing is important. Don’t let them dawdle. While they’re working, jot down your own top 5.

Once students have finished, pencils down. Now you, the teacher, read out your top 5 ways students cheat. Take a tally after each one. Teams that also wrote down the same method get a point. Most points wins.

As a variation or extension, you can also play the reverse. Now tell students they’ll be awarded points for uniqueness. You can have them do the same topic (e.g. Top 5 Ways Students Cheat) to stretch their creativity. Here, students read out their top 5 and points are tallied after each group presents their list.

3. Surveys

Survey Options

‘99% of People Will Not Get This Grammar Question Right’; ‘Most Doctors Recommend This for Immortality’; ‘5 Out Of 6 People Say Russian Roulette is Perfectly Safe’. Nothing uses surveys better than clickbait.

Surveys are standard fare in the EFL classroom, but they are rarely adapted into something the students want to talk about. Why not let them choose a topic they’re interested in, a controversial question they want answered?

Give them 10 minutes to interview as many people as they can. When they’re finished they compile their data and compose a clickbait headline summing up the findings. “3 Out Of 4 Students Cheated Last Week. You’ll Never Guess How.” They can present the results to the class or another group.

Final Thoughts

Teaching teens English is challenging mostly because we struggle for ways to connect and relate to them. By staying current with our approaches and content, we have more opportunities for engaging them on their own terms.