Choral Q&A Substitution Drill

If your students have little exposure to English outside the classroom, one of the main goals of your lesson should be providing opportunities for production in class. Practice and repetition are prerequisites to mastering anything, and drilling is one of the best ways to give learners intensive practice.

Suppose your target grammar is a question and answer: ‘Where are you going?’ and ‘I’m going to the _______.’ The target vocabulary is probably places in this example (e.g. bank, hospital etc). Pictures or flashcards can be used as prompts.

Put students in two groups, A and B. Repeating after you, group A asks group B the question, “Where are you going?” Group B responds by repeating after you, “I’m going to the bank.” Now it’s group B’s turn to ask the question.

Keep going back and forth, drilling at a natural pace. Eventually you can remove yourself from the drill and let them take over, prompting them with the flashcards.

Because drilling is repetitive by nature, keep it short. Five minutes or so. Anything longer tends to drag. But don’t be afraid to come back to it later in the lesson. Drilling is one of the best ways to increase student talking time and enliven an otherwise flagging lesson.

For more info on drilling, head over to British Council’s blog here.

Musical Chairs

A staple of children’s classes, I’ve seen adults play musical chairs and love it. Music, movement and lots of spoken English, what’s not to love? The only thing that could go wrong with this activity is one student giving another a forearm shiver as they wrangle over the last remaining chair.

First, find the target language. Question and answer is what you’re looking for. For instance: ‘What did you do yesterday?’ ‘I went to school.’

Have 20 students? Take away one of the chairs so there are only 19 available. Play a song while the students walk round in a circle. Stop. Students scramble for a chair. Those who are sitting ask the question while the lone stander answers perhaps based on flashcard you show. Swap it. The stander asks and the sitters reply. Rinse and repeat.

Introduce them to some Western culture with a tune, or grin and bear a few minutes listening to a song they’ve chosen. Maybe your school has modeling clay. Perhaps a project making earplugs before the song?

Hot Potato

Fun for kids, teens and adult classes alike, hot potato is just like what you remember playing as a kid, only this version puts an emphasis on focused speaking practice.

Hot potato is perfect for when there’s a simple question and answer you’re practicing. It’s even better with flashcards which function as the potato. In effect, it’s a substitution drill, but it’s fun enough that students won’t mind the repetition.

Suppose the theme of the lesson is food, the question is ‘what do you want?’ and the answer is ‘I want soup.’

Put you students in a (standing) circle and give your instructions. You will play a song while they pass a ‘soup’ flashcard. When you stop the song, everyone who isn’t holding the flashcard will ask the holder the question ‘what do you want?’ The holder must respond, ‘I want soup.’

Put another flashcard in the mix and play the song again. Stop. Now there are two questions and two students answering. Next time there are three and so on.

A game that counts.

If you’re teaching numbers to elementary classes, be they children or adults, it can be difficult to come up with a way to make numbers and counting interesting. Enter ‘Buzz’ — a fun, lightning fast, last-man-standing (or last-person-standing if that warms your cockles) game that keeps students on their toes.

warning sign  Students should have solid pronunciation practice before attempting. The minimal pairs (13 and 30, 14 and 40 etc.) can cause absolute fits for students who can’t hear the difference and spasms of frustration for the teachers who can’t understand why. But that’s a whole other post.

Get your students up and standing in a circle. Tell them that they’re going to go around the circle counting student by student, but that instead of saying 5, 10, 15 or any multiple of 5, they’ll instead say ‘buzz’. Of course they won’t understand your instructions, so you know what to do:


That’s right. Model that shit.

Point at the students as you go round the circle counting. “1, 2, 3, 4, BUZZ. 6, 7, 8, 9, BUZZ. 11, 12, 13, 14, BUZZ.” Model it a few more times if they’re still unclear.

If a student makes a mistake by either forgetting the count or to say ‘buzz’, he or she sits down and the game continues without them, the count resetting back to zero. The winner is the last student standing.

Just when students start getting a bit too confident, increase the level of difficulty and frustration by changing from multiples of 5 to 3. Boom. Buzzkill. Don’t forget to check out the look on their faces when they realize they’re not as smart as they thought they were.

Confused Student

Acronyms probably aren’t what you think they are.

Acronyms probably aren’t what you think they are. Let’s start with some true acronyms:


Now here’s a list of what you thought were acronyms:


Can you spot the difference?

True acronyms are words formed from initials but pronounced as a separate word. We don’t spell out the letters in ‘SCUBA’ when we say it. It’s ‘skooba’ or /’skuːbə/ for you phonetic geeks.

‘FBI’, however, is spoken as individual letters. So are most words mistakenly called acronyms. These are actually known as initialisms. Who knew.


initialism (n)

  1. a set of initials representing a name, organization, or the like, with each letter pronounced separately, as FBI.
  2. a name or term formed from the initial letters of a group of words and pronounced as a separate word, as NATO; an acronym.

acronym (n)

  1. a word formed from the initial letters or groups of letters of words in a set phrase or series of words and pronounced as a separate word, as NATO.
  2. a set of initials representing a name, organization, or the like, with each letter pronounced separately, as FBI; an initialism.

What the hell’s going on here? Acronyms are initialisms, initialisms are acronyms, Einhorn is Finkel, Soylent Green is people. Madness. What does this it all mean? The good news is that I think it means you aren’t as dumb as you look. You haven’t been using acronym wrong, at least not colloquially, but if you’re splitting hairs (and I don’t think you’d be reading this if you weren’t), then it’s good to know there’s a level of technicality and nuance to these terms that you probably didn’t know existed.

Just a Minute.

Ahh one of my favorite activities. The name alone takes me back to my youth, debating politics with my father. Whenever I’d start talking bullshit, which was admittedly most of the the time, he’d stop me with a steely look, a raised hand, and a firm ‘now just wait a goddamn minute.’ Listening for bullshit (mistakes in this case) is the essence of this activity.

Just a Minute is an EFL classic. It’s rare to find a speaking activity that also gives specific objectives to the listeners.  It’s even rarer to find one that focuses on both accuracy and fluency. But the truest standard of excellence by which any activity is judged is whether or not the students like it, opt in and engage, and by that standard, Just a Minute is a diamond.

Just a Minute works best in Intermediate levels (or a really good Pre-Intermediate class) and above. The idea is that in small groups of three or four, one of the students will speak on a given topic for one minute timed with a stopwatch. What the listeners must hear, and what the speaker must avoid, is a mistake on a particular teaching point that you’ve established beforehand.

Perhaps you’re teaching Simple Past. After you’ve introduced the concept and done some focused practice (perhaps not necessary for higher levels), you think your students have the hang of it. Write a speaking topic on the board which has something to do with the past. For instance: ‘Talk about your last vacation.’

Give your instructions. Tell them that in small groups they will take turns talking for one (timed) minute about their last vacation. If the speaker makes a Simple Past mistake, the listeners say ‘just a minute’, and the speaker must go back to the beginning of his or her story. The speaker must keep telling the story until he or she can do so for one minute without making a Simple Past mistake. Once they do so, it’s the next student’s turn.

Model it.

T: “My last holiday I go to China –“

Ss: “Just a minute!”

T: “My last holiday I went to China for a week. I flew to Beijing and stay there –“

Ss: Just a minute!

T: ” My last holiday I went to China for a week. I flew to Beijing and stayed there three days. I see the Forbidden City –“

Ss “Now just wait a goddamn minute!”

They should get the point, but don’t forget your ICQs. Once all of the students have had a turn, put another topic up on the board: talk about a time you were embarrassed; talk about what you did yesterday; talk about what the other students have said about you, the teacher, behind your back. You get the idea.

The teaching point doesn’t have to be limited to grammar. Depending on your country, students might struggle with final consonants or the dreaded ‘th’ phonic. Part of improving pronunciation is learning how to listen. Fluency, too, can be the objective — any pause longer than three seconds warrants a ‘just a minute.’

Because Just a Minute is all about building fluency and speaking at length, encourage your students to lie if they have to (or want to). A lot of teens are embarrassed about talking about themselves, so this gives them a facade to hide behind. Maybe they don’t remember the last time they went to the cinema. No problem. Make it up. Exaggerating, fabricating and wholesale lying aren’t just good skills for exams like IELTS or TOEFL, they’re life skills that just might take someone to the Presidency.


You know the sport. Nets. Lets. Balls that come in Pringles cans and are hit with quasi-sexual moans and groans. It can be quite the…racket? (Sorry, I had to. Puns get no love, but I’ll smash any served up to me. God, I’m really over the line now. My fault. I thought they were ace, though.)

Tennis is a universal activity in that it can be made to fit a variety of themes and skills. It’s a great way for pairs to do memory checks for grammar or vocab. Best of all, it requires no prep work so it’s great if you’re a lazy bastard, which of course you are.

Let’s say you’re teaching Irregular Simple Past tense. Perhaps your book has a chart like this:

past simple-min

Well, first of all, that’s boring as shit. I hope you aren’t just having your students  memorize a chart like that and then quizzing them on it, but we both know you’re hopeless. Why not do something fun with it? Or at least interactive.

You know how tennis goes back and forth? Same concept with this activity. Here’s how it works:

  1. Put your students into pairs.
  2. Student A will ‘serve’ by saying a Simple Present verb.
  3. Student B ‘returns’ the serve by saying the Simple Past verb, and then volley with a different Simple Present verb.
  4. Student A volleys with Simple Past and then a new Simple Present verb.

It will look like this:

A: Go.

B: Went. Come.

A: Came. Fly.

B: Flew. Eat.

A: Ate. Drive.

And so on and so forth. If a student can’t return the volley within three seconds, a point is awarded to the other player.

This would also work great as a pronunciation activity for Regular Simple Past verbs.

A: Visit.

B: Visited. Stay.

A: Stayed. Miss.

B: Missed. Crap.

Or maybe you’re teaching a lesson on clothes:

A: Shirt.

B: Trousers.

A: Socks.

B: Shoes.

A: Belt.

B: Derp derp derp derp. Fail.

How about a variation with teams?

Put students in two lines. The first two students in each line will play the game above. Whoever repeats a word or times out must sit down and the next student in that line steps up. The winner stays on until he/she loses a game. The line with the most students at the end wins the set. Most sets won wins the match.

Why not turn it into a tournament? Let’s call it Wimbleton.

Students stand and find a partner. All the pairs play one round of tennis. The losers of that round sit, while the winners pair off for the next round. Play as many rounds as it takes until there’s a winner.

The variations on tennis are endless, but my time isn’t so I’ll leave it at that while I go drop a deuce. Ha! Game, set and match.

Grammar for Beginners

The ‘beginners’ in the title refers more to you, rookie teacher, than your students. We both know that you know absolute dick when it comes to grammar. You know when it’s right or wrong because you’ve been using it your whole life, but can you explain to elementary students exactly why ‘you suck at teach’ is wrong? Hint: gerunds after prepositions. You do know what those are, don’t you?

All snark aside, grammar scares the hell out of a lot of budding new teachers. They don’t remember learning the rules (if they learned them at all), and their greatest fear is being put on the spot: ‘Teacher, what is simple past?” Imposter syndrome runs deep in the veins of noobs, as it should, because let’s be honest, that piddling TEFL certificate didn’t make you a teacher.

Imposter syndrome

The good news is that rules have very little place in the classroom when it comes to actual teaching. Nothing is more yawn-inducing or drool-congealing than seeing a board filled with rules. Students aren’t going to remember them, at least not in the time you have to teach. What will likely happen is they grab their pencil and start mindlessly writing down what doesn’t need to be written down. That’s what their books are for.

So, all of this is to say that, yet again, the enemy here are words and explanations.

Here’s the dictionary definition of simple past: “The simple past tense, sometimes called the preterite, is used to talk about a completed action in a time before now. The simple past is the basic form of past tense in English. The time of the action can be in the recent past or the distant past and action duration is not important.”

Yeah, fuck that noise.

So how do you teach it? Here comes a dead horse to beat…

beat a dead horse ‘Do you like that, Ed?’ ‘Nay.’

Show. Don’t tell.

Write this on the board: “Yesterday, I go to a restaurant and eat rice.”

Ask your students what’s wrong with it. Typically there will be one or two or even more that already know the rules anyway. Elicit from them. Use your students’ collective knowledge. It’s more memorable than explanation.

Now fix the mistake. “Yesterday, I went to a restaurant and ate rice.”

T: “Why ‘went’ and ‘ate’?”

Ss: “Because ‘yesterday'”

T: “Yesterday is past, present or future?”

Ss: “Past.”

T: “Very good. We have to change the verbs for the past.”

Now show them a timeline. Ask them to identify where our sentence should go.

simple past timeline

Now elicit a few more past time expressions and write them on the board. “Yesterday, last night, two days ago, last week, in June.” Start using these time expressions wrongly and have them correct you. “Last year I fly to Thailand on holiday.” “I have eggs for breakfast this morning.”

Students should begin recognizing that verbs in the past much change. They didn’t need a rule to tell them this. They came up with the rule themselves through pattern recognition. This is the difference between ‘revealing’ them the answer and ‘telling’ it to them. Again, show. Don’t tell.

Think they got it? Awesome. Now reinforce it with an activity. Tennis, anyone?