Archive | writing RSS feed for this section

One Picture – Six activities!

19 Jun

My latest blog post for the British Council Teaching English website is now live – click the link to find out more about “A house of mystery and secrets

It was a really fun challenge to try - all the bloggers were asked to choose one of four pictures from the #ELTpics Flickr stream and to base their post around the image.

The image I chose was this one by @adhockley:


Image supplied by ELTPics. (Some rights reserved)

And to try and exploit this image to it’s maximum potential, I’ve come up with six different activities – each one aimed at a different level of ability, though I think with a little bit of adaptation most of them could be done at other levels.

As I said at the start, this was the challenge for all the bloggers on the BC Teaching English site this month – there’s loads of great ideas from (at the time of writing): Larry Ferlazzo, Steve Muir, Rachel Boyce, Raquel Gonzaga and Katherine Bilsborough.

Check them – and all the other great posts – out here:

Cambridge Advanced writing – learning to answer the question

28 May

Keeping writing relevant to the question is something that learners often have difficulty with.  Sometimes this is because they mis-identify the key content points, sometimes it’s because they write their answer for the wrong purpose.

This is the outline of a lesson I did with my CAE class the other day – I used tasks from the Cambridge Certificate in Advanced English 1 practice test book – but this would be adaptable to other levels and your own materials.

The aims are:

  • to familiarize learners with the language and style of exam writing questions
  • to provide learners with a strategy to access key question content


Lead in:

A quick discussion among the learners – which writing tasks they like, which ones they don’t and why.


Give the learners a sample Writing Part 2 question (either question 2, 3 or 4) and ask them to work in pairs to identify (a) what they have to write about; (b) why they are writing.

Feedback & input:  draw a line down the middle of the board and either nominate people to come up and write their ideas in the right side of the board, or ask them to tell you and write their ideas up yourself.

On the left side of the board, write the acronym:

  • T
  • I
  • P

Ask the learners what the acronym stands for:  tell them it represents:

  • Theme (or Topic)
  • Idea(s)
  • Purpose

The TIP is a tool to help them analyse the question and make sure they are including the relevant information in their answers.

Using the sample question you gave them earlier, lead them through an analysis.  As an example, see the question below, which is reproduced here without official permission from Cambridge ESOL and which comes from the 2008 version of the handbook:

CAE writing sample task

Here I would suggest that the Topic  is “a famous scientist”, the Ideas are “their achievements” and the Purpose is “to convince someone to make a TV programme about them”.

The TIP tool also functions as a way of determining the organisation of the text, in the above case, the introduction of the competition entry relates to the topic, while the main body would contain a description of the ideas and the conclusion would be the essential justification to include the chosen scientist, in other words, fulfilling purpose.


Ask the learners to form three groups (group A, group B, group C) and give them additional part two questions to work with.  Ask them to identify the TIP for each question.

Regroup the learners so that they are working in groups of three, with each group comprising one student from the former groups A, B & C.  The learners can then share and compare their analyses and you as the teacher can monitor and clarify any concerns.

Further Practice & Production:

In their groups of three from the previous stage, ask the learners to write their own “CAE Writing Part 2 question”.  Monitor this stage and if necessary feedback on whether the questions are too broad (e.g. write a proposal for world peace), too specific or requiring specialist knowledge (e.g. what are the advantages and disadvantages of Samsung as compared to Apple) or too personal (e.g. write a letter introducing your partner to your parents) – none of which candidates need to write about in a Cambridge exam!

When they’ve drafted suitable questions, they swap their questions with a different group, who must (a) identify the TIP for the question they’ve just been given; (b) draft a suitable plan for an answer and (c) write a strong introduction for their answer.  (this last one can be dropped if time is an issue).

These can then go back to the group that wrote the question for feedback, or the groups can come together to compare outcomes.

The End.

Except of course, for homework, you may want to ask them to complete a Part 2 writing task….

This lesson (post)  is also available as a downloadable pdf here: teflgeek – Accessing Exam Writing Questions


Write and Improve: An Online writing helper

22 Apr

Writing is probably the most difficult area for learners to improve on by themselves.  Writing demands an audience and if you have no-one to tell you how successful your efforts are – or not – then you are doomed to repeat your failures into eternity.

Cambridge English have, however, just released a beta version of an online, browser based writing helper.  Currently free to use and requiring only a facebook login (or email registration), the service allows learners to input their answers to one of the five questions provided (or submit a piece of writing of their own choice) and to get feedback on their efforts.

write and improve 01

In the screenshot above, the highlighted text at the bottom of the image is the submitted text.  The colour coding represents the program’s opinion of the learner level the different sections of the text represent.  The deeper the green, the closer to B2 level (or above) the text is – the more furious the reds, the closer to B1 level (or below).

You’ll also notice the “tabs” under the heading Detailed Feedback  these are meant to provide a closer look at what errors the writer has made and give suggestions for improving them:

write and improve 02

It’s worth remembering that this is still in the stages of testing and ironing out initial problems – and there are quite a few things that I think need improving!

As it stands, the feedback it gives is primarily linguistic and syntactical.  In other words it looks at the grammar of the sentences and makes suggestions.  And it doesn’t currently catch everything – as in the third sentence above; “I the town you can…” or the fourth sentence “You can go to the shopping”.

The text itself was an answer to a question from a Cambridge English Preliminary paper from a student studying at Intermediate level.  There is a lot of repetition in the text and very limited grammatical range.  The student has also some word choice issues – again there is a lot of repetition (a lot of which is repeated from the input) and some vocabulary inappropriacy.  The task was also a letter (replying to a penfriend) and there are a couple of genre features missing, though in fairness to the system – it didn’t know that as this was submitted to the free writing section.  Overall though, this is a piece of writing which I think is close to B1 level, but which is nowhere nearly sophisticated enough to achieve B2 level, as the system suggests.

I had some fun writing an error strewn letter of application for a summer camp job, just to test whether it does pick up on these things.  It doesn’t.

So who should use this tool?  It’s unfair to judge it too harshly at this stage of development but I don’t think the target audience of B1- B2 are actually the people who should be using it.  Students hoping to achieve a B2 certificate need to consider a much wider range of things to improve on and if this tool is to be useful for them, then it needs to more accurately reflect the things they’re being assessed on.  However, I think students who are at B1 level or below may well find it useful, as they will get to see the improvements they make to their texts improve their scores – as long as they don’t mind seeing their work highlighted in quite a lot of red to start with!

I have yet to try it with a class and I’m curious to see how useful students think it is, so that’s the next obvious test!  But in the meantime, why not check it out and see what you think:

write and improve04



IELTS & Daily Charts from The Economist

17 Apr

IELTS teachers will be glad to know that The Economist has a “Daily Chart” section on their blog pages called Graphic Detail.

Featuring “charts, maps and infographics”, not all the content is useful for those IELTS Academic writing part one tasks – the recent retrospective of Margaret Thatcher’s career in Economist covers being an example – but a lot of it is indeed very useful:  see yesterday’s exploration of changes to the minimum wage (pictured) as an example.

The sheer wealth of information that The Economist publishes in this way means that there should be something for every IELTS lesson, or at least that you can build up quite a nice collection of graphics for use with your classes.

Ways that I’ve been using these graphics with my current IELTS group include:

Lesson warmers:

A mingle activity where learners each have a different graphic, they mingle and describe their graphic to each other, thus getting a bit of additional practice in using data analysis language.  A variation:  learners swap their graphics each time, so that they get practice with lots of different graphics and information.

A dictadraw activity using two different charts where learners sit back to back and describe their graphics to each other, draw a representation of their partner’s graphic (based on that description) and when both are done, compare their efforts with the original.

Practice Tasks:

It is, of course, easy enough to design a quick IELTS academic writing part one task based on these graphics.

Task Models:

Each chart is usually accompanied by a short paragraph that describes the chart and the background to it.  It’s worth pointing out to learners that the Economist model is a journalistic one – the purpose, tone and content will be slightly different to that required by IELTS.  Nonetheless, if you have a large collection of graphics and paragraphs, learners can do a matching exercise or a reading race (where you give learners the graphic and they have to run and find the correct matching paragraph from a selection stuck to the board).

The paragraphs are also useful sources of language and, despite the caveats noted earlier, it is a useful process for learners to mine the text for any and all expressions they think they can pull out and use in their own writing.

The Economist blog can be found here: and is also available for subscriptions via RSS or via their Twitter feed: @ECONdailycharts.

Keep Calm and Write On – #IHTOC3

5 Nov

For those that may have missed it, here are the slides (as pdf) from the webinar I gave at the IH Teachers’ Online Conference on 3rd November.

The session was a look at common problems learners have with writing for exam classes, particularly Cambridge exams (FCE etc), but also, I think, applicable to other exams and writing in general.  It then goes on to suggest a range of activities you can do with those learners to help them with these problem areas.  There’s about 36 different activities suggested – so there should be something in there for everyone!

The webinar was recorded, and if you have the time and the patience to sit through the 60 minute session, you can do so here:

Adobe Connect – Keep Calm & Write On

That should open up in a new window.  I don’t know how long that’s going to be up for, so apologies if you can’t access it.  I found the Adobe Connect software worked better in Firefox than Chrome, though that might just be me!

It’s worth taking a look at the video if you can, not just because you get an explanation of the activities, but also because there were loads of great ideas coming up in the chatbox – additions, extensions and adaptations to alternative contexts – so thanks to everyone who took part for the contributions!

Any problems, questions or queries – let me know!

Demoralising Feedback – a cautionary tale

3 Sep

It’s not often that, as teachers, we are given the opportunity to step into the shoes of our students.  Ken Wilson writes about his experiences in the German classroom on his blog and Scott Thornbury has described being a beginner in Catalan - but I gave up learning Portuguese six years ago after about two lessons,  so stepping back into the learners’ role has opened my eyes a bit.

What happened in my case was I asked my supervisor to take a look at a draft copy of my dissertation.  If you read the last post I wrote on this blog, you’ll know it’s been a bit of a struggle, but I’d had some positive feedback and I was confident in my mind that I knew where I was going with it, that I knew what I wanted to achieve and that I’d found a structure and organisation that would allow me to do it.  The draft that I emailed over to my supervisor was, I thought, near final.  A few presentational tweaks and the like, chase up a few loose references and I would be done.

Nope.  Not wanting to go into things in great detail, but it seems I’m quite a long way away from “done”.

But what has prompted this post is the realisation of what learners must occasionally feel when they get my comments scrawled all over the bottom of their written work – doom, desolation and blank incomprehension as to what exactly they need to do in order to improve.

Not all learners put all their energy into everything they do, so this is a generalisation, but a piece of written work does represent creativity, thought and effort on the part of most learners.  Most people want to do good work, get good marks and feel as though they have achieved something, that their efforts have been rewarded.  A typical comment like “some good ideas here but you need to improve your organisation – 13/20″  does not entirely meet those criteria.  Having been on the receiving end for once, I now think that if I got that back I would (a) wonder what the point in writing the damn thing in the first place was (b) have no idea what I should be doing better.

In my situation, I picked up the phone, called my supervisor and we had a chat.  It was, much more than the comments in his email, the conversation where I explained what I was trying to do and he was explaining why what I was trying to do wasn’t really a dissertation, that clarified the problems in the document I produced.  I think the idea of conversational feedback is a good one, though I understand that it might not be easy to do all the time in every context, especially with large class sizes or on courses that have a heavier focus on written work.

Having that conversation at least allows the teacher to find out whether the learner is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the work before building out of that and helping the learner to see how things can be improved.  Anyone who’s been observed by their DoS will probably be familiar with the questions:  What went well?  What went badly?  What would you do differently next time?  In some respects the process of reflective analysis is more important that creating the written work in the first place, at least in terms of seeking improvement.

So perhaps this is a conversation I need to have with my learners more often – and to try and avoid the demoralising red ink scrawl at the bottom of the page in the future.

CAE Online Resource Directory

4 Jun

For those involved with CAE exam classes – I’ve just put up a directory of online resources which you can access here:

CAE Online Resource Directory

There’s a mix of exam information, online practice exercises and teaching advice, so take a look and see what you think!

Predictably, a lot of what’s out there for “CAE” – or “Cambridge English: Advanced” as we should more properly call it – is just details for various courses run by schools and language training centres.  There isn’t as much out there as there is for FCE.

So – if you know of anything that I haven’t included – please do let me know – you can do this by leaving a comment here, or via the feedback form on the about page.

PHRAS.IN – Say this or say that?

22 Apr

This is a quite a neat tool for learners who are trying to find the right way to express something - PHRAS.IN – Say this or say that?.

You type in two choices and it comes back and tells you which of the two is more common:

I wouldn’t recommend it as a grammar checker as it would just take far too long – but it might be useful for learners struggling with phrasal verbs or idiomatic expressions.

Also – it could be a fun research tool to use in class as a way of raising learners awareness of common errors – give the learners a list of pairs of expressions, some of which could be unfortunate utterances taken from past classes or written work, and the learners discuss and choose which they think is more common / correct, before checking on the website.

Getting learners writing: FoldBooks!

19 Apr

It can be difficult to get learners writing, especially young learners who often see writing as an imposition on classroom fun and games – so fun ways to encourage learner writing are always welcome.

At the FoldPlay website, they’ve come up with FoldBooks.  As the name suggests, these are mini-booklets made out of A4 paper, which have been pre-printed with images and text.

If you go to the FoldBooks page you’ll find input boxes there to work with, once you’ve filled everything in, click the “make your book” button, then print and follow the folding and cutting instructions precisely.

There are eight boxes that need text adding to them, and consequently eight pictures that need to be included.  In order to maximise the amount of text that can be put on the page, it’s best to reduce the font size to about 12 and the text margin to about 18, which is roughly the same as the image margins.  Pictures though, can only be uploaded from the computer, so if learners want to use pictures from the internet, they’ll need to download those to the computer, before uploading them again, which is a bit of a hassle, but there you go.

I think with learners, particularly younger learners, I’d ask them to write a first draft in the classroom before adding the excitement of the computers.  All that’s needed is eight smallish – say two or three sentence – paragraphs.  It might fit nicely with some of the circle writing tasks along the lines of “describe a man  / describe a woman  /  the place they met  /  what did they say to each other / what were their dreams  /  what was the problem  /  what did they do  /  how did it end”  (for example).

Once learners have got a set of  accurate texts they’re happy with, they can think about pictures they want to illustrate their books.

That, I think, is the point to take them into the computer room and let them have a go at making their  FoldBooks.

Guest Post: Say what you see…

9 Apr

In his second guest post on this blog, Dave Cosby thinks about forcing changes on languages and considers the sound-spelling relationships apparent in English.  Above all, he admonishes, just

Say what you see…

Here in Portugal the language is undergoing a change. The new orthography is slowly being introduced and new spellings enforced by public bodies, taught in schools and universities and the older, more Latinate spellings are being phased out. The agreement between the Portuguese speaking nations was made with the best of intentions, mainly to keep the link between the spoken and written languages, and my Portuguese students tell me that it does, mostly have that effect. They have removed silent letters, such as the p from excepto, but I can’t help thinking that it’s sad to remove the link with the existing corpus of literature, and the link between Portuguese and other Latinate languages.

As an outsider though, this is not really a huge concern. What is perhaps worrying is that a  petition of more than a hundred thousand people in Portugal, complaining of the new rules, was ignored by the government of the day who pushed the law through. You might think that a hundred thousand isn’t that many, but remember that this country only has a population of ten millions or so, so we’re talking about proportionally a fair number of people.

Another couple of points strike me. As a native English speaker it feels odd that language could be imposed top down like this from a government. The English speaking world muddles along without any bodies such as the Académie française, the guardians of the French language, and seems to do alright with the informal musings of the Oxford English Dictionary and Websters.

It also seems a little bizarre that the changes were necessary at all. Portuguese, or perhaps Old Portuguese as it should now be called, is an incredibly phonetic language. Much more so than English and even French, though to be fair the main raison d’etre of the Académie these days seems to be to prevent Anglicisms creeping in such as those dangerous phrases, le weekend and le computer.

On the flip side, perhaps we in the English speaking world should take a leaf out of the Portuguese book (though using what organ I know not) and repair some of the tatty edges of our tongue. The Americans have done away with a superfluous ‘u’ here and there, as well as the simply awful ‘ough’ when a ‘w’ works much better. Even so, by ridding itself of odd spellings the Portuguese have instead landed themselves with a few more homographs.  I was reminded of this old chestnut:

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead -
For goodness sake don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose -
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart -
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!


Just try reading that aloud quickly… or if you’re feeling malicious get a cocky FCE/CAE/CPE student to have a crack. It might bring them down a peg or two (until they respond with a totally incomprehensible local tongue twister).

Perhaps we should reform English after all. Here’s another tract that seems to have existed as long as the internet, but perhaps there’s one or two readers out there who haven’t come across it.

Euro English
 The European Commission has just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the EU rather than German which was the other possibility.
As part of the negotiations, Her Majesty’s Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a five year phase-in plan that would be known as “Euro-English”.
In the first year, “s” will replace the soft “c”. Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard “c” will be dropped in favour of the “k”. This should klear up konfusion and keyboards kan have 1 less letter.
There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year, when the troublesome “ph” will be replaced with “f”. This will make words like “fotograf” 20% shorter.
In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be ekspekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible. Governments will enkorage the removal of double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling. Also, al wil agre that the horible mes of the silent “e”s in the language is disgraseful, and they should go away.
By the fourth year, peopl wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing “th” with “z” and “w” with “v”. During ze fifz year, ze unesesary “o” kan be dropd from vords kontaining “ou” and similar changes vud of kors be aplid to ozer kombinations of leters.
After zis fifz yer, ve vil hav a reli sensibl riten styl. Zer vil be no mor trubl or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi to understand ech ozer. Ze drem vil finali kum tru! And zen world!

We often take the link between written and spoken language for granted. We should not. I came across this excellent article by David Moser on ‘Why Chinese is so Damn Hard!’, so here’s a link to remind you why its so important.

Like the great Mr Roy Walker used to say, ‘ Just say what you see’.

Dave Cosby is a teacher of more years experience than he cares to remember and has worked in a variety of countries around the world, in a variety of roles from teacher to Director of Studies to language school chain troubleshooter.  Currently he’s based in Coimbra, Portugal.
This is his second guest post on the blog – his first is here:  “If you look at the bottom of the screen“.

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,870 other followers