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IELTS Writing Part 1 – The Happiness Graph!

19 Nov

How happy have you been over the last week?  Has it been a good or a bad week?  This is (broadly speaking) what my week looked like:
Happiness Graph


The Happiness Graph is a warmer that you can use with any class and which can, with the tiniest bit of adaptation, be used as a student generated IELTS task.


As a warmer, you draw the X and Y axes on the board as shown in the image above.  As you draw the line graph, talk the learners through your week and your reasons why.  For example:  “Monday is the start of the working week and is never a good day for me, but work went well on Tuesday and Wednesday and I was feeling pretty good.  When I woke up on Thursday morning I wasn’t feeling very well and this, as well as a lot of work to do on Friday, left me feeling a bit tired and stressed.  But I recovered well on Saturday, and on Sunday my family and I all went to the beach and had a really nice time, before going back to work on Monday!”

The learners then draw their own version of the happiness graph.  When they’re done, they share and compare their graphs with each other, explaining the peaks and troughs and hopefully asking follow up questions of each other.


In the IELTS writing part one, learners are asked to write about a chart, diagram or graph, so I adapted the happiness graph for this purpose.  This lesson requires no real preparation as the materials come from the learners, though you might want to supplement the language input slightly with additional verbs that describe trends.

Begin in the same way as the warmer, by drawing your version of the graph on the board and describing what happened to you during the previous seven days.

Ask learners to draw their own versions of the graph, but not to show it to anyone.

Refer learners back to the board and your happiness graph.  Ask learners for expressions they can use to describe the level of happiness over the week.  Write up their suggestions on the board and input additional verbs that describe trends (e.g. rise, fall, drop, increase etc) and adverbials of degree (e.g. slightly, massively, a lot, a little etc) as necessary.  In pairs, ask the students to write a brief description of your happiness graph.  Monitor and provide feedback as necessary.  At this stage, depending on your class, you could do some additional input work.  There is a nice task at the back of Scott Thornbury’s “Uncovering Grammar” (page 106), but many IELTS and Business English course books have sections on this area that you could use.

Ask learners to work with a new partner, preferably someone who is seated on the opposite side of the room.  Learners then do a dictadraw activity, where learner A describes their happiness graph and learner B listens and draws a version of it.  Learners then come together to share their drawing, compare what they drew, and explain why the level of happiness moved up and down as it did.  Learners then draw their partner’s happiness level onto the same graph as they drew their original happiness graph, so that there are now TWO different (and accurate) happiness lines on their graph.

Finally, learners write a short (!) 150 word description that compares and contrasts the two lines on their graph.  As a final analysis learners can compare what they wrote and look at why any differences occurred – and can correct any errors spotted!

I would set an authentic IELTS part one writing task as homework from this.



Acknowledgement:  The happiness graph as a warmer was shown to me at International House Katowice by David Magalhaes in 2005 (or so).  I think.  Apologies if I’ve got that wrong, do let me know!

The Colour Coded Essay – #IHTOC7

13 May

With the introduction of a compulsory essay task in the Cambridge English: First & Advanced exams, it’s become quite important for learners to understand essay structure and organisation.

Here’s a ten minute talk I did for the International House Teacher’s Online conference:


And here are the slides for the presentation:




Check out all the other great talks in the IHTOC7 conference here:


Free Teachers’ Online Conference – Friday 8th May #IHTOC7

5 May

The annual International House Teachers Online conference is taking place over this weekend and it’s a great opportunity for teachers to drop in and take part in this free event.

On Friday 8th, 10.30 – 16.30 (GMT) there will be a series of ten minute sessions from teachers in the IH network – twenty three different sessions in all, grouped loosely together under the headings; The Big Picture, Fabulous Feedback, Rampant Resources and Culture & Nurture.

I will be giving a quick ten minute talk on essay structure for the Cambridge exams – and showing how using a colour-coded essay template can help learners to make textual connections and strengthen the organisation and structure of an exam focused essay.

Saturday 9th, 10.30 – 15.15 (GMT) focuses on teaching modern languages, with IH teachers of Russian, German, Spanish and French sharing their ideas in a series of one hour sessions.

Click here for the timetable, with information about when everything is happening.  Links to the online conference rooms will also appear here on the day.

Click here for the conference programme, with abstracts and biographies of the speakers and their sessions.

Make sure you get the timings right!  All conference times are in GMT.

Image credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig. Reproduced underAttribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) Licence.

Book Review: Punctuation..? (and a competition!)

25 Jul

Punctuation..? by User Design is a svelte and elegant illustrated guide for the rest of us.

As you might have guessed from the title, it gives an overview of 21 different punctuation marks from the everyday comma to the more esoteric pilcrow.  Do you know what a pilcrow is?  I didn’t.  Apparently it’s the backwards filled in P that I usually see when I click the wrong thing in my word documents…

Punctuation Graphic

The layout is simple and straightforward:  each punctuation mark under examination is given a description and its uses are supported by explanations and examples – and simple, yet effective line drawings at the top of each page.

It is a visually appealing book that seems very accessible and clearly lays out all of the rules of punctuation that most of us think we have an instinctive command of and which most of us are probably wrong about.  According to the book I have committed at least one punctuation crime in this piece – there are probably others I don’t know about!  There you go – an impromptu quiz:  Provide a list of all the punctuation mistakes you can find in this blog post and put them in the comments section below.  The winner will get a free copy of the book!  Not that the winner of a competition like this will probably need a book like this, but I bet even they don’t know what a pilcrow is…!

This is a prescriptive grammar of punctuation.  It declares the rules in no uncertain terms and seems to borrow its authority from its chief reference source, Oxford dictionaries, and I wonder how much of it is designed to appeal to the pedants and those who view themselves as the last bastions of defence against the corruption and decay that has seeped into the language (there is a somewhat plaintive note in the apostrophe section to the effect that it “has largely vanished from company names and other commercial uses”).  The questions I ask myself are (a) does it matter? and (b) is it useful?

Yes.  I think it probably does matter.  I spent approximately six hours marking “academic” essays yesterday and at least three of those hours railing at my students inability to punctuate properly.  Proper punctuation is more than the written equivalent of verbal pause, though it is seldom used otherwise; it helps determine the relationships between clauses and between sentences, helps to signify the writer’s intent and to package information in such a way that makes meaning accessible to the reader.  In short, our students need to know these rules.  Once they do, they can flout them with impunity like the rest of us – but at least then it would be a principled choice.

So who is it useful for?

I’m not sure that it is a book for students itself, at least not for language learners.  Most native speaker students would probably benefit from a copy, certainly by the time they go to university, if not before.  I think though, that language learners at any level under B2 would find it difficult to access and certainly difficult to apply.  B2 students would need help with some of it and C1 (advanced) would probably be alright with it.  Obviously there’s a lot in it that isn’t really relevant to language learner needs – though the book is not intended as such and it is unfair to judge it on those terms.  I do think it would be a useful addition to most teachers’ rooms though.  Punctuation is often a neglected aspect of language teaching and as I think now I can only recall an overt section on punctuation in one book – somewhere in Advanced Expert – which makes me wonder how much punctuation knowledge us teachers really have!

So if you can’t tell your hyphen from your dash or your interpunct from your guillemets – this is the book for you.  Punctuation..? is available from the User Design website and probably other places as well, but I couldn’t tell you where.



I mentioned a competition earlier – so here are the rules:

I am the ultimate arbiter of the competition and what I say goes.  You have no legal recourse or anything like that if you don’t like my decision.  I will try to judge as objectively as possible, but I will be reviewing any and all entries and choosing what I think is the best and most complete one.

If you don’t like your first entry, you can enter more than once – but I’ll stop reading after the third attempt.

Deadline for entries is the end of August (Sunday August 31st 2014).  Any entries submitted after that will be ignored.

I will announce the winner both by putting a comment under this section and in a separate blog post in the first week of September (2014).

Good luck!

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.


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