‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ – Resources for Halloween

English: American Jack O Lantern, a Hallowe'en...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s interesting how a pre-Christian festival from the north of Europe seems to have taken hold worldwide. However, there’s no denying the popularity of Hallowe’en, so here are a few resources which we can use in class this week, promoting skills and vocabulary development while following the Hallowe’en theme. I’ve tried to grade them by age, but different teaching circumstances mean that different activities will be useful for different students. If you’re unsure of any details about the history of Hallowe’en, this infographic will provide you with plenty of information about how the festival has evolved over the centuries.

Pre-Primary / Early Primary

The objective of this festival for very young learners is to avoid scaring them while giving them the opportunity to learn a new song or to make something in arts and crafts which will link them to the idea of Hallowe’en. One of the things we do with our youngest students is pumpkin carving. The teacher wields the knife, but the students get a chance to help empty the seeds and design the scary face to cut out. The Jack o’ Lantern created is then used to decorate the class on the 31st October. In parallel with this, the children can prepare Jack o’ Lantern masks to wear on the day. You can find other ideas for Hallowe’en masks here.

Trick or treatAnother fun activity for younger learners is to go Trick or treating around the school. This takes a bit of organising, but the kids love it. Have each class group prepare a Hallowe’en song before the day of the festival, then organise a rota so that each class can visit another class of the same age. The visiting class sings their song to the others, and then each student receives a gift (traditionally sweets, but check your school’s policy on this type of treat beforehand). This is particularly good fun if the students can come to school dressed up for the day! If they can’t come in dressed up, it would be nice for them to have masks prepared in class. If the teacher has prepared a Jack o’ Lantern for the class, they can carry that with them when they visit the other classes.



Photo credit: http://spoonful.com/

For older primary students, articulated Hallowe’en decorations can be great fun. You can find a number of diferent copiable designs here. This can be combined with the CLIL science class if you choose to make articulated skeletons. These can be combined with Jack o’ Lanterns, and spiders webs made from teased cotton wool to create a really spooky atmosphere for the classroom.

On the British Council Learning English website, there are several games for Hallowe’en. For example, here is a version of ‘I Spy‘ for Hallowe’en, useful for practising vocabulary. There is also a spelling game, ‘Spelloween‘ which promises to be a lot of fun.

Another idea would be to try out traditional children’s party games, such as Apple bobbing, where you try to get an apple out of a bowl of water using your mouth. If this is considered too risky, you can make the activity safer but even messier by placing the apples in a tray of flour! Other traditional games can be adapted to a Hallowe’en theme – for example, ‘Pin the tail on the donkey’ can easily become ‘Pin the tail on the witch’s cat’.


In secondary, we seem to pay less attention to festivals in general, but there are still some useful activities which we can do with our students. One possibility, if they have an intermediate level or above, is to challenge your students to write a ghost story. You can give them the first line, perhaps ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ and have them complete the story, either individually or in pairs. it would be a good idea to brainstorm typical vocabulary from ghost stories first, and possibly talk about the usual structure of this type of story. Alternatively, you could take the first paragraph of a ghost story and turn it into a jigsaw dictation (there are many ghost stories available as graded readers, so this should not be too hard to organise). Once they have reconstructed the opening paragraph, you can have the students write how they think the story continues. Mission Impossible! also lends itself very well to creating Hallowe’en stories, and the Zombie round is particularly apt!

An alternative to writing exercises can be found on You Tube, courtesy of Mr Skype lessons. This is a listening exercise based on a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:

The art work which accompanies the listening text is fantastic.

Finally, here’s a full lesson plan from the British Council’s Learning English website, based on the story ‘The King of Pumpkins‘. I hope you enjoy these resources, and feel free to add more which you have used and enjoyed.

Happy Hallowe’en!

‘How I learnt English’: Part II

How I learnt English - graphicIn my previous post, I focused on the use of songs and videos in order to make the learning experience in the classroom more similar to the reality of our students outside the classroom. In this post, I will examine how other aspects, such as video games, can be brought into the classroom, and look beyond the graphic to see how to incorporate other learning experiences into our repertoire.


The comments which accompanied the original graphic (above) focused almost exclusively on video games as a way of learning English, although the focus seemed to be more a reminiscence of games which the people had enjoyed than a coherent explanation of how the games had in fact helped the person to learn English. However, there is a movement to introduce ideas taken from the gaming world into the classroom, an approach referred to as ‘gamification’.

One of the main areas in which gamification is being applied to education, as we have seen in the video, is assessment. It is argued that the shift from marking negatively to a system where marks are accumulated like experience points is highly motivational. An example of how to organise activities in this way can be found in Rose Bard’s ELT Blog. But there are other aspects of classroom life where gamification can be applied, such as classroom management. Class dojoMany years ago, I worked with a teacher who had her class divided into teams and during her lesson she awarded points to the different teams according to how they achieved the objectives she proposed. She used to record the points on the blackboard, but today’s teachers have alternatives available which are more appealing to their video-game-playing pupils – for example, Class Dojo. With this programme, students can choose and personalise their own avatars, and the teacher can assign points for different actions. Each student can access his / her profile and keep track of their progress, and what is more, parents can also access the profile and see how their children are doing at school, all in real time. More importantly, this programme is used to modify the behaviour of the students in a way which motivates them, rather than imposing norms.

However, perhaps the most important aspect of gamification is in the approach to the class itself on the part of teachers and students alike. The essence of the video game experience is that the player explores and investigates, learning and honing skills as they go. If they fail at a level, they can repeat it, using the knowledge they gained on previous failed attempts to improve their performance. DPiE-InClass-400x258They also have the opportunity to cooperate with friends, either by discussing the games or increasingly by playing together in a multi-player format. Our objective as teachers, then, would be to recreate these conditions in the classroom, proposing challenges or problems which our students have to solve, then providing the scaffolding they need as they work through them. Clearly this is very different to the traditional format of class which we are accustomed to, and it can be difficult to adapt to it, but it can pay dividends. I think it is particularly important for students to try again if they do not succeed first time. Too often when we correct an exercise we give the correct answers, then ask who got them right. An approach I have developed is to ask them what answer(s) they have, and if they do not all agree on the right answer, I ask them to think again, talking it over with their peers, rather than give them the answer directly. This allows them to explain the reasons for their answers and hear counter-arguments, analyse more closely the question and practise reaching a consensus.

The most radical form of gamification for the classroom is the creation of actual games which put your students into situations, either individually or in groups, where they have to communicate in English in order to progress. There are various logogames of this kind already on the market, in which the student takes on the role of a character and has to use his/ her language skills to negotiate their way through a game world in order to achieve an objective. A good example of this genre is Pulitzer, a game in which the student takes on the character of a journalist who is set various assignments.

Other games and activities are available on the internet, so we don’t have to have lots of free time in order to develop a game ourselves. For a list of resources available for language learners of all levels, click here. It’s a good idea to contact the publishing companies too, as they are increasingly producing more game-based online elements to complement the text books they provide.

A step further…

Michael J Fox

Both this post and the previous one have focused on introducing new elements into the classroom in an attempt to increase the motivation of our students. However, some experts advocate going further and introducing a completely new way of approaching the class as a response to what they see as the failings of the traditional classroom.

Cooperative learning

One of the results of advances in neurological science is that we have a clearer idea of how we learn, and this is washing back into how we teach. Cooperative learning claims to provide ‘brain friendly learning’ for our students, and incorporates  various recent methodological ideas. In the cooperative classroom, students are grouped in mixed-ability teams, typically of four, and the lessons are designed in such a way that students are given opportunities to interact within their teams in a structured way. The key difference between this approach and group work is that students in a cooperative team each have a defined role within the structured interaction, and so are obliged to participate in order to complete the task.

The main principles behind cooperative learning are these:

  • The members of the team must work together, and are interdependent.
  • Each individual member of the team should have personal responsibility for his / her part of the work and should be accountable to the team and to the class for their work,
  • All members of the team must have equal opportunities to participate.
  • Work can be realised simultaneously in different teams, allowing more students to be actively engaged on a task at any one time.

The flipped classroom

One of the most radical advances in methodology has been made possible by advances in technology and by its widespread availability. The concept of the flipped classroom rose from ventures such as The Khan Academy, where the actual teaching, or instruction, is delivered via recordings online which students study at their own pace for homework, freeing up class time for guided practice exercises and problem solving. The advantages are that the teacher is primarily available in the classroom for individual support, able to work with students one-on-one or in small groups while the others are engaged in the activities, and students can repeat parts of the instructuion until they understand it, even revisiting the ‘class’ later on to refresh their memories. Here is a video which explores the concept of the flipped classroom:

4 Things to Promise my Students at the Start of This School Year

A classroom in a Japanese high school

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another school year has got under way, laden with high hopes and good intentions. But as September gives way to October and we settle in for the long haul, it is all too easy to let those good intentions slide and fall back on the routines we feel comfortable with. So this school year I have decided to go public – in this post I will set out four things I hope to make an integral part of my teaching this year, and over the coming months I will revisit these themes to let you know how I am getting on.

1. Make homework more interesting

Homework is always a thorny issue for any teacher. What should you set? How much? How should it be checked or evaluated? And what do you do with those students who refuse to do it? Most of the time the students perceive homeworksleep-on-books-1.10.12 as dull, and often even a waste of time, however carefully you programme it into your learning objectives. So this year I hope to follow Adam Simpson’s sound advice in his post ‘6 great techniques for getting students to write down their homework‘.

In particular, Adam’s suggestion to ‘Tech it up’ appeals to me. Our students are so-called ‘digital natives’, so a clear way of making homework more appealing to them is to incorporate digital elements where possible. This opens up the possibility of including listening comprehension tasks or watching videos and doing comprehension tasks as homework. Or perhaps an editing or peer response activity using Google Drive? Or even a class blog? Watch this space!

2. Give them space to learn


Photo credit: http://www.ed.ac.uk

This promise really brings together a couple of different ideas which I have been meaning to work on more diligently for some time now. I have the impression that my students see the teacher (in any subject) as being there predominantly to solve their problems, so that they do not have to make any effort. When they are writing, for example, they will ask for help with relatively simple vocabulary rather than stop and think for a moment to see if they can remember it for themselves, and sometimes they will ask for the same item of vocabulary again a few moments later. For some years I have solved this by taking a set of dictionaries into writing classes. This year, my intention is to take this further, taking a step back as teacher and requiring them to put in a little more effort themselves.

One way in which I can do this is to set up collaborative learning groups within the classroom. In this way, students have a team which supports them in the learning process, and peers they can consult before turning to the teacher. I already make frequent use of peer response when working on writing activities. This year I hope to extend this to other areas of the curriculum, encouraging the students to coach each other before we share the answers and correct in class. I have seen a sign on the teacher’s table in one classroom which says ‘C3B4ME’ – ‘See three (team mates) before you see me (come to ask the teacher)’. c3b4meThis approach should foster peer support within the classroom, and so help the students to become more responsible for their own and each others’ learning.

The second idea which I want to include in this promise is the intention to create a space where students can learn for themselves, providing them with activities through which they can discover for themselves what they need to progress. The rationale behind this is the old saying ‘Give me a fish and I eat for a day – teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime’. It is all too easy to step in and spoon-feed our students rather than providing them with challenges which stimulate their curiosity and then scaffolding so that they can face those challenges successfully.

In the packed curriculum we are faced with in the school, both of these ideas represent serious challenges, but I feel strongly that they are also important to help our students really learn what we are trying to teach them.

3. Give them the thinking time they need


As teachers, one of the things we do most often is ask questions. and while it can be satisfying to see a sea of hands raised in an instant, as in the photograph, this is rarely the case. Even if we do have a number of students who raise their hands immediately, they are usually the same students over and over, and some quieter students get shifted to the margins of the class quite quickly. Faced with hands straining in the air, it is very difficult to avoid selecting a student to answer immediately, especially as we also suffer from the pressure of a packed curriculum – surely it is more effective to get the answer over with as quickly as possible.

However, it is important to slow down a little in these situations. Many students who do not raise their hands immediately may know the answer, but simply need time to gather their thoughts and formulate their answer. So it pays to wait before selecting who should answer, and make a conscious effort to select different students each time, so that everyone gets the chance to participate. One way to achieve this is to incorporate ‘think time’ into the classroom questioning process, so that everyone has time to think before answers are requested. This can be extended to become a ‘think-pair-share’ structure, further scaffolding the weaker students.

Obviously some students take advantage of the pressure on the teacher to take a quick answer, and even if they are selected they fail to respond, in the hope that the teacher will move on to take a more willing response after a brief pause. An extended pause may feel uncomfortable in such situations, but sends the message that an answer is required before we move on.

4. Continue to learn myself

Students may learn from what we tell them in class, but they learn a lot more from who we are. One of the most important aspects of our work as teachers is to provide a positive role model for our students, and this extends to modelling an interest in further learning. Students should see a teacher who can admit that s/he doesn’t know the answer to some of their questions, but will find out the answer for tomorrow’s class, or a teacher who can try out new ways of doing things in the class. This doesn’t mean that we should sign on to every new fad that comes along, but it does mean that this year’s classes should include new elements which were not present in last year’s. In this way we avoid the predictability which can so easily kill off interest in the classroom.

Over to you

So these are my plans for the new school year. But what about you? How do you want to modify your teaching practice this year? Or do you have any suggestions how I can better achieve my aims? I look forward to reading your comments.

Writing in Primary – Part III: Extended writing

child writing

In the first part of this series, I looked at how to initiate early primary students in writing in English, and in Part II I focused on how writing activities can be built into the CLIL classroom. In this, the third part of the series, I’m going to look at ways to get students producing longer texts, either on their own or as part of a team. Here, the focus is inevitably on upper primary, although the ages at which the different activities can be used will vary widely depending on the programme of each school, and some of these activities may be more suited to early secondary in some schools.

Scaffolding longer texts

One of the things which less proficient writers find daunting about producing longer texts is the very fact that they are being asked to write something longer than a couple of sentences. Faced with the blank page, they will often simply tell you they don’t know what to write. As teachers, our job is to support them in this stage, helping them to develop strategies which will allow them to develop longer texts. For this reason, it is very important that longer writing tasks be done in class rather than for homework – the students will need individual support as they begin their writing. Once they are writing confidently they can be asked to finish their work for homework if need be. I find the best way to scaffold longer texts is to break down the requirements into smaller, more manageable parts. In Part II we saw an example of this with the water cycle exercise, Imagen water cyclewhere the students were asked to write one or two sentences about each step in the process, rather than simply being asked to write a paragraph describing the water cycle. On the worksheet the different steps are visually separated, so that what they are producing does not have the appearance of a long text. Once the students have produced their texts on the worksheet, you can ask them to copy the corrected version into their notebooks in the form of a paragraph, so that they realise how much they have been able to write, but only after they have successfully completed the worksheet. This enhances the sense of achievement, and success breeds success.

Picture stories are another useful way of breaking down longer more complex texts into more manageable parts. I use the stories from the speaking part of the Movers and Flyers exams, and in this way the students have more practise with the type of story they will face in the exam at the end of the year. You can see an example of one of these stories here, taken from Gray (2000).

Flyers Speaking Story

We can also get our students to make comic strips, producing their own pictures and adding text to each one. This can be done very simply by folding a piece of paper in half, in half again and in half again, which will divide the page into eight sections, for eight pictures. A more sophisticated alternative is to make a mini-book, instructions for which you can find here. This is a great way to check comprehension of something done in class, whether a story, or the steps in a process. I have used it to review extended reading, and to wind up work on biographies of famous people.

Collaborative writing

Another way to scaffold longer texts is to have students work together to create a text. This can be modelled using the ‘Mission Impossible!‘ activity, where each student has to create a correct sentence to form part of a story against the clock, with the teacher writing the story up on the board. Then put the students into groups of four and explain that each person will dictate one sentence of the text to the rest of the group. The other members of the group decide if they think the sentence is correct and appropriate or if it needs editing, and when they are all satisfied with the sentence they all write it down. Then the next person in the group dictates what they feel should be the next sentence in the text, and so on. This can be used to write picture stories, or any kind of text. It is very important that they have a clear idea of what they have to write about before they begin. I have used this to practise writing descriptions of places, projecting a photograph so that they are all describing the same place. This is also useful as practice for the Cambridge Preliminary (PET) speaking exam, where candidates are asked to speak for a minute about a photograph.

A slightly crazy version of collaborative writing can be a lot of fun for the end of term (although don’t expect great quality from the texts produced). Each student starts off with a piece of paper, and the teacher dictates the first sentence of a story, appropriate for the time of year or the topics being covered in class at that time. Each student then writes the next sentence in that story, and passes the paper to the student sitting next to him / her. each student then has to write the next sentence of the story they have in front of them before passing the paper on again. In this way you have as many stories circulating in the classroom as there are students, and each one will be different. As I have said, this is just a fun activity, but the students are still reading each text and writing, as well as revising what has been written before.

Final words

As I said at the beginning of this post, these activities may be suitable for primary students in some schools but more suitable for secondary students in other settings. The important thing is to get our students writing as early as possible, so that producing texts is seen as a normal part of the English (or CLIL) class. There are many other techniques we can use, and I hope that readers will share their own ideas through the comments section. One thing I have not touched on here is the use of technology in the writing class, and I hope to come back to that topic soon.


GRAY, E. (2000) Skills Builder for Young Learners: Flyers 1 – Student’s Book Newbury, Express Publishing.

Who am I? An existential ice-breaker


This is relatively simple ice breaker activity which can be done at any point of the programme, but since I like to start my conversation classes focusing on questions I plan to do this in September. It also helps to build a sense of team spirit in the classroom, as it obliges students to speak to other members of the class, but at the same time gives them a clear objective to achieve from the interaction, making the interaction less threatening.

Before the lesson, you need to prepare name tags, or pieces of paper with the names of famous people on, one for each student in the group. It is important that your students should know who the famous people are. At the beginning of the activity, tape the name of one famous person onto the back of each student. The students then stand up, mingle and pair up. Each student looks at the name on the back of their partner, then the students take turns to ask one question (which requires a yes / no answer) to their partner about their famous person / character.

Once they have each asked their questions they thank the person they have worked with and look for another partner. It’s a good idea at this stage for the people looking for partners to do so wth their hand raised, to make it easier for the others to see them. This continues until the person has guessed their character. At this point they take the name taped on their back and tape it on their chest.

Students mingle with faculty members

The students who finish first now become counsellors for the others. At any time  a student who has not yet guessed can go to one of the students who have the name tag on their chest and ask for advice. The counsellor should first ask what the person already knows abut their character, then suggest a possible line of questioning. The counsellor does not give clues as to the identity of the character, just helps with the questions.

During the activity, the teacher should be mingling too, monitoring the activity and helping students who have difficulty with the language, although it is up to the counsellors to help with the content of the activity.

A nice follow up activity to this would be for each student to write a short biography of their character, basing themselves on the questions they asked which led them to guess their character. Or they could use the same material to give a short presentation on their character.

Obviously you are not limited to famous people for the name tags. If you are working with literature or extended reading with your group, a variation on this exercise could be to assign each student one of the characters from the book you are reading in class. In this way you get the students to think about the characteristics of their character in more depth. If you are working with science, the names could even be names of elements from the periodic table. You can adapt the activity to suit the content you want to practise or review. Because the students need meaningful clues, they are forced to think of the specific characteristics, and this will help them remember what they have learnt far better.

Speaking Activity: Jigsaw dictations

One of the things which I try to do in my conversation classes is to help students become aware of the structure of the texts they are interacting with at the same time as they develop their speaking skills. For this reason, I like to include dictation exercises from time to time, although I use variations which require the students to manipulate the text in some way themselves. In previous posts, I have examined Picture Dictations and other variations on dictations. In this post, I’m going to focus on what I have come to call ‘Jigsaw dictations’.

a drawing of a 4 piece jigsaw puzzle

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The main idea behind a jigsaw dictation is that the students initially receive the sentences of the text jumbled up, and after the dictation they have to decide how to put the sentences together to recreate the original text. In doing this, the students not only have to transcribe the words that are dictated, but also apply their knowledge of grammar and text structure – what Halliday and Hasan (1976) called ‘texture’ – in order to produce a coherent text.

The initial text can be delivered to the students in a variety of ways. The teacher can dictate the sentences to the students in the traditional way, first making sure that the students write down what they hear as discrete sentences rather than as a paragraph. Alternatively, and this is the option I prefer, the list of sentences can be pinned up on the wall, and the students can do a running dictation in groups. In this way, the students take an active part in the dictation from the start. Another option is to give each student one of the sentences when they come into the classroom and they have to find partners who have the other sentences from the text before they dictate their sentence to the team they have formed (here it is important to tell them how many different sentences there are in the text, so they know how many people they need in their group). I used this variation to begin my talk ‘Making connections‘ at the II Arenas Teaching

Once the sentences have been dictated, the students should try to recreate the original text in pairs or groups. It is important that they get a chance to talk about their ideas, as in this way they activate their knowledge of the language as they explain the reasoning behind the order they are suggesting. The teacher should be going around the class monitoring the activity, but should not intervene at this stage unless absolutely necessary. The students need time to experiment with the language and try out different combinations.

Here is an example of a jigsaw dictation which I used with my B1 class this year, and also in my talk ‘Making connections’:

  • Today,  in comparison with places like London or Manchester, Norwich is quite small, with a population of 150,000, but in the 16th century Norwich was the second city of England.
  •  The first cathedral was built in 1095 and has recently celebrated its 900th anniversary, while Norwich itself had a year of celebration in 1994 to mark its 800th anniversary as a city.
  • Norwich, the capital of the part of Britain known as East Anglia, has existed as a place to live for more than 2000 years.
  •  At the time of the Norman invasion in 1066 it had grown to become one of the largest towns in England.
  •  With two cathedrals and a mosque, Norwich has long been a popular centre for various religions.
  •  Nowadays, there are far fewer churches and pubs, but in 1964 the University of East Anglia was built in Norwich.
  • It began as a small village beside the River Wensum.
  • It continued to grow for the next 300 years and got richer and richer, becoming famous for having as many churches as there are weeks in the year and as many pubs as there are days in the year.

The correct version can be found in the powerpoint ‘Making connections‘. The title of the text is ‘Norwich’.