I am a big fan of lists and ordering things. I think they offer lots of opportunities for discussion, interaction and critical thinking in the language classroom. Today I would like to focus on ranking sets of items. The ideal platform for this procedure is an interactive whiteboard, if you have one, but there are other round around ways in which you can engage your learners in physically ranking words and expressions or images.

The best fruit. I learned this activity from Andrew Wright’s Pictures for Language Learning, Cambridge University Press, 1989. Moving with the -digital- times and far from being an accomplished artist, I just resort to copying and pasting images from the Internet.


After reviewing these words with the students and working on accurate pronunciation, open a blank page on the board and ask them to write down as many fruits that they saw on the board as they remember.

And now comes the ranking bit. Show the fruits again. If you are using interactive whiteboard software and you have copied and pasted the images as separate items, you should be able to drag them separately. Tell the students to arrange the fruits:

by roundness / the five most expensive fruits / the five cheapest fruits / the five biggest fruits / the five smallest fruits / the five heaviest fruits / the five sweetest fruits / five fruits that grow in your region / the five most exotic fruits / the most difficult to spell / the most difficult to pronounce / the most difficult to learn / five fruits you like the best / the ones you would take on a school trip

You don’t have to cover all these criteria, just choose four or five. Invite the students to come up to the board and drag the images in order.

You may simply decide to type the words for the fruits on the board instead of using images if you want to set up the activity in about a minute.

You may want to set up groups of students and distribute blank cards or pieces of papers for them to write the words on them and then shift the cards around on the desks as they rank them. Dictate the words prior to that. It makes a perfect dictation.

Other possible lexical sets that present themselves well for this type of ranking might be: jobs, school subjects, food, sports, body parts, hobbies, types of TV programmes, films, books, music, colours, clothes, new technologies, furniture, places in town, social networking sites, things to spend money on. What kind of criteria would you establish for them? Better still, once the students get acquainted with this way of drilling vocabulary, supply a couple of criteria and let them figure out other ways in which those words might be ranked. It all boils down to drilling vocabulary when you think about it. However, that’s not the message we want to send the students. They don’t need to know. Drilling might be done in mind-numbing ways or in “invisible” engaging ways.

In addition to providing vocabulary consolidation, ranking can also be used to prompt interesting discussions.


Possible criteria: your favourite type of holiday / the most relaxing / the most tiring / the most expensive / the ones you have never experienced / the ones you have experienced / the ones with lesser ecological footprint / the most popular in your country / the most romantic.

In addition to providing criteria, use the photos as a springboard for conversation by asking relevant questions, such as:  Why do you think staying in a caravan is more romantic than staying at a bed and breakfast? So you went camping last summer, how did it go? Did you have a good time? Was there anything that you didn’t like about sleeping in a tent? etc.

This last idea is an adaptation from my book From Whiteboards to Web 2.0, Helbling Languages, 2015.

question words

Here is a very straightforward way of exploiting a video from the Internet. It works best with short news stories like the one used as an example. Keeping the KIS spirit, it does not require any preparation from the teacher, other than finding and playing the video.

Tell the students that the are going to watch a short video. As they watch, each student must write down three questions for the video to test understanding. One question should be about something being said towards the beginning, another question should be written down about something from the middle and a third question about something being said towards the end. They must start their questions with a question word (who, where, when, why, what, which, how). These are some possible questions for the video below:

  • How old is he?
  • What’s his name?
  • Where is he from?
  • When did he start to play the piano?
  • How many classical pieces has he written?
  • Where can he hear melodies?
  • When did he start composing?
  • What does his teacher say about him?
  • How does his father feel?
  • What is his dream?
  • Who are his biggest fans?
  • What are the birds names?

For very low level classes, tell the students that they can write questions for what they see on the screen (What instrument is he playing, what is he wearing, how many people do we see in the video, etc.).

The beauty of this type of video exploitation is that the same video can be used for all language levels really. The lower the level, the more this becomes a speaking activity that keeps the students talking about what they see using the vocabulary they know. The higher the level, the more this becomes a listening activity. There are very crystal clear words and expressions that the students will identify in this video and there are some others that require a deeper level of competency. The difficulty of listening activities lies more on the task itself than on the language.

This type of video exploitation also keeps the students work on grammar and question making. Two for the price of one.

You may tell your students to get into groups (for ideas on grouping students you may want to check my post on grouping students), give each student three strips of paper and, once they watch the video and write their questions, they can place them on their desks for everyone in the group to see, discard the questions that are the same, and try to peer edit the possible errors they may spot). Walk around and check possible errors yourself. Then play the video a second time for the students to write answers for the questions.

And here is Shane Thomas’ website, if you want to listen to his inspiring music. What a talented young guy he is!!

smartphones 1

There are many ways in which smartphones can be used in the language classroom -if they are allowed at all! Here I will focus on how we can take advantage of the camera tool to take photos in the classroom in order to be able to see things more clearly or more in detail or to move at different paces or simply for time efficiency purposes or to save paper.

  • Instead of printing copies of answer sheets for textbook or workbook grammar activities, show the students the page with the answers from the teacher’s book and they can simply take of photo of it (in most cases it will be a portion of a page).
  • If you write questions on the board (or display them) for a listening passage that you are about to play, tell the students to take a photo of the board and they can look at their phone while they answer the questions. It saves time and makes the students be on task right away. However, if there aren’t many questions, it might be a better idea altogether to simply read out the questions for the students to take them down. This implies spending more time but it also engages the students in an extra listening/dictation activity.
  • If you are displaying a photo on the board for group discussion, there might be a glare or the data projector might have seen better days and then some students might not be able to get a proper view of things (specially those sitting at the back or on the sides). Invite them to come up to the front, take a photo and go back to their seats. That way they will be able to zoom in and notice details.
  • Homework assignments. Tell the students to take of photo of the homework assignments that you have on the board for them. You may also create a qr code for them. Here is a video with 11 ideas for using qr codes in the classroom.
  • If you have conversation questions on the board, again let the students take a photo. That way you will be making room for board annotations or to display something else. The students can simply read the questions from the phone screen.

.I will be posting more ideas on how to use the phone as a camera tool shortly. I hope these ones make sense.


word challenge 2

Another word challenge actitivy that requires zero preparation from the teacher. You may also want to check out “word challenge 1“. Here the teacher will ask the students in the class to anticipate useful words and expressions on a new topic that will be discussed in class the following day. Let’s suppose that you are ready to introduce this topic: “work”. Then the students must look for 4 or 5 useful words and expressions each on the given topic. A good probing question might be this: “I wonder how you say “x” in English”. Ask the students to write down their words on a piece of paper at home and bring it to class next day.

Then elicit words from your students. They can call out the word/s in English or in their own native language and challenge their classmates. Write what you judge to be the most relevant words and expressions for the language level on the board (about 10-15 would should be enough). Elaborate on use of language. For example, you may want to highlight whether a verb is typically followed by a certain preposition or focus on common collocations and colligations (watch the short video below for a clear explanation of what collocations and colligations are from Sam McCarter).

Now ask the students to think of interesting conversation questions using those key words and expressions and come up to the board and write them (make any necessary corrections). At a Pre-Intermediate level, this is a possible language selection: to take time off, to apply for a job, to quit a job, flight attendant, volunteer, unemployed, a resume. It is not essential (and not always easy) that all students contribute. Give extra credit to the ones that do. You may also want to think of and add a couple of good questions yourself. For the language above, these might be good enough conversation questions for the language level:

  • Do you know how to write a good resume? Tell me about it.
  • What is good and not so good about being a flight attendant?
  • Do you know anyone who does volunteer work? Do you think you will do volunteer work one day? Why do people do volunteer work?

Can you think of good conversation questions for the remaining items?

Hopefully by looking up those words in dictionaries, having students challenge each other and finally doing something with the language through question writing and having conversations around those words, the language will stick to memory.

grouping students

There are times in every lesson when we want the students to work in pairs or small groups. For practical reasons we tend to ask the students to pair off with someone sitting to their right or left. For an uneven number of students in the class, the teacher may pair off with a student or you may allow a group of three. When it comes to groups of three or more students, there are many ways in which those groups can be set up. It is a good thing that the students get to work and interact with different peers each time, as this will contribute to building positive group dynamics.

This is how you can easily set up groups the KIS way:  I typically assign a number to each student because that’s the quickest way I know to get the students work in groups and because I don’t want to waste precious class time in the procedure. Let’s say, I have a class of 25 students and I want to set up groups of three, four or five students to a group.

  • Groups of 3: 25 divided by 3 is 8 (and a spare student). Each student receives a number from one to eight (Juan, you are number one; Elisa, you are number two; Carlos, you are number four; Pedro, you are number five; Sara, you are number six; Yolanda, you are number seven; Antonio, you are number eight; then start counting from number one again, thus obtaining seven groups of three students and a group of four.
  • Groups of four: 25 divided by 4 is 6 (and a spare student). Five groups of four and a group of five.
  • Groups of five: 25 divided by 5 is 5. Five groups of five.

However, there are times when I might decide to attach a task to set up those groups. The reasons might be to change the pace of a lesson or, if the students are shifting about in their chairs, it might be time  for them to stretch their legs a bit, move around and send the brain oxygen.

If I want the students to work in pairs I may give each student a card or piece or paper with a word or expression in either English or their L1 counterpart (“estar harto de…” /”to be sick and tired of”). The students have to find their matching pair. You can also do this with proverbs, if there is a similar counterpart in the students’ L1, (“Dios los cría y ellos se juntan”/”Birds of a feather flock together”), or with word collocations (“to break”/”the law”).

If I want to set up groups of 3 or more students per group, these are some fun ways.

  • On a scale of 0 to 10, how much do you like broccoli? All the zeros, get together, all the 1s get together, and so on. If some groups are considerably larger than others, then move some students to other groups. What other “on a scale of 0 to 10, how much do you like…” can you think of?
  • Tell the students to arrange themselves by the amount of hair.
  • Tell the students to pick a member of a 5 piece rock band: drummer, lead singer, keyboards, electric guitar, bass player. They must close their eyes and start mimicking their chosen musicians. A few seconds later they can open their eyes, see what everyone is doing and arrange themselves into groups accordingly (all the lead singers get together, all the bass players get together, and so on).

Try out the last one and see how it goes!

Mad Lib Theater

One of my main sources of research to keep abreast of new Internet tools and resources for the ESL classroom is Larry Ferlazzo’s great blog, which I highly recommend checking out. About a month ago, Larry suggested using Mad Libs in this blog entry to lead to a performance as opposed to just using it for the students to have fun around filling in blanks with word categories, which, in his view, and I totally subscribe, wasn’t that interesting from a language practice standpoint. He got this idea from a hilarious Mad Lib (Theater) version in Jimmy Fallon’s The Tonight Show with Benedict Cumberbatch.

So I decided to use this video “Mad Lib Theater style” with my students in the English classroom and it was a real winner. This is how the lesson unfolds.

1.Give your students the first handout. Play the video until 03:24. As they watch the video, they write down the words provided by Benedict on the left (you may give them the most difficult ones if you are teaching lower levels). Elicit answers.

2. Get the students into groups. Ask them to, in their groups, fill in the gaps for the word categories on the right of handout 1 (click below to download). Every group must agree on the same word or words for each of the gaps.


3. Now play the video from 03:24 until the end. Give them handout 2 (click below to download) to fill it in with the words that they wrote on the first one.


4. Each group designates two students to read out their crazy police interrogation dialogue.

Have fun. Draw attention to aspects of connected speech and intonation.