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.

what’s the best way to…?

Ideal stuff for the first time you meet a group of students or if you have to cover someone else’s lesson. Write down these items on the board or display them on the screen.  Give the students three or four minutes to think of possible full questions for what they see. It is not essential that they write them down but they can, if they feel more comfortable doing so. Some possible full sentences might be:

– Tell me the best three things about…yourself/myself/our teacher/England/our town/the Internet

– Have you ever… been to an English-speaking country/found a sizeable amount of money in the street/cheated in an exam?

– Who was your worst… teacher/boss/enemy/mistake?

– What’s the best way to… learn English/cook chicken/travel to Madrid/find good deals on the Internet?

– What are your top three… skills/songs of all time/favorite movies/priorities in life?

Can you suggest any other interesting questions?

Then have the students mill around and strike up conversations. Involve yourself and stay tuned. Take good note of interesting words and possible mistakes so that, at a later stage, you can feed in some new language or highlight good use of it. Have a general discussion and elicit from the students the questions they could think of.

An interesting –and fun- variation is to have a look at how Google autocomplete prompts the last strings of words. Can the students guess what Google will come up with?


You may also decide to narrow down these items to a given topic (more adequate for higher language levels). On the topic of “health”…

– Tell me the best three things about doing sport.

– Have you ever been on a diet?

– Who was your worst doctor?

– What’s the best way to lose weight?

– When was the last time you saw a doctor?

– What’s the most amazing medical breakthrough?

– What are your top three pieces of advice for a healthy lifestyle?

Can you autocomplete questions for the topics of work, family or traveling, for instance? Would that work for your group of students?

word challenge 1

This is one of my favorite activities for students who share a common language other than English. This activity falls under the acronym of KISS (keep it super simple). The teacher won’t have to do much, apart from weaving things around (I’m just stating the obvious).

Ask your students to look through language that they have seen in class over the last four weeks or so. The source can be the coursebook, handouts or off-the-cuff language that you have written on the board. This should be challenging words and expressions (no need to choose the word “table” at an Elementary level or “lazy” at an Advanced level). Ask them to spend about 5 to 8 minutes to look for a handful  and translate them into L1. It works even better if they can provide a full sentence, which they can get from a dictionary or they can make up their own. For instance, if the target word is “snore/snoring”, they can translate it as -let’s say-  “schnarchen” if their L1 is German, or, better still, they can come up with something like “Vom eigenen Schnarchen aufgewacht” (“awakened by his own snoring”). Then, have the students, one at a time, read their translated words or sentences to challenge the classmates.

If you want to spice this up a bit, ask them to write each individual item on a small piece of paper (L1 on one side and L2 on the other). Collect the pieces of paper. Set up groups of about 4-6 students to a group. Distribute the pieces of paper evenly. Ask the groups to lay the papers L1 side up. Give them 5 minutes to devise, in their groups, a way to play a word challenge game based on translating those items. Then, they can start playing the game. Encourage them to swap papers with other groups. Make this last for at least 10 minutes. Collect the pieces of papers and focus on 8-10 interesting ones. Finally, ask the groups how they ran the game. Which group do they think had the most exciting rules?

Keep what you believe the best pieces of paper are in terms of interesting or useful words and expressions or clear examples and use them again in the future. The students can write new words and expressions and you can give them the old ones as well.

Maximum student output, cognitively engaging activity, useful vocabulary revision, zero teacher preparation time.


skeleton questions

There are a handful of websites where you can get conversation questions arranged by topic. These seem to be the most popular ones, prompted by an “esl conversation questions” search query on Google.

Conversation questions for the ESL/EFL Classroom

ESL Conversation questions

ESL Discussions


English Current

ESL Gold

Basically these sites (or sections within the sites) provide a menu of arranged categories by topic and lists of questions for each of the topics. You will have to sieve through the questions, as some might not be very engaging or conducive to discussion. Conversation questions for the ESL/EFL classroom features close to 200 questions for the topic of money and shopping but I wonder whether the students will have much to say about this:

– Do banks pay a higher percent of interest here or in your country?

– Do you have a credit card? If so, do you have more than one?

– How much does it cost to get a haircut in your country? Here?

And, quite frankly, I would personally steer away from the million dollar question:

– If someone gave you a million dollars, what would you do with it?

At any rate, these sites can be useful to pick and choose questions that might work for your students, if you want them to have discussions around those topics.

And here is the tweak. Once you have chosen a handful of questions, instead of reading them out for the students to copy or writing them down on the board or displaying on a screen, simply provide the key words (mostly nouns and verbs) for the students to figure out the full questions. Here are some skeleton questions from the same source. Can you figure out the questions in full? (check at the bottom of the post)

– ever/find/money/if so,/what/do

– something/want/buy/never/will

– most expensive/ever/buy

– different/taxes/country


Allow some time for the students to work individually first and then they can stand up and compare their full questions with their classmates. It’s not essential that their questions match exactly the original ones. For instance, for the third skeleton question, they may generate questions such as “What’s the most expensive thing/gift/gadget that you have ever bought/that you may ever buy? Have a look at their questions as the students pair with each other and point at possible question making mistakes. Finally elicit the full questions and write them (or have a student come to the front to do the job) on the board.

– Have you ever found any money? If so, what did you do?

– What is something you want to buy but you never will?

– What is the most expensive thing you have ever bought?

– What are some of the different taxes in your country?

– What is the next “big” thing you are going to buy?

teaching English the keepitsimple way in 10 steps.

Effective teaching does not come from thorough lesson preparation or from (over)use of teaching materials. Effective and memorable teaching comes from keeping things simple. So whether you enjoy using photocopies, textbooks, technology, no technology, all of the above or none of the above… keep it simple.

Teaching the KIS way is essentially a set of generic procedures that are easily adaptable and that can be used in most teaching scenarios for most language levels. Teaching the KIS way embraces a frills-free/no clutter/common sense approach to English language teaching. It tries to maximize lesson preparation time. Good teaching comes, first and foremost, more from preparing oneself and having established a series of routines and procedures rather than from investing precious time in concocting the perfect lesson.

Teaching English the KIS way in 10 steps.

  1. Prepare yourself first. This entitles knowing what motivates your learners so that you can try to find ways to tap into their interests. How can I contribute as a person –not just as a teacher- to a group of people? What are my interests? Would my learners be interested in what I have to offer as a person? What technology do I have at my disposal? Can the learners bring technology into the classroom? How can the learners possibly benefit from it? Know yourself, know your learners and know your teaching environment and prepare yourself accordingly.
  2. Start off the lesson with no plan in mind and see where it leads. It might as well be the most memorable and useful part of the lesson. Praise someone on their good taste of shoes. Tell your class to run a search for “types of shoes” on Google and see what the learners come up with. Show them a yoga breathing exercise. Sing a song. Tell them you had the most satisfying dinner last night. Whatever springs to mind. Look forward to the uncertainty of the onset of the teaching period.
  3. Set up some routines. Have a different learner prepare and deliver a five minute speech to the class on the topic of their choice everyday. Then, have a discussion around the speech. Highlight good use of language and suggest extra words and expressions. Get the learners revise the new words and expressions towards the last ten minutes of a lesson and play a game around it or have them test each other. Assign five to ten minutes every day for them to write on a journal.
  4. Integrate multimedia. A set up of a laptop, a projector and internet connection is extremely useful in the language classroom. Play short video extracts from the Internet and focus on decoding speech, features of language and lexis rather than test understanding, so that it equips the learners with the tools to better understand TV series or movies on their own outside the classroom setting. Use visual input as a springboard for discussions and critical thinking.
  5. Use coursebooks. They save preparation time and they are written by experts in the field. They contain tailor-made material that meets your learners at their language level. However, bear in mind that, after all, a coursebook is another –very useful- learning material. Have your learners decide what catches their eye and feel free to ignore what it does not or find alternative ways to cover that content.
  6. Lexis first. Regardless of the language level of the learners, prioritize language in context that is not limited to words in isolation but in partnership. Explore these strings of words by running live searches on the Internet and have a critical look at them. This affects word collocations, colligations and co-text. Think of interesting questions where that language is used. Better still, have the learners write their own questions putting the language to practice.
  7. Promote autonomous learning. In essence, learning or improving a language is a lifelong process that does not start or finish with a given teacher. As well as spoon feeding the learners in class, it is the teachers role to share their experiences as language learners and give advice on the kinds of things that can be done to take control of one’s learning. Most English language teachers are not native speakers of English and their own experience as learners and competent users of the language is an invaluable resource for a group of students.
  8. Flip it. Assign tasks from the coursebook as homework and then delve further into that content in class. It is not very productive to play a listening extract or reading a passage in class to test understanding. People move at different paces and many need more or less time to take on those tasks. Have your learners do this at home and think about what kinds of tasks (in addition to the ones included in the coursebook) the learners can do to engage and interact around the ideas using focal language.
  9. Ten minutes a day without fail. Tell your learners that they need to spend at least ten minutes a day doing something meaningful in English. Tasks could range from listening to songs to watching TV series or movies or doing grammar exercises or chatting or texting to friends or going over their vocabulary notes or reading a graded reader. The key element is that they do this with a critical mind. For instance, if they decide to listen to a song, they could be looking for the lyrics, take a mental note of a couple of language chunks, then look for examples of use in a dictionary and write them down in a notebook. Obviously, ten minutes is a very short time span but this is to instill a sense of need to be in touch with the language on a daily basis, no matter if it is limited to just ten minutes.
  10. Teach in-the-moment and enjoy the ride. Do not get fussed over covering material and enjoy teaching as it happens. Embrace the unexpected. Welcome mistakes.