Orangutan asks for help in sign language: a free downloadable lesson


A free downloadable lesson, based around an authentic video produced by the Rainforest Action Network. Students start by discussing and learning some facts about orangutans, before going on to watch a video in which an orangutan appears to ‘talk’ to a 12 year old girl, using sign language. In fact, the video was staged, but it might have more impact if you don’t point this out to the students. The message of the video, which we discover at the end, is that using unsustainable palm oil is destroying the orangutans’ habitats. The lesson then goes on to focus on vocabulary to talk about the environment, and ends with a discussion task where students can use the vocabulary.

Download lesson plan PDF here:  ELT Resourceful – Orangutan asks for help in sign language



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Filed under Downloadable lesson materials, Vocabulary

Supporting ELT or ESOL students with Aspergers

The video is designed to show us what it’s like to live with sensory over-sensitivity. Not everyone on the autistic spectrum will experience this to this degree, or even at all, but it does give a sobering insight into the difficulties that some people face.

It is estimated that about 1 in a 100 people are on the autistic spectrum so the chances are very good that some of your students are, whether you, or even they know it or not.  In fact, because it’s a spectrum we are actually ALL on the autistic spectrum, it’s just a question of how pronounced those features are.

If you work with people with more severe forms of autism you probably already know plenty about how to support them , but many, often highly intelligent, people have traits of ASD without ever realising it. What they do realise is that life, and by extension learning in a classroom setting, is just that bit harder for them.

I’m by no means an expert on all of this, but since my son was diagnosed a few years back, my awareness has grown significantly and I realise how under-prepared/informed I think many language teachers are (me included).  Looking back, I can remember quite a few students that I would now recognise as probably having been on the autistic spectrum, and I now know that there are a lot of things I could have handled differently and more successfully.

There are three main areas where people with Aspergers or high functioning autism (not the same thing, technically, but similar) have difficulty :

Social communication

  • Being very literal. They may have difficulty in understanding jokes, metaphor or sarcasm. Generally speaking, these are things that most foreign language learners have problems with in a second language, but if you have Aspergers, you may also feel like that in your first language.
  • It can be hard for them to tell if someone is affectionately teasing, or being nasty, partly because of the being literal, but also because they may find it hard to read facial expressions of tone of voice.
  • Turn-taking and spotting when someone has lost interest can also cause difficulties.

So, if you have a student who easily takes offence or gets upset, for example, it might be worth considering whether what was said might have been mis-interpreted in this way. You could also try being more careful in your use of metaphor etc.

Turn-taking skills can be taught and practised- and most students can benefit from this, so no need to single anyone out. You could try some of the ideas in Jill Hadfield’s excellent book, Classroom Dynamics, such as passing round a ball of wool so that you can see the pattern of interaction in wool at the end of a conversation, or allowing the person to simply listen and take notes before feedback to the whole class at the end.

Social interaction

  • Many people with Aspergers have difficulty in starting conversations or interactions with others, or in sustaining them by asking questions.
  • They may find others unpredictable and confusing, leading to withdrawing and preferring to work alone.

I think as a language teacher, we need to respect that some students, whether with ASD or not, may sometimes prefer to work alone.  People on the spectrum can often be very sensitive to noise as well, and this combined with the unpredictability of others’ behaviour can be absolutely exhausting. So, despite what you may have learned on your CELTA course ;) , don’t force people to work with others.

When you do ask them to work in pairs or groups, think about how you can structure the task to make it more predictable and less overwhelming. For example, getting the group to make a list of five points, or ranking things in order of preference etc makes the task more concrete and manageable. It’s also good for everyone else, and having a clear outcome tends to produce a better quality of interaction.

Make sure that your instructions are absolutely crystal clear, and only give one instruction at a time. Again, this is useful for everyone, but people with ASD can find it particularly difficult to hold more than one instruction in their head at a time.

Because the world can be confusing and overwhelming, people with ASD often like to stick to routines. Again, this is generally good practice with all classes, especially young learners, but you might like to remember that changing the routine radically might have a negative impact on someone on the spectrum.

Social imagination

  • This is sometimes characterised as lack of empathy, but I think that’s not a very useful way of putting it as, in my limited experience, people with Aspergers definitely do feel for others, they’re just not always very good at imagining how others might feel.

So role-play type activities might cause problems for some students, as this involves imagining yourself in another person’s position. This certainly isn’t true of everyone with Asperger’s, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for such difficulties, and having an alternative up your sleeve.

A couple of other points

People with Aspergers often have what are known as special interests- subjects they are fascinated by and love to talk about. While you need to set up a clear structure- as otherwise they may find it hard to judge when they have lost their classmate’s interest- allowing a bit of space for the to talk about these subjects can also be rewarding, and gives these students a chance to show off their knowledge on the area.

As mentioned before, people with Aspergers may find noise difficult, so a calm atmosphere really helps.  They may also have other sensory difficulties with things such as bright lights. Obviously you don’t want to make the whole class work in silence, but it’s worth being aware that a student might be finding the atmosphere stressful so that you can change it or give them options.

Obviously if any of this is ringing bells with you in regard to a particular student I am NOT suggesting that you should be rushing in to offer a diagnosis! But you could try some of the tips and see if they have a positive effect. If nothing else, it might help you to empathise more with the student.

As I said at the beginning, I am certainly not an expert, so if anyone would like to offer any further ideas or corrections in the comments, that would be very welcome.






Filed under Differentiation, Teaching methodology, Working with groups

Motivating students, staying motivated as a teacher and other things

Thin on the ground?

Thin on the ground?

As you may have noticed, my posts have been a little thin on the ground lately. I’m planning to remedy this when the project I’m working on slows down enough for me to catch my breath!

In the meantime, here are some posts I’ve written for my British Council blog:

Staying motivated and avoiding burnout as a teacher

Motivating students to write

Thoughts on using a coursebook

An activity I use again and again

I also thoroughly recommend checking out the other blogs in the series. There are some great posts by Lizzie Pinard, Larry Ferlazzo, Sandy Millin, Ceri Jones and many many more..




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Filed under Planning, Teaching methodology, Working with groups, Writing

More than just a worksheet: how to write effective classroom materials.

Many teachers produce their own materials, either from necessity or to provide something more tailored to the needs of their students. However, writing materials for a whole lesson, which really engage the learners and focus effectively on language, is quite a challenge. Teachers learn through experience, but are rarely given much support or training in this area.

In this session, given at IATEFL 2014, and recorded earlier for the British Council Seminar Series, I looked at  a simple recipe or template (based on Hutchinson and Waters 1987) for producing complete lessons, and considered a variety of do’s and don’ts taken from my experience as a professional materials writer.  There are plenty of practical examples and tips, as well as mini tasks to try.

Click the picture for the link to the recording (also including an interesting presentation non using corpora in the classroom, by Adam Kilgarriff).

more than just a worksheet screenshot

The handout with a summary of the main points, and the links, is available below as a PDF.

More than just a worksheet handout – Rachael Roberts






Filed under Exploiting authentic reading materials, Materials development, Planning

Authentic or graded? Is there a middle way?

2576372736_04fe9e4026_o (1)One of the often used arguments against published coursebooks is that the texts, especially at lower levels, tend to have been specially written. When I first started writing coursebooks I was very keen to use authentic texts, and, indeed, the first edition of IELTS Foundation is full of them.

There are plenty of points in favour of using authentic texts. Firstly, the enormous sense of satisfaction to be gained from being able to read something designed for a native speaker. It’s no coincidence that the language learning app, Duolingo, encourages me in my learning by announcing, ‘You can now read 96.7% of all real Portuguese articles’ (though I doubt that very much!). Finding that they are able to read an authentic text may also encourage the learner to read more extensively outside of the classroom, which has to be a good thing.

It’s also important that students are exposed to different genres of texts, and, especially for the teacher creating materials for their own class, authentic texts provide a relatively easy way to bring something up to date and topical into the classroom. They can provide us with the opportunity to look at the same topic reported in different ways, or give students a starting point from which to follow the news topic as it unfolds, in their own time.

However, in recent years I have been moving away from using unadapted authentic texts. The most obvious problem is the level of the language. When I was first trained, we were taught, ‘grade the task not the text’, but, while this is usually possible, I’m no longer sure that it’s always in the students’ best interests.

Taking this kind of approach is intended to help students develop strategies to deal with texts where a lot of the language is unknown. There is certainly a value in this, but is it as valuable as giving them a text from which they can get so much more? Hu and Nation (2000) concluded that most learners needed to comprehend 98% of words in a text in order to gain ‘adequate comprehension’

Personally, I think there’s still a value in a text pitched slightly higher than that, especially if we give the learners support, but without a doubt, if the level is pitched too high, class time will just be taken up with explaining tens of words which, in all probability, the learners will not learn and may never need to use again.

But aren’t graded texts dull and decontextualized? Won’t they give students a false sense of security, and fail to prepare them for real world reading?

Or is there a middle way?

I think there is, and that it is based around a proper respect for genre. I now unashamedly write a lot of texts for my coursebooks. Unashamedly, because I think that, as a writer, my writing skills are often just as good as someone writing for the Daily Telegraph etc, and, therefore, my texts are, in their own way, just as authentic.

So before writing a text, I look for samples of the kind of genre I’d like to write (this often gives me ideas about the topic as well, but the genre is most important). Then I look to see how these texts are structured, how formal the language is, what kind of structures appear (making sure that these are the structures I’d like to pull out to work on in the grammar section of the lesson) and what kind of vocabulary is in there.

I might run the texts through something like the Oxford 3000 textchecker to see what level the vocabulary is at, and think about how I could replace some of it, or use something like https://readability-score.com/ to see how complex the syntax is, which I might be able to simplify without affecting the style too much. I then use all this information to write my own text, at a more appropriate level and length, using grammar structures and vocabulary which are true to the spirit of the original sources, but which will be of use productively to the students.

Regular readers will know how I love a middle way!

I’ll be speaking about this and other tips for teachers wanting to write their own materials for the British Council Seminar Series in the next couple of weeks.

Firstly in London on 4th March. Tickets available here (free)

And then in Belfast on the 11th March, which will also be live streamed (also both free). Sign up here.




Filed under Discourse, Exploiting authentic reading materials, Materials development, Planning, Vocabulary

Gratitude: a free downloadable lesson

A free downloadable lesson, based around an authentic video. Research shows that feeling grateful for what we have and the people in our lives is a key factor in feeling happy. The video shows a group of people carrying out a task designed to increase their happiness in this way. It’s quite moving.

Suitable from Intermediate/B1+, the lesson starts with a short text to introduce the topic and get the students thinking about how people recognise and celebrate gratitude in their cultures. It then moves onto the video, where students watch two people visiting a friend and reading aloud a letter they have written , thanking them for what they have done. There is some focus on vocabulary, and some useful phrases that students could use themselves to say thank you. Finally, the students are asked to write their own thank you letter, which they may or may not choose to actually deliver.

Download lesson plan PDF hereELT Resourceful-Gratitude


Filed under Downloadable lesson materials, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Speaking, Vocabulary, Writing

Everything you (n)ever wanted to know about me: in response to Marisa Constantinides’ tag challenge

Yesterday, Marisa tagged me and threw down a gauntlet http://marisaconstantinides.edublogs.org/2013/12/16/in-response-to-doug-peterson/#.Uq8PMPRdXmc.

I do like gauntlets…

Photo Credit: byJoeLodge via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: byJoeLodge via Compfight cc

My task is to

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

So, here goes.

Eleven random facts

1 I was all set to (try and ) become a theatre director before I took a year out to teach abroad. My first degree was in English and Drama.

2 I’m currently training to teach T’ai Chi. This is mainly for my own self-development, but, hey, who knows what the future holds?

3 In common with Marisa, I am also a fanatic buyer of shoes (ask my husband who can’t understand why I need more than two pairs).

4 I hate going underwater, or even getting my face wet. As a result, I look ridiculous when swimming and end up with a stiff neck. Would rather sit in the jacuzzi anyway.

5 I was once interviewed in Polish, for Polish TV, about a new Young Learners’ teacher training course we were running. I never saw the film, for which I am very grateful as my Polish is extremely rudimentary and the interview probably went something like this, ‘Yes, is very hard children to teach. yes, very difficult. Yes, we help..er…’

6 I used to live in Portugal and Brazil and my Portuguese is a lot better than my Polish (not that that’s saying much)

7 I am great at Trivial Pursuit- think it’s reading and writing all those coursebooks!

8 I love going to Polish restaurants and eating barscz, pierogie ruskie, golabki etc. Luckily for me, they’re getting easier to find in the UK.

9 When I was 19 I went inter-railing with friends all round Europe. We were going to go to the Netherlands as our last stop, but in the end were just too tired/dirty/impoverished. We agreed to go back there soon. I never have.

10 I used to play the clarinet at school, and now my daughter does (and she practises about as much as I did, which is to say not much at all)

11 Probably the most beautiful place I have ever been is Chapada dos Veadeiros in Brazil. Google it. It’s stunning.

Eleven questions asked by Marisa

1 How long does it usually take you to draft and finalise a blog post?

Anything between half a day and a day, though I might have been thinking about it for a while. This is why I haven’t done too many lately, as I’ve been super busy.

2 Which ICT tools do you actually use with your classes?

I am not a technophobe, but I’m also pretty limited in what I can use. Plus I only teach sporadically at the moment. I’m not even sure what Marisa means by ‘ICT tools’ ! I use the IWB of course, and some other stuff like Vocaroo and Textivate…but not a lot is the honest answer.

3 What is your absolute dream job?

I’m lucky enough to be able to say that I have it. I love writing materials and having the flexibility to manage my own time. I also do a bit of teaching, which I enjoy- and, best of all, because it’s cover teaching mostly, I HAVE NO PAPERWORK..

4 Which classroom activity do you absolutely enjoy using with your students? One is all I need.

That’s hard, because there are lots of favourites. I’ll say dictogloss and dictation because there are so many variations and such a sense of achievement.

5 How many of your current friendships were started through a social network?

Can’t put a figure on it, but a surprising amount considering how sceptical I used to be about that kind of thing.

6 Which household chore do you hate the most and which do you love the best?

I hate them all- unless you count cooking which I do enjoy.

7 Name your 10 desert island discs.

Oh! Impossible. Or at least likely to take me days of agonising.. Many will come under the heading of 80s/90s indie though, that’s all I’ll say.

8 Do you wish you had studied something other than what you did study? Do say what, if the answer is yes.

No regrets. But I did also study to become a Rogerian counsellor, and, while I don’t want to give up the day job, I am definitely fascinated by psychology and people in general.

9 Describe the naughtiest thing you have ever done – within reason, of course

Hmm. Within reason. I did once sneak onto the set of Coronation Street when IATEFL was held nearby in Manchester. Got told off by a security guard. Wild child.

10 What artistic aspirations or skills do you have?

That would be the drama degree again. Certainly not any good at painting or drawing, though my cake decorating skills aren’t too bad.

11 Which TV series or film do you keep watching again and again?

I have watched the entire five seasons of Six Feet Under twice, and can feel another go through coming on…

11 Bloggers tagged in this post

I’ve chosen 11 bloggers whose blogs I particularly admire (and who Marisa didn’t bagsie first!). Of course, there are undoubtedly others that I will kick myself for not including. Of course the bloggers may or may not take up the challenge, but I’d recommend clicking on their names and taking a look at their blogs anyway.












My 11 questions for them

1 Why did you start blogging and how has differed from your expectations?

2 What’s your earliest childhood memory?

3 Tell us about someone you admire, and say why.

4 What was the last book you read and what did you think of it?

5 Do you prefer walking or running? Why?

6 What was your first paid job?

7 What five famous people would you invite to a dinner party, and why?

8 What’s the first website you check/go on each day? Why?

9 What can you remember about the first class you ever taught?

10 Flowers or chocolates?

11 How do you feel about reality TV shows?




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