Tag Archives: writing

Smoking stinks


A free lesson plan, which I wrote for the British Council Teaching English Teens page.

This lesson begins by focusing on some anti-smoking posters with students discussing the message and effectiveness of each one. They then learn some vocabulary to talk about four key reasons not to smoke: (health, cost, the impact on your attractiveness, and the impact on others). Students then choose one of these reasons and write a paragraph about it, using the vocabulary as appropriate.

As an optional final activity, the students design their own anti- smoking poster and present it to another pair or to the class.

Click here for the lesson plan and student’s worksheet.


  • Raise awareness of the many reasons not to smoke, or to give up smoking.
  • Extend students’ vocabulary to talk about health risks and other issues connected with smoking. E.g. bad breath, anxiety, blood pressure.
  • Develop students’ writing skills through writing a paragraph (using vocabulary) about one negative aspect of smoking.
  • Encourage peer feedback and correction on writing.
  • As an optional final task, develop students’ oral fluency as well as their ability to work together to design a poster and present it to their peers


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Filed under classroom ideas, Downloadable lesson materials, Uncategorized, Writing

Effective and efficient techniques for giving feedback on writing


Marking written work can be incredibly time-consuming, and it’s disheartening when you see the students glance quickly at your detailed comments and put the piece of writing away in their bags never to be looked at again.

So, what can be done to a) reduce your workload as a teacher and b) encourage students to actually learn something from your feedback*?

We all know that it’s important to get students to take responsibility for their own work and many teachers use a correction code to encourage students to self-correct. This can be useful, but you still need to be selective.  Too many corrections/comments can lead to the student feeling overwhelmed and demotivated, and/or the student not knowing which of these areas are high priorities.

Be selective

  • Choose one or two areas with the whole class that you will focus on for this set of written work only. For example, if it is an opinion essay, you might choose to focus on text organisation. Or you could choose a grammatical area, such as articles, that the whole class finds difficult. Instead of the teacher choosing these areas, you could negotiate them with the class before they start or after they have written the work but before they have handed it in.
  • Ask students to individually select two areas they want you to focus on as you mark their work. They could either write these at the bottom of their work, or highlight sections that they don’t feel as confident about.
  • Focus on just one or two (anonymous) pieces of work that you look at with the whole class. Take it in turns so that everyone has this opportunity. Especially with a monolingual group, it is likely that many of the issues will be the same for most students.
  • Just correct one paragraph of each student’s work. Then ask them to self-correct anything similar in the rest of the piece.

Of course, with all these approaches it is important that the students understand that not highlighting something doesn’t automatically mean that it is correct, but that you are being selective.

Set aside time for students to respond to and act on your feedback

In the UK this has the lovely acronym DIRT (directed improvement and reflection time). If we don’t want our carefully thought through feedback to be ignored, DIRT is vital. However, it is unlikely in most contexts that you will have sufficient class time for students to sit and re-draft the whole pieces of work in class. Again, be selective.

So, if you have just marked one paragraph, students could work on that one paragraph in class, and then look at the rest at home. Or, if you have just marked errors with articles, you could write a selection of errors on the board for the class to correct, and then ask students to correct just one paragraph of their own work in class. Or if they have asked you about a particular section, give them time to work on rewriting that section in class, in response to your feedback.

Once students are familiar with the DIRT technique, you can write DIRT activities on the bottom of their written work. For example, ‘Find at least three sentences where you have used ‘and’ and ‘but’ and change them to use more complex linkers’ or ‘rewrite paragraph 3 and make sure that the tenses are used correctly.’

Extensive feedback that students do nothing with is, quite frankly, a complete waste of everyone’s time, so why not experiment with some of these ideas?


*Of course, feedback is not only about pointing out what could be better, and it is also important to point out what went well.

You can find another post on written feedback here:





Filed under classroom ideas, Correction, Uncategorized, Writing

You’ve got to have a dream: a free downloadable lesson

Photo Credit: Arya Ziai via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Arya Ziai via Compfight cc

A free downloadable lesson, based around a Russian advertising video for shampoo. Despite what is aims to sell, the video is actually quite inspiring, with the story of a girl who succeeds against the odds through pure grit and determination. Students start by watching the video and trying to guess what it is trying to advertise (so don’t tell them!). They then try to reconstruct the story in pairs, watching the video again to check their ideas.  The lesson then goes on to focus on a range of linkers used to give reasons or results, make contrasts and show when something happened.  Students then work with some vocabulary to describe personality, and then put it all together by writing the story of the video, using the linkers and the vocabulary where appropriate. Finally, there are some quotes about success for them to discuss.

The lesson would be suitable from B1 upwards.

Download lesson plan PDF here:  ELT Resourceful – You’ve got to have a dream



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

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

Taking a genre approach towards IELTS writing part 2: Organising Task 2

Photo Credit: Paco CT via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Paco CT via Compfight cc

In a previous post I took a look at some ideas for using a genre approach to help students with IELTS writing, Task 1. In this post, I’d like to look at some ideas for Task 2, the essay. This is obviously equally applicable to anyone with students who need to write semi-academic opinion essays.

Taking a genre approach means looking at the key features of a particular genre, and helping to raise students’ awareness of these features, and thus their ability to reproduce them.

Useful headings to consider are:

Content or communicative purpose- Layout- Organisation- Grammatical structures- Lexis/formulae

Broadly speaking, all the tasks in IELTS Part 2 have the same communicative purpose- to express your opinions on a topic of general interest. The layout will also be the same, with an introduction, paragraphs for each key idea and a conclusion.

However, the organisation will vary depending on the specific type of question. It’s really worth familiarising your students with the different types of question and how to approach them.

There are essentially three different types of questions in IELTS

1 Presenting your argument: Often phrased ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree.’

2 Balanced argument: Often phrased ‘Some people think…Others think…Discuss both these views and give your own opinion.’ Or ‘Discuss the advantages and disadvantages….and give your own opinion’

3 Problem/cause and solution: Phrasing varies, but could be ‘What do you think are the causes of these problems and what measure could be taken to solve them?’

Each of these should probably be organised slightly differently. In the first type, I’d suggest a good way of organising it could be:

  1. Introduction
  2. State your opinion
  3. A paragraph for each main point you want to make.
  4. Conclusion

For the second type, you need to be less upfront about your opinion, so:

  1. Introduction
  2. Arguments in favour
  3. Arguments against (or vice versa)
  4. Your opinion
  5. Conclusion

And for problem/solution:

  1. Introduction
  2. Problems
  3. Solutions
  4. Conclusion: summary of the situation and your opinion.

Students need to be very confident about these different types and how to organise them so, rather than writing lots of essays, at least to start with, I’d suggest looking at lots of questions (and model answers).

Some possible activities once students are familiar with the three main types:

1. Look at IELTS questions (there are lots of past questions, or close facsimiles, online) and decide if they are type 1,2 or 3.

2. Take an IELTS question that is a particular type and ask students to rewrite it to make it another type.

3. Give students a model answer, and ask them to guess what the original question was.

4. Give out a model answer and get students to identify the different sections.

5. Cut up a model answer and get students to put the paragraphs in the right order (obviously this works on discourse skills as well)

6. Rewrite a model answer so that there is no paragraphing and ask them to divide it into paragraphs.

7. Rewrite a model answer so that the organisation doesn’t flow anymore, and ask students to identify the problem with it.

8. Ask students to pick out the key idea in each paragraph of a model answer.

In some of these activities we started to look at the internal organisation of the paragraphs by getting students to pick out the key idea. One way of helping students to organise a paragraph is by looking at topic sentences. These are a bit of a blunt tool, because in reality, it isn’t always as simple as any rules we can give them. However, while it may be oversimplified, the recipe  of topic sentence, supporting ideas and examples isn’t a bad start for many students.

You can practice this by:

  1. Getting students to identify the topic sentence, sporting ideas and examples in a model answer.
  2. Giving them the topic sentences for each paragraph and asking them to add supporting ideas and examples.
  3. Removing the topic sentences from a model answer, and asking them to write what they think they were from looking at the further ideas and examples.

As with the post on IELTS Task 1, it’s worth putting in some specific practice on writing a good introduction. Careful analysis of the question will help, as we’ve seen, with organising the essay, but it should also help students to know how to start their essay.

Let’s take an example from IELTS Foundation. A good place to start is always by getting students to underline the key words:

‘People will never be willing to make the dramatic lifestyle changes needed to control climate change. For this reason, governments must force people to do so.’

To what extent do you agree or disagree?

A good introduction should explain what they understand by the question, and might give a little background information. So identifying the key words will help with pulling out what the main idea is.

Then you could ask students to choose the best introduction from a selection. Here are the choices from IELTS Foundation:

1 I think that it is very important that we should all look after our planet. After all, it is the only one we have. There are lots of small actions that we can all take such as switching off computers and televisions, rather than leaving them on standby or walking short distances rather than going in the car.

2 Nowadays, most people are aware of the threat of climate change and are willing to make small changes to the way they live. However, for the majority of people this does not include such things as giving up their car or giving up flying abroad.

3 Governments must force people to make changes or the problem of climate change will never be solved. If necessary, people who continue to pollute the planet should be sent  to prison.

[The answer is 2, because it simply summarises the background situation, and students could then go on to discuss if and whether people should be forced to do these things]

Variations on this activity could include:

1 Giving a question and asking students to just write an introduction as a warmer or change of pace activity.

2 Asking students to compare these introductions in small groups and choose the best one, or make changes together to improve what they have written.

Most students seem to feel that the best way to prepare for IELTS writing is to write lots and lots of essays. However, very often there is no significant improvement from one essay to the next. Students also get very caught up in the accuracy of the language being used, when there are still some serious structural defects. Language is very important as well, and I think there’s another post in that, but getting the structure right can also make a huge difference.


Filed under IELTS, Writing

Taking a genre approach towards IELTS writing (Part 1)

Photo Credit: AlaskaTeacher via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: AlaskaTeacher via Compfight cc

In a previous post, I looked at how a genre approach could help students who need to produce a specific type of writing. IELTS is a perfect example of this, and in this post, and the next one, I want to look in more detail at ideas for helping students to become familiar with the genres required for the IELTS Writing Test.

At first, the IELTS Writing Test (whether as a teacher or student) can seem rather intimidating. Many people are not particularly familiar with the kinds of texts required, and students are penalised for not producing exactly the right kind of text.

However, as a teacher of General English we ask our students to produce many different genres. For example:

  • Thank you letter
  • Letter of complaint
  • Narrative
  • Description
  • Biography
  • Form filling
  • Short message
  • Email to a friend
  • Postcard
  • Letter of application
  • Instructions
  • Report
  • Summary
  • Poem
  • Anecdote
  • Magazine article
  • Newsletter
  • Essay

In contrast, IELTS requires much less:

Part 1: Describing data

  • Graphs and charts
  • Process
  • Map

Part 2: Essay

  • Argument
  • Balanced opinion
  • Problem-solution

In addition, although I have separated out the different kinds of tasks in each part of the Writing Test, they do in fact have a lot in common. Learning what the features are of these different genres is quite manageable and, while it won’t solve problems like not having an opinion on the topic in Part 2, it will go a long way towards helping students produce a decent answer.

The features of a particular genre can be grouped under the following headings:

Content or communicative purpose



Grammatical structures


So, looking at the most typical IELTS Task, describing a graph, chart or table, we could say:

Communicative purpose

  • Summarise information  (not to give your opinion about it)


  • Should use paragraphs
  • About 150 words


  • Introduction which rewords the rubric to summarise what is shown.
  • Clear overview
  • Identifying key features- not every little detail
  • Logical grouping of information

Grammatical structures

  • Comparing and contrasting
  • Describing changes over time


  • Rise, fall, plummet etc.

Once you’ve identified the key features, you can start to devise activities to work on each of them.

Rewording the rubric

This comes under organisation, so we aren’t starting at the top,  but it is the first thing the student needs to be able to do.  Students who ‘lift’ phrases from the rubric will be penalised, so it needs to become second nature to paraphrase.

You can start by doing this together on the board, eliciting different words and phrases for the underlined sections. For example:

‘The table below gives information about changes in modes of travel in England between 1985 and 2000

Don’t forget that you can change the sentence structure too, so ‘changes’ could become ‘how…have changed’. This is particularly useful if students can’t think of a synonym. Once students have got the idea, and a few useful phrases up their sleeves, this can become a regular warmer, with a competition to see how many appropriate paraphrases they can produce in a time limit. E.g.

The table illustrates how methods of transport in England changed between 1985 and 2000.

In this table we can see the changes in how people in England travelled between the years 1985 and 2000.

This table shows changes in modes of transport in England over a 15 year period, from 1985- 2000.

Summarising information/identifying key features

This is probably the biggest challenge of Part 1, and it takes lots of practice.  Depending on their educational background, students may not be very used to interpreting graphs and charts, so you need to try and familiarise them with how they work. A good way to do this is to start off by getting students to make their own, based on information about themselves or the class. In this way they will really understand the data, making it easier for them to identify the most important features.

Next, you could try giving students model answers without the graph or table, and ask them to draw it based on the answer. They can then compare it with the original.

There is usually some kind of contrast in these types of questions-e.g. some sales fell while others grew, so train your students to look for similarities and differences, and any particularly striking contrasts.

One way to practise this is to take a kind of jigsaw approach. Divide students into pairs and ask A to look for similarities between the pieces of data and B to look for differences. They can then share information and decide together on the most relevant pieces of information to include.

Giving a clear overview

This is related to identifying key information, but requires students to summarise the main point(s). It is really important that they are able to do this, though it doesn’t really matter if they give the overview at the beginning, as part of the introduction, or at the end, as a conclusion.

Show students a chart of graph with three possible overviews and ask them to decide which one is best, and why. As they become more familiar with this task, they can write their own choice of three and swap with other students to decide on the best overviews.

Using paragraphs/logical grouping

Once students have identified the key features, they need to decide how to group them.  There are different ways of doing this, depending on the information. For example, they might choose to organise it from smallest to biggest (though still not describing every little detail), or first look at similarities and then differences.

Again, model answers can be very helpful. Try asking students to decide how they would organise their answer to a question, and then compare their ideas with the model answer.

Language focus

Students are very often asked to compare and contrast in these tasks, so a good grasp of the kind of language they need to do this is really helpful. ( Incidentally, it’s also really useful for the other IELTS tests, especially Speaking) This can be achieved through work on formulae (e.g. In contrast, we can see that..) , comparative and superlative structures and linkers such as whereas, while, however.

They might also be used to describe changes over time, which also involves comparing and contrasting, but will need more complex use of tenses (not just present simple).

An excellent resource for typical language can be found on Alex Case’s website

Try using model answers for students to find examples of comparing and contrasting (or any other suitable language focus). Then ask them to look back at a Part 1 task they have written and ask them to improve it by adding similar language.

Essentially, this approach involves breaking down the component parts of the IELTS genres and practising them separately, rather than simply writing practice paper after practice paper. Of course, you can then put it all together and do some practice papers as well.

In my next post, I’ll look at some more ideas for developing familiarity with the features of Part 2 type writing tasks.


Filed under IELTS, Writing

Responding to students’ writing

Photo Credit: cabbit via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: cabbit via Compfight cc

I have called this post responding to writing, rather than error correction on writing, as I believe that there is a lot more to responding to written work than simply correcting errors.

To begin with, it is very important to respond to the content of the writing as well as the form. Otherwise we risk being like this teacher:

By Jon Marks, as featured in ETp

By Jon Marks, as featured in ETp

When we assess a piece of writing there are various questions we could ask:

  • Is the content interesting and/or appropriate to the task?
  • Is there a clear sense of audience (who the writer is writing to or for) and is this reflected in the language chosen?
  • Are the ideas well organised? Is there a sense of ‘flow’?
  • Does the writer use paragraphs and connectives well to help get their message across?
  • Does the writer use a good range of vocabulary in an appropriate and flexible way?
  • Can the writer structure sentences accurately, and with variety and flexibility?
  • Is spelling and punctuation accurate, adding to clarity?

It is, I think, important that we look at the questions further up the list, as well as picking out discrete errors with word choice, agreement, spelling and so on. Equally, it is important that learners are thinking about all of these areas as they write and rewrite.

Yet most feedback from teachers still tends to focus on error correction. Why? Could it be that it is actually a lot easier for teachers to give feedback in this way?

When students give peer feedback on each other’s work there is also a strong tendency to concentrate on discrete items, such as grammar and spelling, rather than looking at the whole. I suspect that this is both because it is easier, and because this is what has been modelled time and time again by teachers.

In fact, some would argue that focusing on these discrete items (by teachers or students) is not only just part of the whole picture, but may even be pretty much a waste of time. Truscott famously argued that ‘grammar correction has no place in writing courses and should be abandoned’

Of course, other academics, such as   Ferris (2006)  disagree, but it is true to say that no-one (as far as I know) has yet come up with any hard evidence that grammar correction makes any dramatic difference. This post by Jeff McQuillan, on The Backseat Linguist reviews several studies which purported to show the positive impact of correction and concludes that, considering the huge amount of time and effort expended, the difference made was not really very significant. McQuillan also cites a study showing (no surprise here) that extensive reading had a much more noticeable beneficial effect.

Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with using a correction code to mark work from time to time. It can be a helpful way of focusing on accuracy, and perhaps has the added benefit of encouraging learners to proof-read their work more carefully.

However, I also think it shouldn’t become the default position when responding to students’ work.

In some very interesting comments on my post about process writing, Simon Marshall and Brian Morrison (@ButeBob) make alternative suggestions:

  • Using the Microsoft comments function to rewrite a small section of the text in a more fluent and/or appropriate way.
  • Focusing on what is successful about the writing- such as more complex or sophisticated language.
  • Pushing/encouraging students to try and make ‘safe’ language a little more sophisticated.

To these I would add:

  • Where possible, conferencing with students about their writing, rather than (or as well as) giving written feedback. This makes it easier (and actually less time consuming) to explain why something is wrong and what could be used instead.
  • If conferencing isn’t possible, try using the comments function not to reformulate, but to provide metalinguistic comments- explaining as you would face to face. You are unlikely to have time to do this in detail for all your students,  but even selecting a few key aspects to comment on could be very helpful.
  • Reformulating (as Simon suggests), rather than correcting. As well as using the comments box, you could reformulate a certain section of each essay, such as the introduction in an IELTS Part 1 essay. Or you could choose an essay (perhaps from a previous group, and anonymous) and rewrite the whole thing, asking students to then make comparisons between the two versions.
  • Deciding (perhaps with the students) whether to focus on paragraphing, linking, vocabulary, grammar, accuracy, range etc,  rather than trying to cover everything.
  • Correcting grammar mistakes or using a correction code, but choosing to focus on just ONE area (such as articles). This should help to make the point more salient, and thus students should notice and retain more.
  • Using models to help students learn about the different features of different genres, so that they can start to use them themselves (this fits in with McQuillan’s point about extensive reading)

And finally, bear in mind that in all likelihood, different approaches and methods will suit different learners, so it may be a good idea to provide a variety of ways of responding and correcting.


Filed under Writing