Telephone Voice Mail Messages

Many new immigrants answer the phone in their own language. A Korean might answer, “Yabusayo?” Chinese might answer, “Wei?” Their thinking may be that most people who call them speak their language and those who don’t will understand they are simply answering in their own language.

English speakers, however, may be as likely to assume Yabusayo is the name of the restaurant. Wei may be assumed to be the last name of the person who has just answered.

I’ve always made a case for “hello” being a fairly universally understood telephone greeting. 

Even if your students do not plan to answer the phone in English or ever record a voice mail message in English, it is worth practicing voice mail messages to increase familiarity. Feel free to click on the voicemail exercise below to view it large on your computer and download it. You can also download the audio that follows to play on your computer for a little listening exercise.

Murder in the Parking Garage

English language learners know they need to learn the soft skills required to respond to news about a death. The Widow jigsaw in Contemporary Jigsaws 1 and 2 works as an effective springboard for this topic. While it focuses on the passive voice, there’s lots of scope for other grammar points. Here’s a suggestion of some follow up activities. Start with explaining the differences between the following and you will have students full attention:

• He died.

• He is dying.

• He is dead.

• He was dead.

• He was killed.

• She is a widow.

• She was widowed.

Imagine how confusing that could be for beginner or intermediate ESL students!

This exercise about a murder practices to die and to kill. Click on the image below to view it large and print it for use in your own classroom. Let me know how it works. 

Climate Change Jigsaw for Higher Levels

When choosing a jigsaw that is appropriate for the level of your class, it’s important to remember that jigsaws are not passive reading exercises. These four skills lessons require the students to not only read their part, but to teach it to their classmates. Pronunciation and listening skills are key. 

Unlike with beginner classes, in mid or upper intermediate or advanced ESL/ EFL classes, you have the option of preteaching the vocabulary or assigning it to your students to look up and define with English only dictionaries.

By popular demand, here below is a jigsaw for higher level secondary school or adult English language learners on climate change. Click on the text below to get a complimentary PDF of the entire lesson, including questions and a cloze exercise.

If you are uncertain how to conduct a jigsaw lesson, click here

If this lesson is too difficult for your class, you can find an Earth Day jigsaw in Callan’s Holiday Jigsaws 2 or Callan’s American Holiday Jigsaws 2 or an environmental jigsaw on shopping habits in Callan’s Contemporary Jigsaws 2 which may be more appropriate for your level.

Fieldtrip to the Dentist

My dentist Dr. Marcy Schwartzman was kind enough to allow a fieldtrip to her dental clinic for my ESL students, many of whom had never been to a dentist in their lives.

Students were divided into small groups and rotated between three stations, one involving a visit with the hygienist and one with my dentist.

In the hygienist’s office, students learned the correct way to brush and floss. Flossing was new to many of them. Others had been told by dentists in their home country not to use floss because it causes gums to bleed. The hygienist enjoyed the opportunity to correct misinformation.

At the dentist’s station, students were able to see their teeth on a TV screen with the help of a pen light camera. Many had never had their teeth cleaned and had years’ accumulation of coffee and tea stains. Most found out to their great relief that their teeth were nevertheless cavity-free! (The dentist says a diet lower in processed foods may play a role.)

I’m under no illusion that my dental field trip will stem the tide of dental tourism, but many students’ eyes were opened to a whole area of health care to which they had never been exposed.

My question cards about teeth review vocabulary such as: braces, cavity, crown, dental floss, dentures, filling, gums, hygienist, molar, wisdom teeth and more. If you click on the image below, both cards will pop up. You are welcome to download, cut up, and use them in your own classroom. Cards can be put into a bag and pulled out randomly by teams or used in a variety of other review games.

Intermediate: Collective Nouns for Animals

I’ve taken a moment to make a test of English for you, the ESL or EFL teacher, for fun! Let’s see how well you do! Simply choose the correct collective noun. 

How well did you do? Raise your hand. 6/6? 5/6?  Oh dear. Not that well? What level would you call that exercise? High advanced? Do you think most native speakers would pass? If you ever needed proof that English was difficult for non-native speakers, that test is it. Realistically, these are words our students can google if they ever find themselves needing to use them.

There are, however, numerous more common collective nouns for animals students may need to know. I’ve made a worksheet for intermediate students to practice them, which you are welcome to download for use in your own classroom. Click on the image to view it large on your computer. Have fun!

Writing About Household Repairs

I’m a big fan of using picture dictionaries to teach ESL, particularly to beginner and intermediate levels. Oxford Picture Dictionary, Heinle, Word By Word, I use them all. While they are all excellent and worth purchasing, I prefer the illustrations in the Oxford Picture Dictionary. Oxford also has different levels of picture dictionaries. 

When teaching a Housing unit with related vocabulary and tasks, I particularly like the Basic Oxford Picture Dictionary’s section on Household Problems. I scanned page 33 to give you a sample.  The pictures are very clear and most common household problems are depicted.

I made a worksheet for a beginner class to accompany this page for writing practice. Each sentence states a household problem or repair needed and whom to call for help. I find pattern practice is an effective way to teach writing to beginner level students. Feel free to click on the image below to view it large on your computer and print it out for use with your own class.

Soft Skills: Bargaining

Bargaining (or haggling) takes place all over the world. North Americans often think of it as restricted to places like flea markets or garage sales, when in fact bargaining takes place in a wide variety of business transactions. Think of the negotiation involved in the purchase of expensive items, such as cars or real estate.

One of the challenges in adjusting to a new culture is cracking the cultural code on when and how, or often how soon, to bargain. This topic is rife with opportunities to teach soft skills, the skills beyond language that are so needed for successful social interactions in a culture.

Students from other cultures often overlook the importance in North America of the brief exchange of pleasantries before launching into negotiations. This kind of language exchange is referred to as the phatic function. Phatic language doesn’t really convey any information. Its function is social. In a garage sale setting, it might involve talking about the weather. In a more hectic setting, it might be reduced simply to saying “hi”, but without it, in North America, the transaction is less likely to satisfy both parties and may result in negative first impressions.

Another notable difference between North America and some other countries seems to be in the way North Americans will often start the “creating value” stage of the transaction. Take a look at this interaction from the excellent video Linc 2:19 Buying a Used Bicycle:

Notice how Tasha begins the creating value stage of the transaction by complimenting Luigi on the bike. Over the years, I’ve had so many students tell me how different this is from their own cultures where a criticism of the item would more likely be the way to start negotiations.

Staging a garage sale in your classroom is a great way to practice the idioms related to haggling as well as important soft skills.

Smiling Man and Woman at Yard Sale

This dialog sheet for conversation practice uses a variety of common bargaining idioms. You are welcome to download this free handout for use in your own classroom. Clicking on the image below will enable you to view the PDF large on your screen and then print it out.

Low Beginner Personal Info Game

Anyone who teaches very low beginner ESL knows you spend a lot of time going over basic personal information questions and answers, often trying to come up with yet another new way to approach the same old material. 

A competitive game can shake things up and bring some excitement to what amounts to study of the exact same material. Add play money to the game and suddenly, you find students actually paying close attention to the grammar of their sentences, for what may seem like the first time. 

Here below is a simple game I use with play money that you are welcome to download. It’s more fun if you start with the questions covered, showing only the dollar amounts.

Divide your class into two or three groups. Individuals choose a dollar amount to try for. Then you reveal the question. Correct answers get the play money for the group. If the answer is wrong, another group can try to steal that question. 

Click on this image to view the game large on your computer and/or download it for use in your own class. Enjoy!

Teaching Family Vocabulary

Were you aware that not all languages use the same one word for father’s sister and mother’s sister the way English uses aunt? Likewise, many languages have different words for the grandmother from your father’s side and the grandmother from your mother’s side. Family vocabulary is one of the few ways in which learning English is comparatively simple!

The Family jigsaw at the beginning of Callan’s Thematic Jigsaws 1 and 2 can be used as a basic review of family words and springboard to further study in an intermediate class or as a final review activity for a family unit in a beginner class.

This supplementary activity below works well in a beginner level family unit as a review of family words before attempting the jigsaw. It’s a partner info gap exercise in which each partner has a set of family words and a grid upon which to place the words in positions indicated by their partner.  (View it by clicking on the image below.)

Click on the image above to download the full exercise including instructions.

Expanding on “Where Do You Live?

Once students have moved past the absolute beginner stage, it’s fun to move beyond the basic “Where do you live?” question and get really specific. Where in the world do you live? Where are you now?

You could add to this vocabulary list below, depending on the level of your students, if you are working with kids, for example, and want to give coordinates for space ships, such as Milky Way Galaxy and Earth. Teenagers may want to add GPS coordinates. But here are the basic words:




State or Province







So, if I were in the classroom now with my students, I could say, for example, that I am in the World, in the continent of North America, in the country of Canada, in the province of British Columbia, in the city of Vancouver, in the neighbourhood of Fairview, at 555  West 12th Ave. in Callan’s ESL School in room number 8, on the left side of the room in my chair. 

Students can take turns giving their location as above and also saying where they live.

Below is a free handout I made to practice answering the question “Where are you now?” and “Where do you live” in writing. Following it is a speaking exercise from Callan’s Conversation Surveys that I follow it up with, for speaking practice. You are welcome to download both worksheets and copy for your classroom use. 

This handout below from Callan’s Conversation Surveys is great for teaching students how to give the location of their home more specifically than just a street address. 

Go and Went Grammar Errors

Anyone who has taught grammar in a beginner level ESL or EFL class knows the speed and accuracy with which students complete grammar worksheets is only weakly correlated with their ability to use the grammatical structure in their own speech.

Take the verb “to go” in a beginner class. No matter how many times students complete worksheets where they determine whether to write go or went, when they speak, they frequently forget to use “went” when speaking about past events. This might have to do with what Stephen Krashen called the order of acquisition. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that verbs in the students’ first language may not change form in different tenses.

I think the main reason is we generally use our ears to tell us when something is wrong, not our reasoning minds. It has to sound wrong before students will correct themselves. It’s hard for something to sound wrong when students at the beginner and lower intermediate level have been exposed to so little comprehensible input in the target language.

Despite this understanding, it can be frustrating to observe these errors right after having taught the structure and had students practice it repeatedly in worksheets. Should you interrupt and correct? How many times? I think classroom signs can be helpful for this correction.

I use this sign for GO and WENT when teaching the past tense:

I put it up temporarily on the board when I’ve asked students to talk about where they went yesterday or last weekend. Each time they use “go” when “went” is required, I tap on the sign. Pretty soon, I have the whole class calling out “went”. They are hearing it, too now, and are starting to correct themselves.

Make Canada Study Come Alive

Making your study of Canada for beginner and intermediate ESL come alive is easy with the use of pictures, video and songs. Free Canada calendars depict wheat fields, fishing villages, salmon, Douglas Fir trees, and igloos that perfectly illustrate aspects of the jigsaws in Callan’s Beginner Canada Jigsaws or Callan’s New Canada Jigsaws. I also like to use the video Destination Canada, found in most tourist shops. I show the section of the video related to a given province or territory, either with the sound off and my own narration for lower levels or with the sound on for higher levels. 

The song Canada Is, sung by Roger Whittaker, works as a great reinforcement of what students have learned in a Canada unit. Students will recognize that the song would not make a lot of sense to them before they studied Canada in your class, helping fuel a sense of accomplishment. The song’s references to freedom of thought and religion and lack of racism also make for good discussion topics.

I’ve added a free photocopiable handout with a cloze passage for the song to this post. You can find the song on YouTube with the link on the handout. You are welcome to use in your own classroom. Click on either image below to view it large on your computer and/ or download it. Let me know how it works!

What it Means to be Canadian

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has a habit of defining who we are as a country by referring to our highest values. During the pandemic as well as the fires in Fort McMurray, he said, “I really do want to highlight that Canada is a country where we look out for our neighbours and we are there for each other in difficult times. “

Nothing better exemplifies Trudeau’s words than the actions of a group of Syrian refugees in Calgary. Such a short time in Canada themselves, these refugees donated what little money they could for the victims of Fort McMurray, understanding better than most others what they were going through. Already giving back to Canada, they are proving to be the kind of people we need in our country, on the road to becoming exemplary citizens.

If you teach a LINC 5 or higher, this article from the Calgary Herald might be a great reading exercise for your class:

From the article: 

“We understand what they’re feeling. When you lose everything, you have to start from zero. You lose your memories, your items. It’s not easy. It’s something very sad. We can totally understand their feeling,” Khanchet said.

“We are very thankful to the Canadian people and we want to be a part of this society. We will do our best to be a good part of this society. By doing that, maybe we can return a little bit of the great job that Canadian people did for us.”

Need a tissue? 

Intermediate Reading Lesson on Hoarding

The popularity of reality television shows on hoarding indicates people are fascinated (or horrified?) by hoarding. Your students may find this intermediate level reading lesson interesting. The questions require learners to interpret information by making inferences and require them to extend their literal comprehension and form opinions and new ideas from the information in the text. An adverb exercise is included.

Download the full lesson by clicking on any of the images below and let me know how it works with your students. Please let me know if any changes are required. 

The vocabulary is isolated at the top of the reading exercise. Lines are numbered to enable impromptu skimming and scanning exercises. 

True or false questions and an adverb exercise follow.

Written questions extend to asking opinions. Having students create a graphic organizer such as a mind map to brainstorm possible solutions could be an effective follow up activity.

Geography Vocabulary Speaking Game

When studying about Canada (or America, Australia, etc.) with a beginner class, students need to know some basic geography words. Here are nine essential simple geography words: 

  • mountain
  • hills
  • prairie
  • ocean
  • lake
  • river
  • island
  • valley
  • forest

Download this set of matching cards below for your students to practice this geography vocabulary by clicking any of the images below. Each photograph featured is in the public domain under a CC0 licence so can be copied. 

Scroll below for a fun speaking game to practice the vocabulary. 

Geography Vocabulary Speaking Game

This speaking game has always been a hit with my students.

Show students the geography image cards and ask them, “Which one of these is most like you?” Are you a mountain? A river? A prairie?

Explain (using vocabulary suitable for your class’ level) that a person who identifies with a mountain is very dramatic and extroverted. He or she is known by everyone and has a voice that projects well. My experience is that after this first explanation, students understand and anticipate easily which human characteristics are identified with each geographical feature and you can usually elicit the characteristics with a bit of prompting.

Here are my associations: The person who identifies with the ocean has dramatic emotional variability but may not be the centre of attention the way the mountain is. The person who identifies with a hill has some ups and downs, but is less dramatic than the mountain and ocean. The person who identifies with the prairie is very open and sunny with no real mood swings. The person who identifies with a lake tends to be calm and maybe romantic. The person who identifies with a river never stops moving. The person who identifies with an island tends to be a loner. The person who identifies with the valley tends to be depressed. The person who identifies with the forest is an introvert who is not easily understood.

First ask students to write down which geographical feature they identify with and to think about why. Ask the class to guess each student’s choice before students share their own choice and explain their reasons. This game makes for a fun discussion and getting to know you exercise. 

Quite surprisingly, each year, my classes have identified the same geographical feature for me—one I actually had not thought of for myself—calling out, “You’re a river!”

This vocabulary game is useful for Callan’s Beginner Canada Jigsaws and Callan’s New Canada Jigsaws:

Teaching the Alphabet: Literacy 101

Adult literacy students range from pre-literate to non-literate to semi-literate to those from non-Roman alphabets. Some do not know how to hold a pencil. I’ve had students with no idea when their birthday was because they came from cultures where no one knew dates or years. Some students from non-Roman alphabets may know the names of all the letters of the alphabet but have little knowledge of the sounds of any letters. Trouble writing on the line, confusion between upper and lower case, and some letters backwards or reversed are all clues that a student may fit in this category of students. 

Just as in all lower level classes, because literacy students do not yet know the spelling and grammatical conventions of English and are learning them from you, it is very important to be consistent in your use of upper and lower case in board work.

When you assign alphabet practice for homework (or classwork), take time to go over each student’s work in class with a coloured pen. I suspect the reason many teachers don’t do this is because they don’t want to talk down to adult students or to place too much emphasis on something they deem an elementary school skill. The fact is if you have true literacy students, they put a lot of effort into an exercise like this. Tasks requiring fine motor skills take time to learn. Taking time to check their work acknowledges this effort and shows that you deem it important. Your students will correspondingly value the exercise more. I go over each letter and take time to point out when a letter is beautifully formed. I also point out when the proportions are not quite right.

Here are some tips for teaching the alphabet. At the bottom, you’ll find some alphabet sheets free for you to download and use in your own class. 

     1.  Start by introducing letters that have similar shapes, for example c, e, and o or l, i, t.  

     2.  Discriminate between shapes.  Focus the attention of students on differences. Don’t assume they already see them. Write the lower case alphabet on the board, naming each letter as it is written and repeat that several times.

     3.  Use alphabet hand-outs that have students trace over the letters and then write them themselves several times on the line. 

     4.  Name letters and have students circle them on a hand-out.

     5.  Demonstrate stroke order on the board, insisting that students use the correct stroke order. 

     6.  Teach upper case.  Use hand-outs with exercises asking students to match upper and lower case.  At this point, you might wish to draw students attention to the typewritten and handwritten lower case a, which often confuses students.

     7.  Play a concentration game with students matching upper and lower case letters.

     8.  Teach students when to use capital letters. 

     9.  Move on to sounds after students have fully memorized the names of letters. 

Check out Callan’s Beginner Essentials, which moves systematically through the sounds of the alphabet, using a scaffolding approach to build on knowledge. The book is “sanitized for your protection” in that there are no difficult to depict words or words students would be unlikely to encounter. Virtually every word is 6 letters or less and follows the spelling conventions of English. There will be plenty of time later for students to get discouraged by all the exceptions to the rule!

Click on the page below to download some alphabet practice pages for your own use. 

Soft-Skill: Correcting Name Pronunciation

Of course it is important as teachers to learn to pronounce our students’ names correctly. It is also important to empower students to advocate for the correct pronunciation of their own names. We teach beginner and intermediate ESL students name introductions  but do we teach them how to politely correct people who mispronounce their names? 

Watch Hasan Minhaj as he teaches Ellen Degeneres how to pronounce his name  and discusses the, er, ethnocentrism involved in which names we make an effort to learn to pronounce and which we give up on:

Feel free to download this simple practice below for use in your own classroom by clicking on the image.

Check out another Introductions lesson here.

Page Directions for Low Beginner

I’ve created an interactive activity for low beginner ESL to practice page directions. Your class will run smoother if you can draw students’ attention to where the class is looking on the page you’re working on and make sure everyone is following. You’re welcome to download my materials to use in your classroom.

I let students take turns calling out different page directions and having their classmates move shapes at their desks to follow the instructions. This game can be played over and over until students feel very familiar with page directions.

First, students will need to learn vocabulary such as: up, down, left, right, in the middle, at the top, and in the corner

My activity uses the shapes circle, square, triangle and rectangle. You will need a set of shapes for each student (or each pair of students). Download them here.

First, you need to practice the vocabulary:

You can view it large on your computer and print it out here.

. Then, here are two worksheets for practicing the directions:

Vocab and page directions

You can download the activity here.