Teaching Vocabulary

Many sources suggest limiting teaching new vocabulary to under ten new words a day. Attaching a story or a context when you teach a word is more effective for student retention than simply teaching the meaning. The more times students encounter a word, the more easily they will remember it. Some sources suggest students need to use a new word about ten times before they will remember it. Cramming might work for imminent tests, but less so for long-term retention. To remember new words long-term, students need to review them a day, a week, and a month later.

I have students make word cards, with the English word on one side and the translation on the reverse. I punch a hole in the card and put it on a silver binder ring like below.

Students can review vocabulary on the bus or whenever they have time—maybe during a spare moment in class. Words can be added to the ring each day. Once students believe they won’t forget a word, I have them remove it from their ring.

Here below is a classroom poster to encourage students to develop the habit of reviewing new words multiple times. Click on the image below to download it for use in your own classroom.

Soft Skills: Who Picks up the Bill?

We often think of bargaining language as confined to situations like a garage sale or to the purchase of larger items like cars or homes. One of the most common negotiations most people will engage in at some point is who will pay the bill in a restaurant. Not only are there language and soft skills specific to this situation, many cultural assumptions are thrown into the mix. Countries, as well as the cultures within them, differ in their norms about who should pick up the tab and when. Learning the related idioms and other bargaining language but not cracking this cultural code and developing the soft skills to successfully navigate this interaction can lead to social awkwardness as exemplified in the story below. 

Adapted from Callan’s Contemporary Jigsaws 2, I have changed the story from a jigsaw to a simple intermediate reading. Read what happens below when Bo tries to pay for lunch. Click on the image to download the reading and questions that follow.

Bo had different cultural norms around paying the bill. In some countries, such as Australia or Guatemala, it is customary for diners to split the bill evenly. In others, such as Switzerland or Canada, diners pay only for what they have eaten. In perhaps most countries of the world, one person offers to pay. I’ve created a chart to list some of these differences below. Please let me know if there is anything I’ve missed or gotten wrong. Click on the chart to download it.

Finding out it is the norm for one person to pay is not where it ends, though. It’s unfortunately more complicated than that! Even in cultures where it is customary for diners to go dutch, one person might still offer to pay. How should you respond? In some cultures, such as in Vietnam or Iran, when your companion offers to pay, you should not argue and simply accept politely. In others, such as in China or Korea, you should argue and insist you will pay.

How many times should you offer to pay? In North America, just as with offering second helpings of food, it’s customary to offer once, follow up with an “Are you sure?” and then drop it. In other cultures, this might leave a bad impression, as if you made no real effort to pay! If you followed this North American custom with Chinese hosts, they might wonder why you didn’t try to shove the money in their pocket or say you were going to the washroom and discretely pay the server. 

So, how can you acquire the soft skills to successfully navigate these cultural differences without causing offence? Do you have to memorize the chart above?

How do you think the scenario with Bo would have played out if James and Ken had simply shared that when they go out for lunch with coworkers, they always “go dutch” and asked Bo about his customs? What might have happened if Bo, as the newcomer, had said something like, “I’m happy to pay if we are taking turns. What’s customary for you two?”

Perhaps the best soft skill to acquire is the habit of sharing openly about your traditions and politely offering others the opportunity to share about theirs. 

For teachers of beginner levels who wish they could find something on this topic for their own level, consider Callan’s Contemporary Jigsaws 1. The same story exists at a lower level in jigsaw format. For teachers of intermediate levels, the same story exists in a shorter jigsaw format in Callan’s Contemporary Jigsaws 2. Both books have a listening cloze that accompanies the story. 

Soft Skills: Cultural Differences in Gift Giving

One of the most important things we can do as ESL teachers is help our students crack the cultural code. Gift giving has a lot of unspoken rules which may seem inscrutable to newcomers. Unconvinced? See if you were aware of these cultural attitudes to gift giving in other cultures:

  • In Japan, red cards are associated with death notices.
  • In Saudi Arabia, perfume can only be given to a woman by another woman or a close relative. 
  • In Thailand and many other cultures, giving a knife signifies the intention to sever the relationship.
  • In China, giving a clock symbolizes death. 
  • In Egypt, giving flowers is confined to funerals and weddings only.
  • In Hindu culture, a gift made from leather or anything from a cow, which is considered sacred, would be inappropriate.
  • In Indonesia, giving food may signify that you feel the recipient’s hospitality is lacking. 
  • In some cultures, giving an umbrella is thought to bring misfortune. 
  • In some cultures, giving a gift to your boss is expected. 
  • Gifts of towels and handkerchiefs are associated with funerals in many cultures.
  • White flowers are associated with mourning in many cultures. 

So, what about here? Is it just the thought that counts or do we also have unspoken rules about which gifts are considered appropriate

Take a look at this picture below from Callan’s Holiday Jigsaws and Callan’s American Holiday Jigsaws. This mother does not look very happy about the gift she just received. Any idea why that might be? 

Some mothers don’t like to be reminded of their assumed role as the family maid and prefer instead a more personal gift. Others might be pleased. Gift giving is not an exact science. It is as important to understand the recipient as it is the culture.

Generally speaking, in North America, it isn’t considered appropriate to give a gift to your boss, as it may be perceived as an attempted bribe. Gifts of clothing and perfume are generally considered highly personal gifts only appropriate for people who are closely related or in a romantic relationship. However, clothing below the elbow or knee, such as gloves or socks or tights, is often acceptable from anyone. Less personal gifts, such as wine or stationery, are often considered appropriate for people with whom you have a professional relationship.

The following discussion worksheet on this soft skill of culturally sensitive gift giving includes a clock, a knife, an umbrella, clothing, and perfume as a springboard to discussion on cross cultural differences. Geared to mid-beginner to upper intermediate, the discussion can be used in a class on intercultural competence, or in a Christmas unit. or business English class. Click on the image below to download.

Regarding question #2, another teacher and I each received a sexy bra and underwear set from a student in different years. Hers was from a male student and mine from a female student.

Let me know how the activity works in your class.

Garage Sales and Thrift Stores

New immigrants may see something as they walk around their neighbourhoods that they don’t have in their home countries: garage sales. Likewise, they will likely come across thrift stores or flea markets in their neighbourhoods. 

A lesson on thrift stores, garage sales and flea markets could be incorporated into a lesson on community. It could also fit into a shopping unit or one on the environment. Buying second hand comes under Reduce in the 3 R’s (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle) of being environmentally friendly.

Attitudes toward second hand shopping have changed a lot in North America in the last 25 years and immigrants’ attitudes may differ. Unlike in some immigrant cultures where buying something second hand might be an embarrassing secret, North Americans will often brag about a money saving second hand deal

The following beginner reading exercise has questions on garage sales, flea markets and thrift stores. (Click on the image below to download. )

Teaching Food at Higher Levels

Just because your students have moved beyond learning the names of common fruit and vegetables does not mean they cannot get something out of a food unit.

I’ve copied a page on anti-cancer foods from New York Times Bestseller Food Your Miracle Medicine by Jean Carper, for non-commercial, educational purposes only. It discusses what you would eat if you were a newborn infant and could eat right the rest of your life to avoid cancer.  Click on the image of the book to download the reading.

The following worksheet asks students to fill in the foods from the article in the correct categories. It’s a challenging assignment to complete, because of the complex sentence structure in the reading. Click on the image below to download it. Let me know how it works in your classroom!

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Discussion of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms can make for an interesting conversation class for intermediate ESL or preparation for citizenship.

Students often assume freedom of expression is the right to say anything about any person or about the government. You can let them know about libel laws and Canada’s Hate Speech Laws. Unlike the United States, the Criminal Code of Canada prevents “hate propaganda”. Is this a good thing? Why do we have those laws?

Freedom of religion is not something that exists in all of our immigrant ESL students’ home countries. Falun Gong is an example of a religion banned in China. Should all religions be allowed?

The right to be free from discrimination is a right most immigrants appreciate. What it means in practice, however, is something that often surprises students. Does it mean if you are a landlord that you cannot decide which ethnicity of people you want to rent your apartment to? What about if you are running a business? Isn’t it up to you if you prefer to hire one gender over another for a specific position? 

The following worksheet can be used as a springboard for discussion on this topic. You are welcome to download and copy it for use with an intermediate ESL class. (Click on the image below.)

Task: Asking for Change

Here are some exercises for Canadian and American English language learners to prepare for the real world task of asking for change.

Start by making sentences used in asking for change. (Click on the image below to download this worksheet.)

Brainstorm with students what they may need change for: a washing machine, a parking meter, a bus, a shopping cart, a pay phone and a vending machine are common answers.

Here is the Canadian worksheet with the answer YES. (Click on it to view it large on your computer and download it.) 

Click on the flag for the American version of the worksheet with the answer YES.  

Here is the Canadian worksheet with the answer NO. Click on the image below. 

Click on the flag for the American version of the worksheet with the answer NO.  

Once students have mastered these dialogues in class, they may be ready to leave the classroom and practice asking for change in the real world. I take students to a gas station convenience store. I approach the clerks first to ask if they are willing to assist in the activity. I assure them we will move aside if customers enter. I provide lots of change for the clerks, so they are not required to give away change. I exchange my coins for the clerk’s bills and hand them to the students. 

Students often tell me that their hearts are racing before they head up to the counter. What a feeling of success when they return with correct change! For many of them, it’s the first time they have used English in a real life setting to accomplish a task. It’s a memorable activity that brings the classroom study into a practical, useful context.

Soft Skills: Small Talk About the Weather

I’ve had numerous students tell me they’ve been turned down after job interviews because they lacked local experience. If having worked locally were a prerequisite for the job, would their resumés not have precluded them from even getting the interview? More likely the experience referred to is related not to quantifiable hard skills or experience but rather to more intangible soft skills that enable a person to “fit in”, such as the ability to engage in small talk. 

Coffee shops are great places for field research on soft skills. What do baristas say to customers when they come into the shop? My own research suggests personal questions are not popular. The most popular topic by far is the weather, followed by a comment or compliment about something the customer is wearing or holding. Religion and politics don’t tend to find their way into small talk. 

Soft skills need to be part of the English language curriculum. Being able to talk about the weather is an essential skill and reading weather forecasts is a great start. The following intermediate ESL worksheet uses images from my favourite weather site, The Weather Nework. It that can be used as a spring board for creating weather conversations. You’re welcome to download it for use in your own class with your students by clicking on the image below. Check out http://www.theweathernetwork.com for more great resources. 

Reading on a Thrift Store Business Model

Thrift stores are becoming more popular with middle aged clothes shoppers. If you don’t want to wear yoga attire to work, thrift stores are some of the best sources for clothing made from a wider variety of fabrics.

Even if the environmental ethic of reducing consumption or the excitement of a rare find is difficult to convey to students, cultural differences in attitudes toward second hand shopping are a worthwhile topic to explore in the English language learning class. 

Attitudes towards second-hand purchases differ significantly across cultures and are worth making students aware of. For North Americans, finding something at a remarkably cheap price at a thrift store or garage sale can confer on the item a certain cachet, even bragging rights to the consumer. Ask your students if the same applies in their cultures and many may reveal such a purchase would be a source of shame.

While students will pick and choose the aspects of our culture they wish to adopt, part of our job as ESL, ELL or EFL teachers is to improve students’ bi-cultural fluency, thereby enhancing their soft skills

Here are two worksheets, one for beginner and one for intermediate, on a thrift store called Value Village. It’s part of the Savers chain. This is a company with a very successful business model even students uninterested in second-hand shopping usually find very interesting. A for-profit company, Savers gets its merchandise from and shares its profits with over 160 non-profit partners. 

Click on the image below to view the intermediate level reading exercise.

The beginner exercise covers the basics. Click on the image below to view it. 

Let me know how it goes!

Soft Skills: Top 12 Tips for Gift Giving in English Cultures

Cross cultural differences in gift giving pose challenges for immigrants and visitors with their unspoken rules of etiquette. Students can develop their soft skills by cracking this sometimes inscrutable cultural code with the help of this online true or false quiz. Or download the exercise that follows for use in a high beginner or intermediate classroom. The answers can be downloaded following the quiz. 

Answer TRUE or FALSE. Check your answers below. 

1. Chocolates are an appropriate gift for a boss or supervisor. TRUE or FALSE.

2. An expensive kitchen knife is an appropriate gift for a good friend. TRUE or FALSE.

3. Wine is an appropriate gift for neighbours. TRUE or FALSE.

4. A fancy bra is an appropriate gift for a coworker, provided the gift giver and recipient are both women. TRUE or FALSE.

5. A beautiful blouse is an appropriate gift for a female teacher. TRUE or FALSE.

6. A vacuum cleaner is an appropriate gift for a wife or mother. TRUE or FALSE.

7. White flowers are an appropriate gift to take to a dinner party. TRUE or FALSE.

8. A clock is an appropriate gift for a mother-in-law. TRUE or FALSE.

9. A cute stuffed animal is an appropriate gift for a female coworker. TRUE or FALSE.

10. A leather belt is an appropriate gift for a male relative. TRUE or FALSE.

11. A gift card for a favourite store is an appropriate gift for a friend or relative. TRUE or FALSE.

12. A beautiful umbrella is an appropriate gift for a female friend. TRUE or FALSE.

Click the image below to view or download the Gift Giving Quiz Answers.

You can also download a free two-page gift giving exercise for classroom use by clicking on the image below.

Let me know how it goes.

Soft Skills: Low Beginner Name Introductions

Here’s a speaking task for low beginner English language learners. I love tap sheets (see below). You could have students cut out the words and then arrange them into sentences, but you could also use it as is as a tap sheet, over and over and over and…..have you taught really low beginners? 

Break students into pairs. Hand out one sheet per pair. Have each student write their first name into one of the empty boxes on the sheet. Then have Partner A begin speaking and simultaneously, with a finger or the eraser side of a pencil, tapping on the words on the page to form the sentence in order:

“I’m (tap) [his name] (tap) [period] (tap). What’s (tap) your (tap) name (tap), [question mark] (tap)?” Partner B will tap, “My (tap) name (tap) is (tap) [name of student] (tap), [period] (tap). Nice (tap) to (tap) meet (tap) you (tap), [period].” The exercise ends with partner A’s sentence, “Nice to meet you, too.”

Students do not say the punctuation out loud, but they must tap on it. I’ve omitted the usual comma before “too” to make it easier. You may also notice I have replaced this font’s letter I with a serif I because students at this level often confuse lower case l with upper case I.

Click on the image below to download the tap sheet for use in your own class.  Do you love tap sheets as much as I do? 

You can follow up this introductions speaking task with an introductions writing task. Have students read and fill in the blanks, using a scaffolding approach until they are able to reproduce the entire dialogue.

Again, click on the image below to download it for use in your own class. 

Intermediate Level Personal Information

Filling in forms is one of the most common activities English language learning students have to do outside the classroom. It’s a mistake to assume once students reach the intermediate level they have fully mastered the language required for those tasks. 

Many of us like to start a new class with getting to know you activities. Here below is a worksheet students can complete in class or for homework. Click on the image below to download it for use in your own classroom. It is followed by a set of cards you can cut up and use for a mixer activity on the following day. 

Click on the image below to download your own copy. 

Photocopy onto card stock. Cut the sheet into cards. Give one card to each student. Ask students to congregate in the middle of the classroom. Put on some music. Students mingle around the room when the music is on. Stop the music randomly. When the music stops, each student must find the person closest and ask the question on his or her card. The other student answers and then asks the question on his or her card. Start the music again when it looks as though most, though perhaps not all, students have answered. Students must then swap cards and begin moving around. Repeat until everyone appears to have had a chance to talk with everyone else in the class and answer each question. 

Having Fun with New Canada Jigsaws (CLB 5-6)

Over 35 field testers from all across Canada field tested Callan’s New Canada Jigsaws. Here are a couple highlights of some of the fun field testers had. 

Field tester Marianne Akune in Richmond says her class “thoroughly enjoyed” the government unit. Well no wonder! This creative teacher turned one of the follow up exercises into a smart board activity:

” I used the text to create a SmartBoard activity.  I transposed each paragraph onto one page, and the students did a “click and drag” (or touch and drag) activity with it.”

Marianne Akune’s class

Field tester Tracey Curell in Winnipeg took the punctuation and capitalization out of the Folklorama paragraph writing exercise to see what her students could do.

“They loved the activity, and it also caused lots of discussion about how to do a group project when there are differences of opinions. (As you said there are a few ways you could put it together.)  I have attached a few samples of the end results for you,  so you can enjoy seeing that you created yet another successful activity! I can’t wait for the book!”

Here below is Tetiana’s LINC 6 class in Edmonton field testing the Alberta jigsaw. 

Here below is Tracey’s LINC 4-5 class in Winnipeg field testing the PEI unit. 

Here below is Smiljka’s CLB 4-5-6 class in Sudbury field testing the New Brunswick unit. 

Here below is Steven’s CLB 5-6 class in Saskatoon proving jigsaws can work even if you don’t have groups of four. 

Here below are five students from Marianne’s class in Richmond field testing the government unit. 

And here’s the final product!

Soft Skills: Introducing Yourself and Others

What’s in a Name?

Asian students often choose to take on an English name that is more easily pronounced by Westerners. Fine if it’s their choice, but I’m a big fan of learning how to pronounce my students’ real names (it’s not that hard!) and the story behind them. 

I’ve created an Introduce Your Partner exercise to learn about students’ given names, surnames and nicknames names for an intermediate class. Students can also practice the important soft skill of introducing themselves and others. You can click on either image to download it and use it in your own class.

Here is what the final task will look like:

And here below are the questions that lead up to the task. Students are to first answer the questions about themselves, in preparation for asking and answering the questions with a partner. 

A Fun Way to Teach Body Parts

They say that students need to see a new word 8 times in order to make it part of active vocabularly. There are many ways to review body parts vocabulary. This fun cooperative learning activity puts students in a receptive mode for learning, integrates listening, speaking, writing and reading and encourages them to focus on the accuracy of their spelling.

Divide your class into groups of three and give each group a sheet of chart paper and a felt marker. Ask students to take turns being the artist.

Instruct students to write no English on the paper. All that should be on the paper are drawings.

Instruct students also not to draw a whole person, but rather each body part separately as it is called out. Then call out 30 body parts. The first should be something easy like “nose” and then move on to more challenging ones. It’s a great activity for shaking up the atmosphere. Students often get up out of their chairs and lean over the paper to offer opinions on how to draw each part. A lot of laughter is the inevitable outcome.

When the last body part has been drawn, collect the felt markers and ask each group to take out one ballpoint pen. The chart paper is then passed to the neighbouring group, moving clockwise. This is the labelling stage of the activity. Each group labels the body parts on the other groups’ paper, without the aid of dictionaries or reference to class handouts. Lots more laughter ensues as groups try to make out what the drawings are meant to be.

After a short interval, time is up and groups pass the chart paper to the next group to finish labelling any unlabelled parts. This is also the correction stage. Groups correct any spelling or labelling errors of the previous group. Another short interval and the paper is passed on again.

When groups finally get their own paper back, they check whether the other groups correctly labelled their body parts. Papers can then be hung on the walls.

Classroom Word Search Using English Directionality

This activity is for absolute beginner ESL or literacy level English language learners, focusing on classroom verbs such as listen, speak, read, write, sit down, open, turn on, turn off etc., as well as classroom nouns, such as chair, desk, table, board, etc. A word search is a great way to reinforce this new vocabulary, but watch out for the direction words are written in.

This word search features vertical, horizontal and diagonal words. However, with an awareness that English directionality does not come automatically with this level of students and needs to become automatic, all horizontal words are written from left to right. Also, while some words travel upwards on the diagonal, in each case, they begin on the left. Other words travel downwards, from top to bottom.

There are also a couple additional special features. Numerous words almost appear twice, adding an extra challenge for students, as it requires them to look carefully and check exact spelling. There are also a few additional non-classroom related words for teachers only, to offer you a little challenge of your own while students work.

Click on the image to download the student worksheet and print it for use in your own classroom. Click here to download the student answer key. There is no answer key for the words added for teachers. How many can you find?

Using Go, Play, and Do with Activities

These mid to upper beginner worksheets enable your English language learners to practice the use of go, play and do with various activities. You are welcome to download them to use in your own classroom.

This first exercise has students practice a very structured inviting conversation where they familiarize themselves with when to use go, play and do. Point out that go is always used before a gerund. Play is used for competitive sports and other activities. And do is used for activities without a ball that can be practised individually. Click on the image below to view the exercise large on your computer and print out for your own use. Don’t forget to print out the second exercise as well. 

Follow this speaking practice with a written exercise where students now have to write the correct verb. Click on the image below to view the exercise large on your computer and print out for your own use.

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.