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.

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.)

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.

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. 

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!

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.

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:

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:  https://twitter.com/hasanminhaj/status/1113952740596768771

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.