When things go wrong…

This article is the first one in our new Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this new series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms. In our eyes, teachers are superheroes, and we recognize them for their commitment to improving students’ lives. We hope you find these tips and suggestions helpful. And if you have ideas you would like to share with other teachers, please let us know. We would love to publish your article on our platform. You can reach out to us at esl_marketing@pearson.com.

 When things go wrong…

  By Jeremy Schaar

“OK, everybody, open your books to page 72. It’s Unit 3, Lesson 2 …”
“But Teacher, we did that already.”
“We what? Well, hmm …”

Sometimes things don’t go right for teachers. You prepare a lesson, but your students have already done it in a previous class. You forget the copies you made. The Wi-Fi is down. There are no markers (in the whole building!). Your lesson needs at least four students, but only one shows up. Now you need to think fast!

Things will go wrong, so it’s best to get ready. Here are seven activities you can do when your plans don’t work out.

Talking Time

This 30-minute activity has a 10-minute setup, a 15-minute discussion, and a 5-minute conclusion. Start by choosing a topic. It can be a theme you’d like to review or just something the students will enjoy discussing. In the setup, ask your students to suggest discussion questions for the topic. Write all their discussion questions on the board. (If you have a yes/no question, always make sure to add why? after it.) Then, in pairs, the students should ask each other the questions for 5 to 10 minutes. Switch pairs once or twice. Finally, discuss the questions as a whole class.

Find the Best Picture

Choose a vocab word you’ve studied recently. All the students should search for an image of that word on their phone or tablet. Some words will be easy, but the students will have to be creative for others. They each show the class the image they found and say something about why they chose it. Then the class votes on who found the best image of the word. Repeat as many times as you’d like, with the winner for one word choosing the next target word.

Simple Reading

Do you have a favorite reading you’ve done with students? A perfect news article or a poem that gets everyone talking? Whatever it is, if it worked well once, it’ll work well again. So, make a bunch of copies of it and always carry them around with you. If you want to beef it up, write ten pre-reading discussion questions, ten comprehension questions, and ten questions for a follow-up discussion. Doing a little preparation work now will ensure you’re ready to save the day later.

Tell Your Best Story

Everyone has a few stories they love to tell. (My favorite is the time a police officer stopped me for taking pictures in the Moscow subway …). We repeat these stories for new friends and new classes so many times that it’s almost like we’re performing. You can lean into this idea by developing an activity around your best anecdote.

Save your best story for the day you need it. Then tell your students that you’re going to tell them a story, and that they should listen carefully. After you tell your story, ask your students to: (1) ask you one follow-up question each, (2) retell the story to their partners, and (3) think of a good story to tell their partners.

Tell a Riddle

Learn a few riddles. Then tell your students the riddles and have them discuss in pairs. Here’s a good one:

There’s one light in the attic and three light switches in the basement. You’re in the basement. You can only go up to the attic one time. How can you know which switch turns the light on?

(See the end of this post for the answer.)

Write a Sentence, Change Something

Write a theme at the top of the board or on a piece of paper. Ask a student to write a sentence about that theme. Then ask another student to change something in the sentence. For example, if the theme is “work” and the first student writes I work every day., then the next student might write I work every day but Sunday. or He works every day. Students can change or add anything they like. Then ask another student to come to the board and change something.

Once the class gets the hang of the activity, each student can write a sentence on a piece of paper and pass it around the class.

Note: If you have just one student, take turns changing something in the sentence. First the student changes something, then you change something, and so on.

Take a Walk, Have a Talk

This works best when just one student shows up and you’re not sure what to do. It can be tough to fill the time, but there’s something about walking that makes conversations flow. Rather than trying to fight through a lesson that was meant for a class, suggest to your student that you stroll around the area. From a practical point of view, your student will get valuable practice with small talk in a memorable setting.

* * * * *

(Answer to the riddle: Turn on the first switch. Wait 5 minutes. Turn it off. Then turn on the second switch and go upstairs. If the light is off but hot to the touch, it’s the first switch. If the light is on, it’s the second switch. If the light is off and cool, it’s the third switch.)


Jeremy Schaar is an English teacher who has bounced around the globe teaching and learning. He has taught in Russia, the United States, and South Korea. He has also developed content for colleges, websites, and textbook publishers. He is passionate about education in general and especially Business English, writing skills, and online learning. Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremyschaar

Using Movies in the ESL Classroom

 Joe McVeigh

With Academy Award season upon us, ESL teachers may wish to think about how they can use movies in the classroom. Movies provide a wonderful source of language input for students. They can provide valuable exposure to language and also to culture, as well as being an excellent source of new vocabulary along with slang and idioms. They can be used to help students work on many language skills including listening, reading, speaking, and pronunciation.

Film selection criteria

Some teachers choose to use short excerpts from movies. If you have a class in which you meet with students for several hours a week, you may be able to use entire films with them. There are several criteria to consider when selecting films for use with students. First off, consider the level of interest and relevance for your students. A group of 18-year-old students in an intensive English program may have different interests in movie than a group of fifth graders or a class of adult immigrants and refugees. Be sure that the actors in the film speak relatively clearly, and that the storyline is not too difficult to follow. Analyze the language to ensure that it isn’t too difficult. Consider the content of the film to make sure that it’s appropriate for your students in terms of the language and themes involved. If you wish to use an entire film, check on the availability of a written script, which can be extremely helpful.

Practical considerations

Carefully preview the film in advance, so that you are aware of potentially difficult language or challenging themes for your students. Also check your equipment to make sure that everyone in the room can see the screen clearly and that the sound quality is adequate. If you want to find a particular section in the film, note the time on a counter so that you can access the right spot easily.

Classroom activities

Most films these days are available with closed captions that you can turn on or off. You can choose whether or not to turn on the captions. After viewing the film or an excerpt from the film, you can select comprehension questions or discussion questions to use with your students. You may also wish to pull out various bits of vocabulary, slang, idioms, or new expressions.

If you obtain a complete script of the movie for your students, you can assign them to read it either for homework or in class. You can ask them to act out scenes from the movie, or give them writing assignments based on the film.

For speaking practice, choose a scene from the film that contains a lot of activity. Put students in pairs with one facing the screen and the other with their back to the screen. Turn down the sound, then play the excerpt. Ask the student facing the screen to describe what’s happening to the student who can’t see. Then have the two partners change positions.

To really give your students a reading workout. Choose a film in a language other than English that has English subtitles!

General Discussion Questions about Movies

Here are some questions you can use with your students for a general discussion about movies.

  1. Generally speaking, what kind of films do you like? Comedy? Drama? Romance? Other?
  2. Often, at the end of the year, American film critics like to put together a “top ten list” of the ten best films of the year. If you were going to put together a top ten list for yourself, what movies would be on that list? Give reasons for your selections.
  3. Who is your favorite actor? Why do you like him or her?
  4. What qualities should a good actor have?
  5. Many people believe that the American (Hollywood) film industry has too much influence on the way that people think about the United States, about men and women, and about fantasy and reality. Do you feel that Hollywood has a distorted image of the U.S.?
  6. Some people think that studying film is not very helpful for learning English, it is only entertainment. What is your opinion? Has studying film been helpful for your English ability?  How could it be more helpful?

Sample Post-Viewing Discussion Questions for a Movie

  1. What is the meaning of the title of the film?
  2. How would you describe the mood, feeling, and story of this film to someone who was not familiar with it and who had never seen it before?
  3. What was your favorite moment in the film?
  4. What was your least favorite moment in the film?
  5. Who is your favorite character in the film?
  6. What part did you think was the funniest?
  7. What part did you think was the most special for you?
  8. List three new vocabulary words or expressions that you learned from this movie.

Instructions for Students to Practice Acting out a Scene from a Movie

  • With 1-3 other students, choose a scene from one of the films that we have watched to act out in front of the class.
  • The scene that you select should be an important one in the movie (not something trivial).
  • The scene, when enacted, should last about two minutes (or less), so choose your scene carefully.
  • It is not necessary to memorize your lines or to bring or use props or costumes, though you may do this if you wish.
  • Do not improvise new dialog for the scene. Use only the written dialog from the film.
  • When acting out the scene, use the same actions as the characters in the movies. Do not read directly from the script.  Remember, you are supposed to be speaking, not reading.
  • Try to use the correct pronunciation. Be as fluent and as accurate as you can.
  • Speak loudly and clearly so as to be heard by everyone.

Movie Vocabulary Homework Assignment

  1. For the next class meeting make a list of vocabulary words which are new to you from our film script. Your assignment is to find words and expressions from p. ______ to p. ________Your list should include at least ___________ words and expressions.
  2. Using a dictionary and consulting others, find an accurate definition or meaning of the word or expression.
  3. On your list include:
  • the page number in the script where it is found
  • the word or expression
  • whether the word or expression is commonly used or not
  • whether the word or expression is polite to use or not
  • the meaning

Example:

Page Expression Common? Polite? Meaning
17 Put his foot in his mouth somewhat OK Say something embarrassing or foolish
  1. You may work together with others who are working on the same pages.
  2. Make enough copies of your worksheet to class for everyone in the class. 

Sample Vocabulary from the film When Harry Met Sally

Here are some vocabulary terms and expressions from When Harry Met Sally that you could assign students to learn:

time to kill; to fix someone up with someone; there is no point (in doing something); to come down with something ; affront; to hit it off with someone; to bump into someone; I couldn’t agree more

Successful Films

A couple of films that I have used successfully in the classroom with students in an intensive English program include The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. What are some films that you have used successfully in the classroom? What activities did you use with them?


Joe McVeigh is a teacher, teacher trainer, and independent educational consultant based in Middlebury, Vermont. He has worked in a variety of countries and has taught at Cal State LA, Caltech, USC, Middlebury College, the Bread Loaf School of English, and Saint Michael’s College. He is an active member of the TESOL International Association and has worked as an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State. He is co-author of Tips for Teaching Culture from Pearson along with other books for students of English. In addition to talks and workshops at professional conferences, Joe contributes to the field through his website, which contains videos, resources, and presentation slides and handouts at www.joemcveigh.org.

Including Editing Practice in the Writing Classroom

By Joyce Cain

As writing teachers of English language learners, we are often so focused on helping our students master the structure and content expectations of academic writing that the final editing stage of the writing process may get little attention. This is understandable as our students must learn the conventions of academic writing if they are to succeed in college and beyond. However, they must also be able to successfully edit their own written work if their instructors, peers, and eventual bosses and colleagues are to fully understand their writing. For many students to achieve this level of competency, class and homework time must be devoted to practicing this important skill.  In this article, I’d like to offer some ideas that take students’ editing skills to the next level and can easily be integrated into writing lessons with little additional time and few extra resources.

Students create their own exercises from authentic pieces of writing

When a teacher notices that students are struggling with a particular grammar structure in their writing, he/she might ask the class to create grammar editing exercises similar to those found in their grammar textbooks. By writing original editing exercises, students not only further their understanding of the problematic structure but also provide additional practice for their fellow students. An added benefit is the topic of the exercise can be directly related to the writing topic students are currently working on.

The first time this kind of assignment is used, the teacher should provide a relevant article with several examples of the grammar structure that students are struggling with. Students locate all of the uses of this structure in the article and together create “mistakes” that will later be used for editing practice. Once students are familiar with this process, they can locate articles that use the target structure in the magazines, newspapers, and books they are already reading for their writing class. From these, students develop editing exercises for further classroom practice or homework. The process of identifying a target structure in a piece of writing, creating “mistakes,” and later editing for those grammar errors develops a strong understanding of not only the grammar structure but also the topic that they are reading about in these articles.

Students create exercises from their own pieces of writing

A similar activity can be integrated into the writing classroom by using students’ own writing rather than published pieces. Again, the exercises will be based on a topic that students are currently writing about in their classes. The creation of these exercises will be most easy if the teacher has been using grammar correction symbols to mark student writing. Once a problematic grammar structure such as word forms, verb forms, or articles has been identified in student writing, students can create sentence or paragraph level grammar editing exercises from their own writing. The creation of exercises reinforces a student’s understanding of the particular structures and also helps the teacher by providing authentic classroom and homework practice on grammar structures that are being used in a particular writing assignment.

Students read aloud to identify areas of weakness

Another way that teachers can integrate editing practice into the writing classroom is to have students read their own writing aloud. This is most effective once students are quite familiar with English and are able to hear what sounds correct. Students should bring an extra copy or copies of a writing assignment that they are currently working on to class. With their partner(s), each student will read his or her paper as the other(s) follows along on the extra copy. As the writer and his or her classmates notice areas in the writing that they are uncertain about, the errors can be immediately corrected or noted for later discussion. As an alternative, students can read their partners’ piece of writing while the writer listens along and makes corrections as needed. This exercise might be most effective if students focus on only the grammar structure or writing point that is under discussion during that class period.

Students use an editing log to focus their editing

Students often lament the fact that editing takes a long time and they cannot locate their own errors. One way to focus their editing task is for the teacher to use correction symbols as he or she marks papers and later require students to complete an editing log where they record each of the grammar errors that the teacher has marked with a correction symbol. Only if used sparingly will editing logs be an effective way for students to become aware of the errors that they make the most frequently. It shouldn’t be until about half way through the semester or at a point where students have several completed writing assignments that they complete their first editing log. By reviewing all of the writing they have done to that point in the semester and recording the errors on an editing log, they may see a pattern of errors. This should provide them with enough information to focus their editing on their weakest areas for the remaining weeks or months of the semester. A second editing log can be assigned at the end of the semester for students to further focus their editing and hopefully see the editing improvements that they have made over the past months.

Students do the teaching

As all teachers know, the best way to learn something is to teach it. In this way, students might truly learn a grammar point if they have to teach that point to their classmates. In a writing class, this may be the only grammar instruction that an instructor has time for. At the beginning of the semester, teams of students can be given different grammar structures that they will be presenting on a particular date in the future. Just as instructors would do, each team should present a 15-20 minute lesson that includes practice, assessment, and homework. This might be an appropriate time for students to use the grammar exercises they have previously developed from their own writing or the writing they have located in magazines, newspapers, and books. This allows all students the opportunity to examine a grammar point in depth and to hone their presentation skills by teaching one lesson during the course.

While writing teachers may feel overwhelmed with the quantity of information that they have to teach during a semester, it’s important that they not leave out lessons and practice on the final stage of the writing process: editing. By using students as a resource and their writing assignments as teaching tools, the development of editing skills can be integrated into a writing course without much extra time and effort for the teacher.


Joyce Cain has taught English language learners at the community college and university levels for over 20 years. She started her career at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she received her M.A. in TESL and also served as a teaching assistant. She is currently a professor of ESL at Fullerton College in southern California. She is the author of Grammar for Writing and Eye on Editing 1 and 2.

Helping Students with Appropriate Language

 by Joe McVeigh

English language teachers who work with students in the United States know only too well that teaching language by itself is not sufficient. Language learners also need to grasp the culture of the country they are living in, as well as learn how to overcome intercultural differences. These differences often surface in issues such as how to be polite, how to express yourself non-verbally, and how to maintain academic integrity in the classroom.

One challenge for English language learners is discerning the appropriate register  to use in different situations. A communicatively competent person doesn’t speak the same way all of the time. For instance, a teenager would probably use one form of expression with her friends and classmates, but a more polite and formal type of language, or register, with a teacher or principal.

To help students learn about different types of register, try this activity:

1. Write the following on the board:
“Shut the door.”
“Shut the door, please.”
“Would you please shut the door?”
“Gee, it’s a little chilly in here. Shut the stupid door!”

2. Ask students to identify which sentences they think are the most and least polite. Discuss which sentences would be appropriate to use with different people.

3. Write the following on the board:

“What time is it?”
“Hand me those scissors.”
“Bring me a glass of water.”

  • Form small groups and ask each group to choose one of the sentences and write a list of possible ways to express the meaning ranging from very polite to rude.
  • Ask groups for their ideas and write them on the board. Discuss the sentences and the students’ ideas.

You can find more ideas for teaching culture in the classroom in Tips for Teaching Culture, part of the Tips for Teaching series from Pearson.  The Tips for Teaching series covers topics of practical classroom-centered interest for English language teachers. Written in clearly comprehensible terms, each book offers soundly conceived practical approaches to classroom instruction that are firmly grounded in current pedagogical research.


Joe McVeigh is a teacher, teacher trainer, and independent educational consultant based in Middlebury, Vermont. He has worked in a variety of countries and has taught at Cal State LA, Caltech, USC, Middlebury College, the Bread Loaf School of English, and Saint Michael’s College. He is an active member of the TESOL International Association and has worked as an English language specialist for the U.S. Department of State. He is co-author of Tips for Teaching Culture from Pearson along with other books for students of English. In addition to talks and workshops at professional conferences, Joe contributes to the field through his website, which contains videos, resources, and presentation slides and handouts at www.joemcveigh.org.

Resources for Adult Educators and Adult Education Advocates

During the Adult Education and Family Literacy Week (AEFL Week), we have been promoting the value of and the need for adult education in the U.S. Advancing adult education and English language acquisition benefits not only individuals and their families but also their communities and the nation’s economy. By offering educational opportunities to adults, we help them achieve economic independence and social mobility.

But advocating for adult education should not be limited to just one week a year. It is important that we bring awareness about the need for adult education every day. Below is a list of resources for anyone who wants to get involved in advocating for adult education and family literacy.

Adult Education Is Needed Now – COABE website that explains the need for adult education

COABE/NCSDAE Educate & Elevate Campaign – A national campaign to help policy makers understand the value of Adult Education.  The website offers a helpful toolkit for organizations and individuals who want to get involved in the campaign.

National Coalition for Literacy – a national coalition of the national organizations and other advocates dedicated to advancing adult education, family literacy, and English language acquisition in the U.S.

Project Literacy – a global campaign founded and convened by Pearson that aims to end illiteracy by 2030 through partnership and action.

“Low literacy has a major impact on income inequality and parenting.” Read this AEFL Week Fact Sheet from the National Coalition for Literacy.

The Case for Investments in Adult Education – A white paper from ProLiteracy

Adult Ed helps immigrants integrate into the U.S—a brief description of why it pays to invest in Adult Education

Adult Education and Family Literacy Week Fact Sheet and articles

The World Education’s blog The Well – interesting posts on the topic of Adult Education, including ESOL.

Adult English language instruction in the United States: Determining need and investing wisely. An article from the Migration Policy Institute.

Links to best practices/resources for teachers:

Six simple ways to strengthen independent learning skills

On teaching effective learning

Tips for collaborative learning

Increasing student engagement

Toward comprehensive assessment in the adult ESOL classroom