Eighty things to do with students learning English

Thor May


This is a collection of things to do in a classroom, plus a little explanation for teachers. The collection is not a syllabus, it is not graded and it is certainly not “complete” (what would “complete” mean here?). However bits of it should be useful for almost anyone teaching English.

All teachers accumulate a repertoire of tricks. Over the years they find that some things work well for them, others not so well. Some approaches succeed brilliantly with one class, but fall flat with the next one. There is probably a common core of techniques and activities popular at any given time, with a fairly small number of creative teachers on the margins inventing (or reinventing) extra ways to get across and embed skills or knowledge.

The present outline is dedicated to those Monday mornings when all inspiration fails. Curriculums are dull documents, and unless a teacher is entirely a text book sludge repeater, she will want to use lively and interesting activities as tools for meeting the abstract curriculum objectives. It is therefore useful to have a reminder list of activities which can be adapted for the class waiting in room 201.

Most of the examles used in this text come from technology, especially automotive engineering. This is an accident of the writer’s career path, and such examples can easily be modified. Note however that while many English teachers are personally uncomfortable with technical examples, a large number of students prefer them because of their personal interests and aptitudes.

The material here is bare-bones, and of course it can be elaborated or modified in endless ways. There is no such thing as an exhaustive list of language activities because language is a tool applied to ever-changing human situations. Nevertheless, our human needs do have patterns, and as native speakers we fit language to those patterns in familiar ways. This is a matter of custom, and so-called grammer is only a small part of that custom.

For an example of language custom, a Chinese mechanic learning English will want to know that his Australian double usually says something like “You’re gunna need a 12 mil’ spanner*”, and NOT “the correct spanner for this task is a 12 millimetre spanner”, which would sound hostile because of its ridiculous formality. (*Note: spanner = wrench in American English). In other words, every non-native English teacher will certainly teach some foolish language, and in the case exampled, so might a native English teacher who has never mixed with mechanics. That is an occupational hazard and limit to the usefulness of language “courses”. As teachers, we have to explain our limits to students, and always be ready to accept the help of those students in seeking out how the people they meet really say things. This can be a source of fun rather than embarrassment. In this spirit, I won’t mind at all if teachers twist beyond recognition any activities and content suggested in the paper below.

Acknowledgments: Ideas (original or innocently stolen) tend to arrived in my brain illegally, when I am supposed to be thinking about important matters like meeting agendas. However, much that follows will already be familiar in one guise or another, so I thankfully acknowledge the teachers and writers from many a forgotten moment when I saw something neat and said "aha!".


1. Listening, recalling & speaking

S's listen to a teacher discourse, then re-present it to a partner. This may be a technical explanation, dialogue or story. Coherence is extremely important for this to work well, and the content should not be too long. Humour helps greatly. A simple outline of keywords linked with arrows may be useful as a prompt, or a labeled diagram. Oral recall can be followed later by written recall.

2. Listening for detail:

S's listen to a short, recorded technical description or a recorded exchange between technicians. S's extract specific information, according to a cue sheet, gap-filling sheet, blank table or diagram.

3. Listening for key ideas & reconstructing

S’s have to report and explain an event, say an industrial accident, after listening to an explanation from a witness.

4. Instruction: training a new employee

S's role play instructing a "new employee" in a task or procedure. The S being taught must demonstrate competence by explaining or performing back.


5. Supervisory instructions

a) A pair of S's construct a workplace jobsheet for a day in the life of a motor garage, a construction site, or some other venue where there can be a changing variety of activities. Examples of authentic worksheets collected from industrial sites could make this activity more realistic.

b) The teacher models one supervisory talk to employees using an appropriate speech style (it will help if teachers have spent time in an industrial workplace themselves!). Information should include a personal task assignment for each team member, brief operating instructions and an expected completion time. Students may be given a style sheet and checklist to assist in copying the teacher example.

c) Student actors (“supervisors”) address members of their work teams (class) in order, in the way demonstrated by the teacher. Video if possible, for later post mortem.

6. Following instructions: task performance

S's compete to complete a task (e.g. assemble a machine), or draw a diagram or chart following spoken clues from the teacher. Points are deducted for exceeding or misinterpreting the instructions.

7. The "Know All" board game

a) Distribute a blank 6x6 grid. Small groups of students are asked to construct a series of tasks to solve a problem, one task per grid box. e.g. a set of tasks associated with brake repair (which must, of course, have been pre-taught). The tasks will be in a jumbled, illogical order. A fun variation on this is a set of improbable mission tasks; e.g. getting a jumbo jet out of a tail-spin.

b) Members of an opposing team are given the first team’s task grid. They have two minutes to sort out and explain (in speech, not writing) a clear, logically ordered solution to the problem, using their competitor’s task grid. They must use instructions from the task grid, not just make up an independent solution.

c) Points are assigned by independent auditors/ time-keepers and a league table of winners kept over several classes.

8. Information transfer

A small technical diagram or description is posted on the classroom wall. One of a pair of S's walks from his desk to examine it, returns and instructs a partner to re-create the diagram etc. As many trips as necessary are made, and the messenger is allowed to communicate only by voice. No notes are allowed. Several pairs of students can compete to complete the task accurately.

9. Telephone ordering

The teacher collects mail order catalogues, product flyers from manufacturers etc. S's role play telephone orders. Make sure that orders are read back by the receiver for error checking. Variation & lead-in: turn-of-the-20th Century catalogues (facsimile) are always a big hit. Goods can be ordered from an imaginary remote location, where a mistake will take three months for a replacement to arrive.

10. Telephone enquiry

a) The teacher identifies areas of student interest: vocational, hobby, sport, music etc.

b) The teacher elicits complex knowledge gaps at the margins of these interest areas. e.g. "how do you get an apprenticeship?", "how do you modify the suspension on an XL Falcon?", "how do you start a judo club?" ...

c) Student groups decide where they will seek appropriate information and pre-structure some questions.

d) The teacher pre-teaches some suitable terms of address for telephone enquiry.

e) S's make actual telephone enqiries to real businesses before reporting back to the group. Alternatively, a class "expert" on the topic can answer mock telephone enquiries.

11. Speaking strategies

Record sets of verbal strategies actually used by native speakers; (e.g. openings to a talk presentation, turn-taking in conversation etc.). The teacher highlights elements of each strategy and their meanings. S's choose a strategy they prefer for a selected task, justify the choice and then use it in a short role play.

12. Talks:

S's do ten minute presentations on a prepared technical topic. Talks are best if they have a function, such as explaining plant to new employees, or selling a product. Evaluation should be by known and stated criteria. S's can benefit from video or live models to emulate. Each talk should be preceded by a statement of its aims. S's should be prepared to answer peer questions on their topic, and hand in a brief written synopsis for later teacher checking.

13. Dialogue completion on a known topic

After a topic or text has been taught for some time, S's are given a printed dialogue in which the utterances of one party are blanked out. For example, a customer may be questioning a mechanic on the operation of the ignition system. The customer's questions will be given, but S's must provide suitable responses from the mechanic.

This exercise may be done either orally or in writing. It may be role played. It injects greater realism than the normal teacher questioning while achieving similar results.

14. Monologue building from an outline

S's describe a process, event or system using only cues from a previously constructed outline skeleton summary of a written text. In practice this involves a mixture of textual recall and language generation.

15. Comparing registers and styles

Listen to two or three dialogues about the same topic, but pitched to different contexts. Compare for differences in formality, perspective or style.

· What are the linguistic markers of difference? (Check for vocabulary, syntax (e.g. passives, unfinished sentences etc.) and intonation.

· What are the overt and covert goals of the speakers in these dialogues?

· Now give a skeleton outline and ask groups of students to construct two dialogues. For example, one between a workshop manager and a customer with a sick car, then the same manager discussing the same vehicle with one of his mechanics.

16. Recognizing style & social context

S's match a list of situational and/or technical descriptions with a scrambled column of spoken quotations.


Two mechanics are discussing

the metal fatigue failure of

a petrol pump component.

Yeah Jack. That pump shaft is stuffed. All those units are shit. Haven't seen a good one yet.

One mechanic reports the component failure to a


I'm afraid we will have to replace the petrol pump Mrs Finks. These pumps have a bad reputation, and you have been a little unlucky.



17. Question response

S's respond to teacher questions with precise information. The precision can be focused and calibrated. That is, the criteria may be content accuracy, syntactic or phonological accuracy etc. It is best not to focus on too many things in one exercise. Note the qualitative difference between teacher questions based on what has already been taught, and teacher questions designed to lead S's to self-discovery. Both have their uses, but different outcomes. Also, the former is often best served by factual questions (e.g. What is the melting point of steel?), the latter by a set of concept questions (e.g. to grasp the meaning of "You shouldn't have done that!" ask a) did someone do something?, b) did the speaker want the person to do it, c) is the speaker pleased?).

18. Question & answer preparation

S's (not the teacher) prepare a set of questions and answers relating to a specific topic. Note: it is necessary to coach this skill to ensure that the questions are comprehensive enough to allow reconstruction of a procedure etc. from the responses. Pre-teach the differences between questions of fact, inference and opinion, then make sure that students are actually able to create each kind of question.

19. Keyword checking

S's check each other's comprehension and/or recall by expanding keywords from a learned text into phrases or sentences. The teacher will provide the keywords, perhaps one from each sentence of the text.

20. Revision game

The teacher devises "twenty questions" type games to revise knowledge sets; e.g. on qualities of materials, techniques, procedures. Note that this requires careful preparation.

21. Questions for understanding

The teacher trains S's to routinely ask for answers to these questions whenever a new process or machine is encountered: Where is it used? Why? How? How does it work? What happens? What is gained by its use? At what cost? These questions can be posed on a daily basis.

22. Yes/No questions in a flow chart

a) Identify a process which has a variety of inputs/causes and a variety of possible outcomes; e.g. identify the reasons for overheating in an engine. Show S's how this can be structured into a flow chart.

b) Supply S's with a randomize collection of inputs or outputs or both (the easiest option). There task is i) to prioritize actions. ; ii) to match inputs with alternate outputs (two for each input); iii) to supply a yes/no question which will select between alternate outputs; iv) to draw an appropriate flow chart. Example (abreviated):

Problem : Engine overheating



the pressure cap is faulty

replace pressure cap

a hose is leaking

replace hose

the radiator cores are blocked

reconditions cores or reverse flush

the thermostat is faulty

replace thermostat

the fan belt is slipping

tighten fanbelt

the head gasket is blown

replace head gasket

the engine block is cracked

plug crack or replace engine block

the engine timing is incorrect

reset the engine time

* Is the pressure cap faulty?

=> YES => replace pressure cap

=> NO => check radiator hoses etc.

23. Regular tests

Uses of tests: a) a language and content diagnosis; b) a reality check for both the teacher and S's; c) a motivating agent through washback.

S's don't really respect a pretense that they are "doing well" even with consistently low marks, although they should not be set up to fail. Every mark, no matter how low, is a measure of some knowledge available for use. S's like the sense of knowledge accumulation and progression given by tests. However, the whole thing should be done in an atmosphere of coaching, as with a sports team, not implying judgements about student worth.

Most tests should be diagnostic, not competitive, marked and returned quickly. The washback effect of testing is at least as important as any formal test result. Managing washback should therefore be built into any testing program. For example, tests motivate students to study in certain ways, to think in certain ways, and to manage questions or problems in certain ways. All these things are tools for the teacher to use cleverly.

Language tests are usually framed by questions. Factual questions work better at first than inferential questions for students with weaker English and/or weaker subject knowledge. However, many trades and professions will ultimately require students to become proficient with inferential questions also. People from some cultures or educational traditions may have had little practice with systematic inferential thinking.

At the end of each day S's should know exactly what they have to learn for a coming test, and the learning demand should be achievable. Predictability is especially important for slower students.


General note: Although the teacher’s underlying objective may be to focus on practicing particular linguistic patterns, this will be of interest to few students. When students are bored they stop learning. Therefore it is important to sugar-coat this kind of activity by making the content inherently interesting for the students by choosing topics which they value, or even allowing them to choose the topics, then inventing content to implicitly demonstrate the grammar.


24. Vocabulary matching

S’s match useful new words by lines or numbers with a scrambled column of technical definitions. This makes most sense when the words form a semantic set (i.e. have some connection), such as that collection of terms needed to describe a fuel system. Labeled diagrams can be used as clues.

25. Synonym or Antonym location

Find words in a text similar or opposite in meaning to a list of words or expressions. This can be extended to comparing technical terms to their common speech or slang equivalents, or even comparing different English dialects (e.g. a spanner in Australia or England is a wrench in America).


26. Gap-filling

S's fill the gaps in a text. The gaps can be created randomly, be every 5th word etc., or they can be omissions of particular technical or syntactic information. That is, gap-filling can be a general language use activity for the classroom, which at least checks comprehension, or it can be a focusing technique for particular linguistic or technical features.

27. Negatives

a) Imperative negatives: S's provide negative signs for a series of industrial situations (give thumbnail sketches); e.g. No Smoking; Do Not Enter; No Spitting / Do Not Spit. Note that use of the modal (do) versus the gerundive (V-ing) is customary rather than rule-based.

b) S's transform an exaggerated dialogue (e.g. a sales pitch) by contradicting each claim with its negative; e.g. [Salesman] The Xz series sports car reaches 100kmh in 3 seconds from a standing start.. => [Customer] I don't believe that the Xz can reach 100kmh in 3 seconds.. or The Xz certainly cannot reach 100kmh in 3 seconds.

Note that the main problem with negatives in English is getting S's to insert an appropriate modal or auxiliary verb (do, can, could, will etc.).

28. Pronouns

a) S's practice pronoun substitution of IT and THEY for nouns, and apply the correct agreement suffixes to verbs in present / singular / 3rd person: it breaks ...; they require ....

b) A technical text is provided with bracketed pronouns in place of concrete nouns. S's must substitute concrete nouns for the pronouns. A similar exercise with abstract nouns is more difficult.

Note that in real speech pronoun reference is usually clear from the physical and social context. Poor writing however is often marked by pronouns whose reference is unclear. This can be a real problem in the workplace, for example with task reports for or by supervisors. The teacher can set up this kind of task for classroom practice.

29. Verbs

Perhaps the most important verbs to master in English are the modal and auxiliary verbs, a very special group: can/could, will/would, shall/should/ ought to, may/might, must/have to, need to, BE, DO, HAVE. These words are needed a) to make negative sentences; b) to make questions; c) to indicate the mood or intention of the speaker and his/her social relationship to the listener. The c) function is very subtle, varies between social and dialect groups in English, varies between generations, and is often a clear indicator of whether a learner of English has become fully functional in the language. L2 speakers of English often sound extremely rude when they get modals wrong.

Many English teachers unfortunately are just unaware of how important modals and auxiliaries are. Therefore, think carefully, make a habit of collecting real life examples, and set up funny role plays where the result of misusing these verbs will become clear to students.

For learners of English, the second major difficulty with English verbs is tense and aspect. Most teachers think only of the technical markers in the grammar, such as /-ed/ for PAST. However, the real problem is that English speakers play around with time reference in a way that is not possible in some other languages. For example, the speaker may relate events in time to himself, to another person, or to another event which may itself be in the past, present or future. It is best for the teacher to think for herself how she would do each of these tasks with the English language, then get students to figure out in groups how they might do the job. Collect and tabulate solutions. Only after that look for answers in grammar books, online, or from other native speakers.

Exercise: A technical text is provided with all the verbs bracketed in infinitive form. S's must substitute verbs with the correct subject-verb agreement and tense/modal inflection.

30. Prepositions

For native speakers in any language prepositions seem self-evident, but for learners prepositions are the most wayward things ever to evolve. This is because a) the scope and location of particular preposition markers varies widly among languages, and b) even where a direct translation seems possible (say English & German) the apparent similarities are often misleading.

The secret to learning prepositions in English is a) learning the prepositions that keep company with a range of common verbs, and b) becoming a familiar with a common set of prepositional phrases. Real prepositions govern their own predicate ( the hammer fell | on -> the floor), rather than referring back to verbs like an adverb (turn <- easily), or being part of a verb like phrasal verbs ( pick-up -> a girl).

These differences have consequences for teaching. For example, in teaching prepositions, something like a gap exercise will have less value than, say, a scrambled list of sentences describing a machine or system which need to be matched with a set of prepositional phrases. The benefit is in learning to recognize the prepositional phrases as unit.


Match the Prepositional Phrases on the right with the sentences on the left:

The valve guides are press-fitted

on the cylinder head

The valve train sits

Into the cylinder head

The rocker shaft is inserted

over the valve train

The rocker cover is fitted

through the rocker arm bushes

31. Syntactic determiners (the, a)

“The” and “a” are probably the most difficult two words in English for a non-native speaker to master. Their core meanings are simple enough. “The” is used to indicated a particular object or event, usually known to both speaker and listener. “A” is used to indicate one random item from a selection (e.g. a man, being any man from all the men on earth). “A” often occurs the first time an item or person is referred to, with “the” used the next time, since the referent is now known to the listener. (“A man came down the road. The man was wearing a white shirt.” ). The problem is that a large dictionary will show up to forty odd variations on these core meanings, and there are certainly more than that. Once students understand the core meanings, their best hope of learning is to encounter as many language contexts as possible.


A cloze exercise in which all determiners have been deleted from a passage can alert students to their use. Completing the cloze can be made a little simpler by a hint list: a count of the numer of times the, a, and the zero morpheme (i.e. nothing) occur: the = 12; a=6; 0 = 5. For many students the choices may still seem to be a gamble, so carefully review each correct and incorrect answer, explaining the reasons. Then do a second exercise of the same kind.

32. Classes of items (generics)

A generic noun does not refer to any particular person, object or event. It refers to all the members of a type or class. A generic noun might have no specifieer, or it might be specified by “a”, “the” or “all” (Cows are large bovine animals; the cow is a large bovine animal; all cows are large bovine animals). Generics are very useful for creating definitions, but more dangerously, they are also used in stereotypes. Work with students to find examples of various generic nouns.

Devise a text with a mixed usage of generic nouns and specified nouns. Bracket each noun in an unmarked form with no specifier (i.e. no “the”, “a” or “all”). S's must rewrite these with the correct usage. This exercise can also be done orally.

Technical material often contains generic forms, so students can find these from their subject area and practice similar content. For example : hammers are very useful tools; a/the metre is a decimal unit of measurement; all ethylene glycols are dangerous.

Note that once an English speaker knows that a generic form is needed, the actual generic marker they use is often not controlled by any strict grammar rule, but by style. Style is a matter of taste, personality, habit, or social custom. For example, all three of the following are grammatically fine, have the same meaning, but are stylistically a little different: a) elephants are large animals; b) the elephant is a large animal; c) an elephant is a large animal.

33. Word label search:

Words and word sets are a social “currency” which can be used like money to trade with. Learning a second language is partly a matter of becoming comfortable with new word labels (from L2, not L1) to label familiar ideas. In a classroom setting, playing with these new L2 word labels until they become familiar can be done in many ways. For example, several class groups may have different objects or diagrams whose parts they are told to label. However the teacher may have given each group a random glossary (word list) not completely suitable for describing their own object. Therefore S's have to seek out the “owner” in the class of a needed word and trade it for one of their own stock. The real teacher aim is to maximise S communication practice, although the students themselves may think they are just doing a formal language task.

34. Logical words

S's practice the proper use of quasi-logical operators; e.g. and, but, or (inclusive & exclusive), if ... then, although etc. This is best done by setting up choices in a technical procedure or a game, where the wrong choices will cause a bad outcome, confusion or unnecessary repetition. For example, adapt the children’s game of Snakes & Ladders by building in choices (not just a dice throw). There is much scope for electronic games which set up logical options.

35. Matching subject and predicate

In English, the subject noun is usually (not always) the sentence topic, while the predicate is usally a verb phrase which describes something affecting, or affected by the topic. Example: [The driver]subject [steers the car]predicate. The English pattern for marking subject/predicate is usually word order, but other languages may use particles or affixes (word endings) to do the same job.

Exercise: Divide a set of sentences describing a machine, process or system into a list of subjects and their predicates. Scramble the order. S's must match each subject with its correct predicate. Note that any matching activity can also be turned into general communication practice by having two parts of a solution (e.g. subject and predicate phrases) with different actors who must consult each other.

As with most syntactic exercises, simple matching activities can be very boring unless the content is chosen for colour, interest or relevance. If possible turn it into a game. Wrong syntactic choices can have big consequences in a real workplace, so a good teacher will try to build such drama into the classroom practice also, with stories, games or tasks. Many students will not remember a pure grammar lesson.

36. Syntactic passive

S's transform active variants of technical description into passive equivalents (with or without the by-phrase), and vice versa; e.g. The mechanic must check the fluid level => The fluid level must be checked. The teacher will explain the value of passives in (impersonal) technical description using actual examples from the professional skill area of the students.

Not all languages have passives. Most children do not fully master English passives until a little before puberty. Recent research has shown that many native English speakers with low literacy never really understand passive sentences, except for some common expressions (e.g. He was shot! [.. by XYZ]). This suggests that students need to become familiar with passive forms in technical language over many lessons.

One tool for practicing passives is the “job report” (common in many occupations) where the worker gives a brief list of tasks performed and problems encountered : e.g. “the sump was drained / the oil filter was removed / metallic filings were found in the engine oil / it is recommended that the engine be fully stripped down”. Even daily class activities can be described in this way.

37. Syntactic quantifiers (all, some ..)

S's practice using grammatical quantifiers (note countables and uncountables): e.g. all of the X's, some of the Y's, a majority of Zs.

The native languages of some students might be imprecise about quantifiers, or let them be assumed from context. Therefore what seems simple and obvious to the teacher might not be for all students. If possible, check this and be alert to confusion.

This particular part of English grammar is best demonstrated with a collection of realia. For example, the teacher can bring a jar of miscellaneous nuts and bolts and washers and screws, spread them out on a bench and invite students to sort or identify them according to the language forms:

Examples: Make a collection where all of the nuts are 12mm / Do the majority of screws have Philips (star) heads? / give me some matching bolts, nuts and washers …

38. Qualifying ideas in language (those..which / the…that)

S's practice qualifying sets and classes of items using relative or subordinating clauses: e.g. those Xs which Y; the Xs that Y; the As with three sides; Bs (which/that are) carrying the label Z must be .....

Language note: The patterns of spoken language and written language tend to differ quite a lot when sentences have complex clauses. These differences are amplified in working class or informal speech as compared to “educated” or professional speech, and also according to dialect (say, British English Vs Australian English). For example, “which” is common in spoken questions (“Which one do you want?”) but has a slightly literary feel in embedded clauses (“It was the truck which/that came on Monday”). Informal English much prefers “that” to “which”. Similarly, “the” is usually preferred informally to “those” in the company of relative pronouns: “the books [that] you wanted” is more common than “those books which you wanted”. Therefore, a teacher might practice different forms if his students are motor mechanics, as opposed to lawyers or medical doctors.

Practice example: Set up an interrogation game. There has been a crime, or an industrial accident, or a social disaster (like some thugs crashing a party). One student or panel of students plays the questioner(s), while a witness talks about the event. Make sure that the event has plenty of confusion, ambiguity and contradictions. The use of qualifying grammatical terms arises naturally when trying to sort out the mess. Advanced students can manage this once they understand the task. Less able students will need a framework of clauses and phrases to choose from.

39. Definitions using “which/that” and “in order to”

Two critical facts about a substance, object or process may be related by “which” or “that” to form a definition of it. Definitions tend to be formal, so “which” may be favoured over “that”. The outcome is often expressed with an “in order to” clause. Informal language commonly reduces “in order to” to simply “to”. This language equation is widely used in technical writing:

Petrol is a volatile fuel. || Petrol is mixed with air.

=> Petrol is a volatile fuel which is mixed with air (in order) to power combustion engines.

Formula: [X BE Y] + which + BE + VERB PHRASE 1 + (in order) to + VERB PHRASE 2

Exercise: After studying a substance, object or process give students a list of its constituents in a table and ask them to devise definitions. The process may be made easier by also supplying the (scrambled) qualities or behaviours.



carbon compound

refined for fuel


volatile hydrocarbon

used in internal combustion engines


Viscuous hydrocarbon

used for lubrication

40. Comparatives and superlatives:

S's practice comparative and superlative expression: X is better than Y; M is the best.

Link this to concrete debate on a topic of interest. Technical students will generally have some core interest (e.g. cars) on which they have definite opinions. They will have no problem in asserting that, say, one kind of tyre is better than another. A technical course will also constantly throw up situations in which a technical choice or compromise must be made; e.g. Soft suspensions are better for passenger comfort, but hard suspension systems are better for road holding. Pose a set of technical choices and ask S's to indicate comparitive preferences.

41. Contrasts (but / however)

Some common contrastive words and expressions are “but”, “although”, “however”, “on the other hand”. The first two are used to join clauses in a single sentence. The latter two are best used to make a contrast between separate sentences.

a) Use "spot the difference" pictures or diagrams as a source to generate contrastive sentences, orally or in writing. e.g. The cooling system in diagram 1 has an overflow tank, but the cooling system in diagram 2 does not.

b) Listen to a recording or video of two candidates for a job. S's in a mock interview evaluation can comment on their different behaviours.


The first candidate spoke clearly, but the second did not..


The second candidate had good qualifications. However, his trade skills were poor.

c) Extract contrasts from a table. This may tabulate different qualities (e.g. types of steel), or it may be a comparison of, say, the advantages and disadvantages of using particular methods, machines, systems etc.

For example, a table might list the comparative advantages and disadvantages of road versus rail transport. Relate such a table to a concrete situation; e.g. the stores supervisor must decide whether to ship parts by road or rail to a customer. S's role play his discussion with the manager as options are put: We could send it by rail but road is quicker. On the other hand, VicRail has given us a cheaper quote for bulk shipment.

42. Sufficiency (too / enough)

a) Students discuss their collective reasons for various failures in the past, such as not succeeding in job interviews. e.g. I guess I didn't want the job badly enough; My English wasn't good enough; I talked too much about the wrong things ...etc. Cheer this scene up by matching it with future resolutions! Next time I will leave home early enough ...

b) Get S's to develop new employee instructions for some carefully controlled process or procedure; e.g. You have to mix in just enough thinners. If you put in too much it won't cover properly ...

c) S's describe the cause of industrial failures or accidents which are illustrated in a page of thumbnail sketches; e.g. The forklift turned the corner too fast; There was not enough oil in the engine ...

43. Analogy (just as ..so..; similar, like)

Analogy and metaphor are probably the main tools that we have for understanding and remembering facts about the world. Their effectiveness depends upon being colourful, or sometimes even profane. There is always a well-known repertiore of analogies and metaphors in any group, which says much about each sub-culture. However the related grammar of these forms is pretty constant.

Example of an analogy:

That Chevvy goes like a bat out of hell.

Example of a metaphor:

That man is a snake. Don't trust him.


a) Analogies based on appearance are very common.

Match a (scrambled) list of components or objects with their most likely analogies:

Horizontally opposed cylinders in engines ..

.. are shaped like a box

Offset cylinders are in engines ...

.. shaped like a Y or V

b) An unfamiliar process is best explained by analogy with a familiar process. Match the familiar process on the left with the unfamiliar process on the right:

Just as the curve in a plane's wing creates a low pressure area which is made to do work,

so the curve in a carburettor bore creates a low pressure area which is made to do work.

Just as a pot of water boils more quickly in the lower air pressure on a mountaintop

so an unpressurized cooling system will boil more quickly in the lower air pressure on a mountaintop


The writing process is both psychological and physical. It involves many skills and abilities, including those of managing textual coherence and cohesion, as in the section to follow. By the time adults approach a second language, those who are literate should have already mastered the main principles of effective writing in their first language. Unfortunately, this is frequently not the case. L2 tertiary students, especially, may have to be persuaded that learning to write (and read!) fluently in their first language is both more useful and easier as a first step than plunging almost illiterate into a second language and expecting to master that in a term or two of foreign classroom assignments. The activities listed in this paper are only a small sample from the many an alert writing teacher can devise.

44. Combining sentences

a) The teacher (out of class) takes a complex text and reduces it to a list of short sentences. These sentences will be provided to the class.

b) The teacher supplies a kit of functional link terms (e.g. pressing ... allowing; forcing; as ... which; at the same time... , which; admitting ... and closing; as; when ... and; which ... and). These are likely to be the link terms extracted from the original complex text.

=> Task: S's must combine the short sentences using the link terms. The final texts produced by students should be examined carefully for cohesion, coherence and style. It is important to explain any weaknesses (from the point of view of English language conventions), and to explore any cultural resistance to the teacher’s preferred solutions. Practice this kind of task until students are comfortable with the norms of English written expression.

45. Textual elaboration

a) The teacher provides i) a basic summary text, and ii) a scrambled assembly of supplementary information. The teacher may also include some irrelevant information to complicate the exercise.

=> Task: The S's must add the supplementary information to the basic text selectively, inserting it in the correct grammatical manner at appropriate points. Compare and discuss outcomes.

46. Text summary

The S's extract a synopsis from a detailed text. It is likely that the teacher will have to model this process a number of times to familiarize students with how it is done. Such skills may also emerge from practice in note taking, or the construction and interpretation of diagrams and statistical tables.

Note: Teachers should make the procedure credible. Abstract exercises without a context will be forgotten by most students as soon as they leave the classroom. Build a narrative. For example, you wish to put a proposal to a meeting, or you need to advise your boss on the purchase of a new engine. Your audience does not want a fully detailed specification, but rather an executive summary of the main points for discussion and consideration. Tell a story like this in colourful detail before expecting students to put any enthusiasm into their summarizing task.

47. Translation exercise

Note: Technical translating/interpreting is a very practical skill often needed in many workplaces. However, effective performance requires much practice. Monolingual English teachers are often quite ignorant about the importance of good translating/interpreting, and also at a loss about how to practice it. A good humoured, cooperative and reciprocal relationship with students helps a great deal in teaching skills like this. It is also one area where non-native teachers of English can have a clear advantage.

a) S's prepare a procedural description, operating instructions, design set etc. in their first language;

b) S's present a) to a partner using English;

c) the partner makes a verbal or written report on the first S's presentation.

48. Report writing

Note: Few students are ever going to write a novel, but a large number of them will need to write reports of various kinds in their jobs. This is true even in many trades areas. Wherever there is a hierarchy of responsibilities, reports tend to be required. For the largest number of students report writing is therefore likely to be the most severe test of their language writing skills. Their employment and promotion will partly depend on those skills.

Students who have never worked for a living might have trouble understanding these requirements. Teachers who have also spent their entire working lives in classrooms may also have little grasp of how the real industrial and commercial world works. After all, there are not many movies that show the hero writing a work report.

Therefore any study program which includes a segment on report writing should make time and opportunities for both teachers and students to engage with real world requirements. This might be through actual work experience, visits, visitors, and so on. In any case, the teacher needs to construct narratives which give a realistic context to tasks like report writing.

Task (sample): S's prepare a report or review of a particular machine, vehicle, process, proposal or event.

Example: justify the purchase of one particular vehicle to meet a functional purpose; e.g. tender for a police patrol car, intercity semi-trailer, petroleum geologist's field vehicle etc.

S's should study a model report with its structure and layout explained before attempting this difficult task. Coaching will be required on sub-skills such as paragraph writing.




Students who become quite fluent in social English might have considerable trouble constructing logically organized text. This is usually less of an L2 problem than of developing a trained mind: their native English speaking peers in technical colleges and universities have exactly the same developmental issues to overcome. Highly educated L2 students, such as postgraduates, may have an extra difficulty: they often have to “unlearn” forms of textual organization which are required in other cultures. For example, English argumentation tends to be linear, adding logical points to arrive at a conclusion. By contrast, many Asian traditions stress a form of spiral argumentation, circling the topic with broad generalizations from accepted authorities, then offering a very narrow conclusion which might seem only loosely related to the preceding content.

49. Unscrambling language

S's are given some components, plus a model, for assembling a coherent text:

a) a set of scrambled sentences or parargraphs.

b) a kit of grammatical sequencers, connectives etc. ( e.g. and, but, or, because, in order to, then, after that ...etc.)

c) a model for textual organization. This might be :

i) a narrative, even a fairy tale, or some story which everyone knows; OR

ii) a familiar process, such as paying with a credit card at a supermarket checkout; OR

iii) an exploded diagram of a machine or process; OR

iv) a flowchart or something similar.


The task is to generate a coherent text similar to the model, and using the scrambled sentences + the grammatical sequencers, connectives etc from the kit provided. The task can be done as pair work, and the solution presented to the class. Different groups may have different kits, which can be circulated when one task is achieved.


A number of educational computer programs allow users to practice similar organization electronically. As a source, repair manuals offer very good training for this kind of thing since they usually contain numbered diagrams plus a carefully organized text explaining procedures.

50. Creating language to follow a procedure

a) S's are given a collection of grammatical sequencers, connectives etc (e.g. but, or, and, because, in order to, then, after that, ...etc.)

b) S’s are assigned to describe a process, or the assembly (or disassembly) of an object


The task is to generate a coherent and cohesive text or dialogue from the topic + the grammatical words provided.

Example: A very simple example might be to construct instructions for the assembly of a desk, or other piece of furniture from a knocked-down kit. Different groups may have different kits, which can be circulated for more practice when the first task has been achieved.

51. Editing for textual coherence, cohesion, sequence and economy of expression

Teachers can easily assemble many, many examples of poorly organized, incoherent or vacuous description and explanation. A great amount of this trash is even available from published sources, their authors and editors apparently being unaware of their failure! Depending upon her particular students and their level of English, a teacher can offer selections of material like this to her students for editing. She will have to lead them step by step through the editing procedures before letting them loose on faulty material. Editing instructions can be general, but with inexperienced editors it is best at first to have them seek out particular problems of grammar, organization or style.

Rationale: Why is editing practice valuable?

a) it teaches attention to detail, which is critical not only in competent language use but also in the performance of many professions;

b) it teaches that writing and speaking involve more than a stream of recall from the author. Language also involves a receiver, and if it is not tailored to the receiver then the message is lost. Proper editing practice forces students to focus on this communicative skill;

c) editing practice teaches that good ideas are rarely expressed in the most effective way in a first draft. Every writer I know works through many drafts to achieve the effect he or she wants on readers.



Some people have strong visual aptitudes. Some compress their understanding easily into numbers, statistics and tabulation. Others absorb information more readily from extensive text. Most organizations contain people with such different aptitudes, yet much waste and failure arises from the inability of these different “tribes” to communicate with each other. It is no accident therefore that tests for evaluating language skills, such as IELTS or TOEFL, as well as general scholastic aptitude tests, usually require students to translate between textual, visual and numeric codes.

Teachers must take time to teach these skills, and where some students resist (as they will), persuade them with real world narratives from the workplace. Some students may require little coaching to translate between modes, but others may need to be led fairly gently with many modeled examples.

52. Diagram labels

a) S's draw a labeled diagram to illustrate a text or table. For business students, this kind of content can be extracted easily from magazines, newspapers or business websites. The content for, say, automotive engineering students will look very different, but the conceptual processes are the same.

b) S's copy a diagram, then label it with a list of provided component names. Examples: the parts of a car engine; the weather cycle; the tasks from a project; the preparation of a wedding.

53. Text reconstruction

S's reconstruct a text from a labeled diagram, table or graph. This is the reverse of item 52. The main problem to watch is that the reconstructed text must form a cohesive and coherent whole. It should not be just a collection of unrelated sentences.

54. Tabulation

S's tabulate or graph information from a text. Since tabulation requires numbers, the text should ideally be one which quotes numbers in a fairly systematic way. A more subtle form of this exercise is a text which requires students to calculate or infer numbers before they can actually be inserted into the tabulation.



Reading, like writing, is a complex process which requires much more than an elementary knowledge of vocabulary and grammar to be performed usefully.

A relatively small part of any population reads extensively, even in their first language. The definition of “functional literacy” is fuzzy and contested, but literacy specialists are aware that up to amost half the populations in advanced OECD countries (let alone developing countries) have trouble with simple literacy tasks like reading the instructions on a medicine bottle or decoding a train timetable.

The overwhelming majority of people in prison everywhere are illiterate or quasi-literate. Working on a high circulation tabloid newspaper once, I was instructed to write for a reading age of 11 years. Most people’s literacy declines after the age of 14 years (when sex etc becomes a distraction).

Advanced literacy is rare. Only a tiny percentage can properly compare two newspaper editorials. Consequently, a large number of students learning English in any class are likely to have had little practice in extensive reading in their first language. Sadly this is true even of tertiary students. We know that even of those L2 students who do manage to graduate fom an English language institution, few will ever read English documents again unless they are absolutely required to.

Indeed, few English teachers themselves are really aware of how scarce advanced literacy is in their own culture, or in the cultures of students now learning English. There is no quick and easy fix for the worldwide problems of literacy, though we can work to raise awareness (it is much cheaper to advance a person’s literacy than to keep them in prison).

In the immediate and practical environment of a classroom, the teacher needs to be aware that the skills he thinks he is teaching will register in the minds of his students in ways quite different from what he assumes.

The activities listed here are a small collection from a large field of possibilities.

55. Skim reading for main ideas

Effective skim reading requires conscious effort and technique. Classsroom activities should be designed to sharpen the following skills:

a) Reading with an explicit purpose, as precisely as possible. Encourage students to make a very quick point list of search questions before they begin to read.

b) Taking advantage of the textual organization of material to shortcut what is read at all. For example, most writers are formulaic in their organization of paragraphs. Thus typically (but not always) the first sentence in a paragraph may set the topic or argument for what is to follow. This makes it easy for a reader who is skimming for main ideas. On the other hand, in some styles the writer does not arrive at a summarizing statement until the end of a paragraph.

Sample tasks:

i) Choose a sport which you know. Imagine you are a coach and your team is suffering too many injuries. You want to scan a book on sports medicine to find some hints. Make a short point list of questions about injury you will be trying to answer as you scan the book.

ii) The teacher provides a set of brief paragraph headings, scrambled. S's must skim read within a time limit to find the paragraphs to which the headings apply.

iii) The class is divided into teams who compete to find information from a chosen text. The winning team should explain their technique to the class.

56. Scanning for specific detail

In many occupations it is necessary to find specific information quickly from a mass of material. The search function of electronic material is a gift for this. Printed text may be handily organized in alphabetical order (a telephone book), with indexes, tables and so on. Some text however may offer none of these aids. The reason we pay lawyers (for example) is not for them to know thousands of pages of legal code, but for their skill in asking the right questions and locating the relevant answers quickly. One of the main skills learned in a tertiary education, hopefully, is exactly this kind of skill applied to a particular profession. Students learning a second language might or might not have a background in exercising such skills. If not, they will have to be taught through a series of reading tasks of increasing difficulty. Even for skilled professionals, scanning for specific detail in L2 is an activity vehicle which will give them much needed practice in the language.

Sample tasks:

i) Within a time limit, S's scan a text, table, flow chart or graph for specific information to achieve a defined end; e.g. "find the parts which regulate the oil pressure", or " find a material which is soft, ductile and malleable".

ii) A client wants to know which of several options will get his goods to customers at the lowest cost, fastest, with the least legal risk to him. The teacher will need to have several documents available which set out alternatives, with their advantages and disadvantages. Role play the client and the consultant (who is to scan the documents) within a time limit.

57. Comprehension of fact and inference

In life there are concrete facts which seem fairly certain (“I am sitting on a chair”), there are things we come to accept as factual through experience (“My hand will be burnt if I put it on a hot stove”), there are things which we accept as facts because they are stated by authorities (“The doctor says Mr Jones has cancer”; “The speed of light is 299,792,458 metres per second”). Accepting facts according to authority requires a certain kind of faith, and people vary in their willingness to extend that faith. Some people also extend faith to a religious context or ideology, and thus widen their domain of acceptable facts. Depending upon the source of facts, and their acceptance by any given individual, different strengths of inference might be drawn from the facts. Not surprisingly then, people argue endlessly about the conclusions they infer from “facts”.

What does all of this have to do with language learning? Quite a lot. Because people do argue about fact, inference and conclusion, every language contains mechanisms for discussing these things, and cultural rules about how they can be discussed.

A teacher of students learning English cannot assume that students are alert either to the mechanisms in English for such discussions, or the cultural rules applying to them. Ignorance may result merely in social embarrassment, or it may actually disqualify students from certain jobs or areas of tertiary study.

The methods and sophistication for teaching these matters will depend upon the learning context, the personality of the teacher, and the needs of the students. The examples to follow are just a couple of brief illustrations.

a) S's read a text then label a set of related statements true or false according to what they have read in the text. The simplest form of this exercise is the direct matching of facts (e.g. The writer says that brake fluid should be changed at least every two years). A more difficult exercise requires the drawing of likely inferences (e.g. brake fluid deteriorates over time [this not being directly stated in the text]).

b) The teacher makes a collection of commercial material which claims to draw valid inferences from solid facts. Large amounts of deceptive advertising are available on any subject which touches people’s insecurities, ambitions, hopes and vices. Collect schemes to “make money easily”, “work from home”, “lose weight in X amount of time”, “invest for unmatched returns”, “learn a language in 3 months” … and so on. Documents such as this are rich fields for language learners to take apart in a classroom, and have fun while doing so. The students of course can also construct their own get rich schemes and learn plenty of inferential language in the process.

58. Information synthesis

As with item 57 (fact and inference) the skills required for information synthesis are not specific L2 learners of English, but the language tools in English needed to synthesize information become important for students socially, especially those entering professional roles.

Sample tasks:

a) Use these phrases to combine ideas and produce an outcome: / I wonder what would happen if we put X with Y / On the Internet look for search terms related to “innovation” and “Australia”, then write a short report on what you learn / When I thought about X, I realized Y / Over the last 10 years Y has happened. This means that X / We interviewed 300 people about X and concluded Y /

b) Assign S's to individually find information in a text, then report back to a partner or group to achieve a further sequential task; e.g. A finds a material which is X; B finds a material which is Y; A & B then find, say, a suitable adhesive to laminate X to Y.

59. Technical error correction

Technical error correction is a daily experience in many professions (and of course language teachers are always looking for “language errors”). From a language learning perspective, the skills to learn here are:

i) language to describe the actual error(s);

ii) language to describe corrective action;

iii) language to describe avoiding such problems in the future;

iv) language to control the politeness level and interpersonal relationships when errors occur.

The social language in iv) is often the most difficult to manage appropriately since it varies with gender, social status, the kind of job involved, whether the stakes are high or not, the honesty and cultural patterns of the interlocutors, and so on.

For example, excessive politeness among men might sometimes be taken as a sign of insincerity; blunt accusation of an error might be accepted as normal in same sex situations but (sometimes) be misinterpreted as sexism in cross-gender situations; a poor use of modal verbs by an L2 speaker of English might be decoded as extreme rudeness.

It is impossible to cover all of these situations in a classroom (even when the teacher is aware of them), but students can be forwarned to be alert and flexible through personal narratives and some timely exercises or role plays.

Sample exercises:

a) S's find the errors in a procedural description, table, graph or labeled diagram. This can be competitive. A spokesperson for each student group must then describe the nature of the error(s), to the class, and a proper remedy. The teacher needs to carefully monitor and coach the language used resolve these situations (since such language is the real point of the exercise). For example: “If we look at the fifth row in the second column of the table, we can see that this cell has been wrongly calculated. When I checked the formula, I found that items had been added instead of subtracted …”

b) S’s role play a situation where there has been a serious professional error, or series of errors.


i) an airport manager is concerned because many flights are not departing on time;

ii) a patient dies because of a communication error between an anaesthetist and a nurse;

iii) a mechanic forgets to re-tighten the bolts on an engine block head, causing a gasket failure.

The point of these role plays is not only to describe the errors to another party, but to manage the social level of language with which this is done. There is a real learning advantage in videoing role plays like this, if possible, so that the language can be reviewed, discussed, and the role play done again.



60. System analysis #1

After reviewing real or simulated examples of performance in professional situations, S's analyse a complex system (e.g. a refrigeration unit) in a series of steps:

a) make a list of actions/processes performed (e.g. on the refrigerant gas);

b) make a list of the results of the actions/processes;

c) match the items in a) with the items in b), perhaps in a table;

d) state c) as a set of causative sentences (e.g. when the compressor compresses the gas, its temperature rises").

Note: a) and b) may be done by the teacher in some instances, or S's in others. If done by the teacher, relationships can be scrambled to facilitate c) as an exercise. a) may be stated in syntactic passive form.

61. System analysis #2

a) One set of S's list actions/processes in a system. The system may be entirely technical, or simply a set of well-regulated procedures in daily living.


A traffic officer monitors the traffic stream / if a vehicle commits an offence, that vehicle is ordered to pull over / the driver must show his driving licence / the traffic officer will explain the offence / the driver will offer any verbal defence / the traffic officer will explain the penalty / the traffic officer will issue a traffic violation notice).

b) A second group of S's list outcomes.


Drivers must comply with the road traffic rules / the driver of an offending vehicle must pull over / the driver must produce his driving licence promptly / the driver must listen politely to the traffic officer and not engage in argument / … etc)

c) Group a) and group b) must combine their findings to produce cause & effect statements.


A traffic officer monitors the traffic stream TO ENSURE THAT [or TO CHECK THAT] drivers comply with the road traffic rules. / IF a vehicle commits an offence, THEN that vehicle is ordered to pull over AND the driver of an offending vehicle must pull over. / The driver must show his driving licence, SO he will produce it promptly [OR face severe penalties.. ] / WHILE the traffic officer IS explainING the offence, the driver must listen politely to the traffic officer and not engage in argument / … etc.

d) When the system analysis is complex and technical, S's will need to re-check if the totals of actions and outcomes do not match.

62. Technical argument

Competing teams of students are given alternate but functionally equivalent designs for a machine, process or technique (e.g. a cooling fan driven by a crankshaft pulley Vs an electric fan).


a) S's must persuade an adjudicator that their version is superior, technically and/or economically.

b) Each team will have to do some research and learning before presentation, and carefully consider possible counter-arguments.

c) Detailed arguments before the adjudicator may be necessary, since the fine points of a case will be unknown to other parties at the outset.

d) The teacher can toss a coin to see which team is to defend which design.

63. Technical description

Competing teams are asigned unrelated, simple machines (actual or diagrams) to examine.


a) S's compete to provide the most lucid and comprehensive description of the operation and operating principles behind each machine. If this is a project, their presentation may include diagrams, PowerPoint slides etc, which will also be evaluated for relevance.

b) Key questions for evaluation:

i) What job does it do?;

ii) How does it do it?

iii) What technical problems must be solved to do the job?

iv) Which principles are employed to solve the problems (e.g. leverage, fluid pressure, sealing techniques, surface tension etc.)?

64. Technical innovation

Competing teams are given the same materials, mechanisms and tools to work with. The sophistication of the working materials here can range from the very simple, as say found in a rural village, to the most complex imaginable, such as the developmental laboratory of an electronics company. This depends entirely upon the nature of the students and the abilities of the teacher.


a) S’s devise the maximum number of viable applications with these resources within a time frame.

b) The materials etc. may be either actual or imaginary.

c) Since this is a language learning class, the emphasis is not only on innovation, but also the logic, fluency and clarity with which students can present their creations. The standard of description needed for each innovation can be modified for particular classes.

Note: This kind of “innovation exercise” has become famous as standard procedure in training for “lateral thinking” of the kind first popularized by the management consultant and writer, Edward deBono. For example, deBono’s clients were often given a small collection of common items, for example paper clips, rubber bands, match sticks etc, and asked how many uses they could devise for them.

An extension from using physical items is the kind of “thought experiment” used by Albert Einstein to explain the physics of relativity. Exploring the notion of lateral thinking itself is a very useful and interesting addition to the normal activities of a language class. (Students can research terms like “lateral thinking” and “thought experiments” on the Internet, if they have access to it).

65. Resource search

Different students are given complimentary materials and/or tools. Within the classroom context, this “resource search” is essentially a communicative activity, whose language value will turn upon the readiness of students to enquire, negotiate and cooperate.


a) S’s must find other S's who can combine their resources to generate the maximum number (or even one) viable application.

b) Resources for several applications will be distributed simultaneously, but the teacher will name none of them.

c) Actual resources distributed and their applications can be (and probably will be) symbolic only (names, diagrams etc.). For example, the constituents of a lead-acid battery and a zinc-dipping unit might be distributed randomly amongst S's.

d) The finalization of the activity will come with groups of students organizing a presentation and explanation of their achievement to the class as a whole. The kind of language this will require will mostly be in the PAST TENSE with a careful use of sequencing connectives and logical reasoning.

66. Technical development

S's in groups compare descriptions, illustrations or realia of early and late model versions of a machine, component, procedure, technique, computer program or publication. This might be a project type activity with most resources collected out of class.


a) Identify the gains, losses, compromises in functionality, design elegance, production cost, serviceability, durability, weight, size .. etc.

b) Find the reasons (if any) for modifications.

c) Contrast advertised claims for changes with the reality.

67. Technical analysis

Pairs of S's are given a small machine (e.g. a tap, perhaps a carburettor) to disassemble and reassemble. Specialized professional students might work with some item common to their profession – say some computer code, a specialized garment etc.


a) Tabulate a description of each component by function / type of material / shape / dimensions / weight (i.e. S's will have to weigh and measure) / .. or whatever other features distinguish components from the whole .

b) The task can be speed competitive, with points deducted for inaccuracy and omissions.

68. Design

“Design” is a complex idea which can have many meanings, depending upon the purpose at hand. In this context of language learning, the “design” exercise is mostly a vehicle for the language gain which can come from discussion amongst S's.


a) The teacher gives S's a list of objects / operational actions and/or outcomes, scrambled. For example, there may be an imaginary truckload of disassembled irrigation pipes / a pump / various tools / a half acre of crops / a water source such as a nearby river / some water use regulations / some alternative layouts for the irrigation since the land is not flat ….

b) S's must design a machine, a building, a land use design, a process … etc (probably through a series of labeled diagrams) to perform the operation.

d) The closing activity will come with groups of students organizing a presentation and explanation of their choices to the class as a whole.

69. Process completion

This exercise can be done with students of almost any background, and with the right kind of process, even with children.

The teacher gives S's the first and final steps in a process, then says there are (for example) six steps in between.

Examples: the steps in a cooking recipe / the steps in cutting hair / the steps in applying for a job or school place / the steps in dismantling an electrical appliance / …


a) S's compete to find the six steps. Points are taken off for wrong suggestions.

b) The students have to justify their choice of steps.

70. Technical Problem solving

The teacher poses a technical problem and S's work in pairs to devise a solution, which may be mathematical or verbal.

Choice of Language:

Much of the value of problem solving as a language exercise comes from negotiation between students. Therefore care should be taken to ensure that they use English, not their L1. For example, turn on the recorder of a mobile phone and leave it running on their desk while you attend to other students. “Being listened to” is a strong disincentive to switching back to L1.


a) Answers should be as detailed as possible.

b) Verbal or textual responses should contain the appropriate modal verbs; (e.g. you could support the engine with a jack; you would have to remove X before you did Z...).

Examples of practical problems (automotive examples):

<> The fan belt breaks 50km from a garage.

<> Air keeps getting into the fuel line.

<> A hydraulic bleed nipple shears off when you try to open it.

<> Calculate the battery drain when you leave your car headlights on.

71. Reward & punishment game

The teacher devises a board game, such as of “Snakes and Ladders”, where S's can avoid punishment or claim a reward by giving credible solutions to technical problems (on cards) or giving definitions or calculating a value etc.


72. Sound profiles

The teacher collects a library of sound profiles. Examples: the sound of running engines in various conditions / types of dog barks / guitar chords in and out of tune / voices in different emotional states / ….

Objective: The language point of projects like “Sound Profiles” is to match some aspect of the environment, or a job or hobby etc. with the English language. That is language (English in this case) becomes the currency amongst students in dealing with the topic.

Tasks (exampled) :

a) S's are asked to match recorded noises with a table of, for example, engine faults.

b) S's then have to verbalize descriptions of particular sounds, and explain the tape / table matching.

73. Audio project

Note that most students now have access to a mobile phone, which almost invariably include a recorder.


a) S's record personal collections of sounds about a theme.

b) S's compete to identify the sound sets collected by peers; (the teacher will give an initial model response);

c) Every S must describe his sounds, where they occur, how they are made, and the effect they have on the surrounding environment.

74. Photographic project

It is important that this project be taken from life rather than copied from a book. It may be competitive. Some S's will need coaching in photographic technique.


a) S's photograph the stages of an industrial process, mechanical repair, an event etc.

b) S’s develop a collage with captions to illustrate the topic.

c) S’s give an illustrated talk on the topic.

75. Survey #1

Surveys come in an almost infinite number of designs for many different purposes. The purpose of surveys in a language program is not to conduct a course in non parametric statistics! Rather, surveys create an opportunity to practice language in a systematic but fairly sociable manner.


S's do a mini-survey of technical competence in the community.

Examples: What percentage of people can …

i) Adjust a digital watch

ii) Program a video recorder

iii) Fix a leaky tap

iv) Tune a carburetor

v) Explain what is actually meant by a "2000cc OHV engine" ... etc. ?


a) S's need to negotiate a suitable repertoire of questions, and how they will be evaluated.

b) Surveys need to be designed carefully, compiled, analysed, and perhaps have illustrations or graphs added. The teacher herself is likely to benefit from a little background research on how to create surveys.

Outcome: The final outcome will be a presentation to the class, orally, in writing, or both.

76. Survey #2


S's do an attitude survey on a variety of social questions relating to technology.


a) How many people are ashamed / proud of / indifferent to their technical ability? Why?

b) Is technical competence learned or inherited? What is the evidence?

c) Are plumbers respected more or less than clerks? Why? ... etc.

77. Survey #3


S's do a mini survey on the reasons that people work.


S's need to negotiate and a suitable repertoire of questions, and how they will be evaluated.


The teacher invites S's to relate the survey responses to their own career choices and decide whether their selection has been rational.



78. Job search


The teacher devises or borrows a selection test for a particular job. S's are coached in appropriate responses, then tested to see if they "get an interview". The “job search” procedure in language learning can be very simple, or it can be complicated endlessly with all sorts of criteria, depending upon the language level of the students and their needs.

79. Industrial relations problems


The teacher researches and compiles a library of actual communication, industrial relations, and health & safety problems that have arisen in named enterprises. In many cases teachers themselves are poorly informed about industrial relations issues, so it is a good teacher learning exercise to consult with real industry sources themselves, and also of course with students who have experienced industrial conditions.


The problems are structured as role play sets (with character description cards) for students to discuss and resolve.


a) Compare S outcomes with the outcomes achieved in the actual situations.

b) Explore the reasons for these different outcomes (if any).

80. Negotiation

Negotiation is a critical language skill. It may range from bargaining in a produce market, to interpersonal gender relationships, to negotiating an employment contract, to the interminable negotiations which govern the relationships between countries.

Depending upon their cultural origins, students may vary greatly in their past exposure to the psychology and language of negotiation. There will also be critical differences between those cultures where “face” (public respect) is critical, and those which value directness, even at the cost of some friction.

Before undertaking a learning project which involves the language of negotiation, teachers need to explore these cultural differences with students, being sensitive but persistent. Negotiation in real life, or in classroom simulation, will not succeed until all parties are prepared to accept that negotiation involves adjustments not simply on the issue in contention (such as a salary), but also in cultural style.

Preparation (sample negotiation situation):

Note that this simulation may be relatively simple or extremely elaborate. It should be as realistic as possible. Obviously, very careful preparation of realia, and some pre-teaching is required.

a) Team X has the specifications for a tender being put out by their company. This may be for equipment, machinery, materials, vehicles, a service, or for the completion of a project such as a road or building construction.

b) Team Y has specifications for a range of products or services which they can combine in various ways to meet the needs of team X.

c) Team Z, like team Y, has a range of goods and services on offer.


a) Teams Y and Z must compete to negotiate with team X to match tender requirements with the best available product or service at reasonable cost.

b) Team X may be persuaded in some cases to modify their requirements, but both Y & X parties must be given a chance to resubmit if this happens.


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© Thor May 2012 all rights reserved


Bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. Many of his papers, essays and stories may be seen on his website at http://thormay.net ; e-mail thormay@yahoo.com .

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