Why Can’t They Just Get This Right?

Have you ever met one of those errors that simply will not go away? In Kazakhstan, Many students would say to me, “I am agree with this,” instead of, “I agree.” It didn’t matter the level of the student. I would hear students making this mistake over and over. And the standard error correction practices didn’t seem to make much of an impact.

Why is it that our students seem to have these persistent errors? And why is it that students from a particular country or culture seem to share so many of these errors?


The answer is interlanguage. Interlanguage is a sort of language (or pidgin) that students construct when they are learning a second language. Interlanguage shares features of both students’ first language and the new language, and it changes as students master the new language.

Basically what happens is that students process a new language through the filter of their first language-trying to apply the grammar and language features to the new language. If you’ve ever tried to communicate in a new language by translating an idiom from Englsih literally into the new language, that’s interlanguage. Another feature of interlanguage is the overapplication of rules of the second language. When a beginner student learns that adding -ed to verbs makes them past tense in English, they often start using that rules every where. They say things like “sitted” and “eated”.

So why were my Kazakhstan students saying, “I am agree,” instead of “I agree”? Well, in their first language, Russian, it’s common to say “я согласен” which literally translates to “I am agreeable,” i.e. the adjective form of “agree”. However in Russian, you usually drop the verb “to be” in the present tense.

So to produce, “I am agree,” my students had to apply a few rules of Russian and a few of English:

  1. They added in the verb “to be” because they know that in English we do use it.
  2. They used the correct form of “agree” (instead of “agreeable”) because they heard that form being used.
  3. However, they missed that “agree” here is a verb and therefore we don’t actually need the verb “to be”

Why Should We Care About Interlanguage?

Well, first of all, interlanguage brings out the positive in student errors. Rather than focusing exclusively on the mistake (using “to be” incorrectly”), the analysis above shows that students learned two things about English. In fact, their error is really an over application of a rule in English. We really should be complimenting them on what they’ve learned so far!

Second, the analysis above has given us an insight into the nature of the error, so we can now go about correcting it. Rather than shouting, “It’s ‘I agree!’ Stop saying ‘I AM agree!'”, we can explain the rule to them. In English, agree is a verb so we don’t use “to be” for that. We could then find some other similar expressions and analyze how they work in Russian and English, such as “I am tired”, “I am hungry”.

A Guide to Interlanguage for Your Students

Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a guide to the most common errors your students might make, based on their native language? Then you could understand exactly why your students are making the mistakes they are making. And you’d have insight into how to fix them. Well if your students speak Polish, good news!

Matt Purland has written the definitive guide to interlanguage and Polish students of English: I Have Twenty Fingers, for sale on Amazon as a paperback.

This book lists no less than 160 common errors that Polish-speaking students of English make. Each error is explained clearly and simply with reference to the differences between Polish and English. The explanations are also supported with an example sentence in Polish, the correct version in English, the literal translation into English and the specific error. The book is remarkably thorough in the explanations, so it’s quite clear the source of the error and how best to correct it.

As you may have guessed from the title, one source of an error is that in Polish, toes are also referred to as fingers (as they are in Russian as well) so a Polish speaker might well say they have 20 fingers because they are including the toes. (Interestingly, Matt as a British English speaker has a different concept of fingers from me. He advocates for saying one has eight fingers and two thumbs, whereas I would tend to say that I have ten fingers with thumbs being a kind of finger)

Beyond the detailed explanations, the scope of the book itself is also very thorough. In the first section, Matt breaks the errors down into categories such as “false friends”, “errors with tenses”, “direct translation errors”, and “one word in Polish but two words in English”. The first section also contains a brief list of each error to refer to quickly. There are very clear but brief explanations and translations.
Finally what makes this book really useful is the tests. Beyond the explanations, Matt provides 4 tests that teachers or students can use to diagnose their errors. Students find the error in the English sentence and then the answer key leads them to the explanation in the book if they answer incorrectly. In fact, Matt is promoting the book as a series of tests, whereas I see it as really a series of explanations of interlanguage

if you are teaching English to Polish speakers you need this book. Or you are a Polish speaker studying English on your own, It will help you truly grasp the conceptual differences between English and your language to overcome persistent errors. You might want to pick it up even if you are studying or working in another Slavic country as many of the errors do overlap.

And if you are working in another area of the world, consider making your own list of these errors due to interlanguage. Once you understand how to analyze these kinds of mistakes, you’ll see that many supposed errors are in fact the growing pains of learning a new language.

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Make Your Own Icebreaker

The Make Your Own Icebreaker Chart outlines the four steps of most icebreakers and ways to go about implementing them to help you make original icebreakers. In this post, I walk through those four steps and how you can use the chart to make a new original icebreaker or adapt an old favorite.

icebreakerWhen I was working on 50 Activities for the First Day of School, I was reading so many icebreakers and getting to know you activities that I started to wonder if there was a common framework to icebreakers. Was there a standard set of steps teachers could improvise around?  How could you make make your own icebreaker, something original, but not unfamiliar to students?

I played with a lot of ideas before I came up with this Make Your Own Icebreaker Chart. The chart outlines the four major steps of an icebreaker activity, although you can usually skip or abbreviate one of those steps.

  1. Students usually acquire information from each other or the classroom or teacher. From the other side of the coin, they are sharing or giving information
  2. Then they usually have to record that information somewhere, and usually as they record it, they are manipulating it, doing something with it.
  3. Then they share or distribute the information.
  4. Finally, they use that information in someway. This step can be as simple as reporting back to the class or as complex as writing a biographical essay about a partner.

For each step, the chart has a number of examples of how that could be done. You can also think back on your favorite icebreaker and reverse engineer it to see how it accomplishes each of these steps.

You can find the Make Your Own Icebreaker Chart at Alphabet Publishing, along with other free downloadable worksheets for icebreakers and getting to know you activities. I probably shouldn’t be sharing this, as it might put me out of business! Who needs a book of activities when you can make your own? But I can’t resist sharing this, and maybe getting some feedback on it!

So how does the Make Your Own Icebreaker chart work?

Make Your Own Icebreaker Chart from Alphabet Publishing
I identified four steps that students go through in a typical icebreaker, or getting to know you activity. I’ll explain them below and illustrate them with a very simple interview-style icebreaker. I should not that not all icebreakers have these steps, or have them in this order. In fact, I’d say most icebreakers have three of the four steps here. And sometimes there’s a prep stage, where you make a worksheet or students think about what they are going to say.

I’d also note that the steps don’t always go in this order. In Find Someone Who, the teacher records information in a chart and then makes the students acquire it.  Or sometimes the steps happen simultaneously. When students are asking and answering questions, they are acquiring and recording information at the same time.

Step 1: Acquire Information

So usually the first step of an icebreaker is to get some information from a partner. It might come from asking questions or reading a name tag or a worksheet the teacher has handed out. In some cases, the teacher or student does some prep work before, in creating the information. You might have students fill in a profile.

In a simple interview-style icebreaker, students acquire information by asking their partner questions such as “What’s your favorite color?” or “What did you do over summer break?”

Step 2: Record and Manipulate

Now that students have asked their questions of their partner, or read their teacher’s profile, they have to do something with the information. Having students manipulate information helps them to remember it and evaluate it. You want students to remember what they have learned from their friends and classmates beyond the first day. You also want them to make connections–“Hey, he likes baseball. I wonder if he likes other sports, too.” Otherwise, there’s point in doing a getting to know you activity at all.

In an interview, students would be taking notes on their partner, or perhaps filling out a class profile worksheet the teacher gave them.

Step 3: Distribute

This may be the step that is most often skipped. Usually students jump from recording information to telling someone about it. In our interview example, students would now jump to step 4, reporting the information to the class or another partner.

But adding a step where students leave the information somewhere–on a bulletin board, mixed up at random, thrown in a snowball, adds an extra element to the icebreaker. It allows you to have students find a new partner by chance, as in Who Wrote That? Or students can hang a fact they have collected about their partner on the wall, and every one in the class can read about everyone else. This opens up the icebreaker so that the whole class is learning about the whole class.

Step 4: Use the Information

Finally, you want students to do something with what they learned, whether it be report back to the class, report to another pair, or go home and write a paragraph about their new friend. In Two Truths and a Lie, students evaluate the truth of what they were told. As a wrap-up to Who Wrote That, students may expand on a simple fact to tell a whole story about themselves or their partner. Students can act, sing, dance, or do interpretive dance (although that might be a bit intimidating on the first day of class).


So there you go. You have all the tools you need to make amazing icebreakers. Let me know what you come up with!

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Try to Pronounce Students' Names

Pronounce Students' Names My Name My IdentityYou’ll never be able to pronounce my name,” the student from Uzbekistan said. Little did she know I had lived in Kazakhstan for several years and the two languages are very similar. Nor was her name really all that difficult, just long.

“Is is Zulfizar Abduraimova (not her real name)?”I pronounced her name fairly well, I think.

She was floored. It was a small thing, pronouncing a student’s name correctly. It had extra impact because you don’t see a lot of Uzbek students in the US and it’s not a popular destination for Americans, either. Of all the English classes in the world, what were the odds she’d walk into mine? But that little trick bought me a lot of good will and rapport with her.

Contrast that with an all-too common scene in my experience, fictionalized below:

“You’ll never be able to pronounce my name. Call me Zul,” says the student.

“Oh thank God,” thinks the teacher. Then later in the staff room, “Zul? Who told her that was a good English name?”

“Have you met Shih-Wei? But I told him to call him Stephen.”

“Oh, really? I thought Shih-Wei was Rose’s real name. Can you believe there’s a guy who calls himself Rose?”

The chain reaction of disrespcct

See what can happen when students adopt a nickname because they feel their name doesn’t fit English or their teacher doesn’t care enough to try to pronounce their name? Students end up choosing nicknames that are still mocked. The only thing accomplished is that the student learns that their name is indeed not a proper English name. How much easier it would be to learn their names, rather than give them nicknames?

Now I’m not talking about nicknames the student has chosen for fun. Or that their friends have given them. I’m talking about nicknames or shortenings of their name students take on specifically because they feel their name is “too hard” for English or “sounds funny to native speakers”. I’m talking about names given to hide or distort who they are.

Names are closely linked to identity. Respecting a students’s identity is the easiest way to build rapport. That’s why I applaud the My Name, My Identity Campaign. The campaign encourages teachers to learn to pronounce students’ names correctly. There are some great resources  to help you, including a great guide on International Naming Conventions and  four websites to help you hear names and see them spelled phonetically.

What if You Can’t Pronounce Students’ Names?

I will add one caveat, which is that you may not be able to pronounce your student’s name as perfectly as a native speaker. We tell our students that a native accent is not a realistic goal for most language learners. They shouldn’t expect us to have perfect pronunciation, either. However, there’s no excuse not to make an effort. They will be able to tell if you are trying or not. And it really will go a long way to building rapport with your students.

Cross-posted on Alphabet Publishing’s blog

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Visualize Your Goals: 30 Goals Cycle 7

My visualization of my goals, what objectives will get me there, and the steps needed to achieve my objectives. A great exercise thanks to the 30 Goals Challenge.

For various reasons, I’m digging through a lot of communities and bloggers I used to follow with dedication. That led me back to the 30 Goals Challenge, which I really enjoyed. It’s a great way to be inspired as a teacher, writer, and a blogger. So here’s my entry for Goal 1 of Cycle 7 Visualize Your Goals
Visualize Your Goals

My Two Main Goals

My two goals are in the center and they’re quite broad, but I suspect quite straightforward: To make a living and to be happy. I should point out that making a living for me is about more than just making money or eating and sleeping. It’s about being productive, which is something that’s important to me.

I’ve then illustrated three branches or kinds of activities that make me happy and help me make a living.

The Three Branches

On the bottom left, there’s networking and reaching out to other teachers, including talking (I don’t know why those faces look so scary), social media, and a shout out to 30 Goals and communities like it.

On top, there’s the bulk of my work: writing and promoting my writing. Of course, there’s a wonderful overlap where I reach out to communities to help market my book and get swept back into those communities again and improve my teaching. That’s the best kind of professional development cycle!

Finally, there’s the part of my life that is sheer fun. I think it’s important to map fun and plan for it as you would work. So there’s family time with my son and my hobbies, like playing guitar, reading, and  working in the garden. That sprawling thing is meant to be a tomato plant but it kind of looks like green river now, which is fine.

What are your goals? What do they look like? How will you get there? Leave a comment or join 30Goals and Visualize your Goals as well!

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50 Activities for the First Day of School

50 Activities for the First Day of School is a collection of activities teachers can use on the first day of school or anytime they need an icebreaker or team building activity. While aimed at the English language classroom, the book is useful to any teacher who wants to start the school year out right!

50 Activities for the First Day of School by Walton Burns

My book is officially for sale!

50 Activities for the First Day of School is a collection of activities teachers can use on the first day of school or anytime they need an icebreaker or team building activity. While aimed at the English language classroom, the book is useful to any teacher who wants to start the school year out right!

This book features

  • Classic icebreakers and name games
  • Fun ways to start teaching on the first day
  • New innovative activities to build rapport
  • Practical ideas to set the rules from day one
  • Engaging ways to introduce the course right away
  • Effective methods of assessing your students’ language level

You can also find more information on the book and great first day of school resources at The First Day of School webpage.

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Free Stock Images for Bloggers

I’ve been slowly collecting a number of sites that provide free stock images on this post. Now that I’ve been using them for a while, I’m updating this with a few notes about each one.

  • is probably the one I use least. The images are all very minimalist and clean and modern. They look great, if that’s what you want. Since I tend to use pictures of smiling and laughing children a lot (go figure), this site isn’t a lot of use to me. But it’s very high quality and the pictures are strictly curated.
  • is my favorite for dramatic, inspirational, or simply beautiful shots. There’s lots of shots here of night skies and mountains and rushing rivers. Often they are filtered for dramatic effect. I really like these free stock images for backgrounds or to put behind quotes. It’s also fun because they offer to email you 10 images every week. Or you can use their Chrome app that produces a random image every time you open a new tab. I had to disable it because it was too distracting.
  • provides what most people think of as stock images, but free! I can find my laughing students, teachers looking industrious, and people staring at cellphones intently, along with anything else you might find at Shutterstock or iStock. That includes graphics and vector images, too. Great variety, great quality.
  • is also a pretty standard stock image site. I’d say the variety and quality is not as good as FreeRangeStock, but I’ve found some fun images there.
  • is similair to pixabay. It’s hit or miss whether you find what you are looking for and whether the quality is any good. Morguefile does feature only photographs, so no cartoons or icons or vector drawings.
  • is a mix of standard stock images and beautiful inspirational shots. All photos are the work of one photographer so the variety isn’t as great as other sites. But the style tends to be uniform, so it’s very useful for finding multiple shots that work well together.
  • Flickr is a photo-sharing site for photographers, professional and amateur alike. This site is just a way of searching for images there that the photographers are allowing others to use. Be sure to check the terms. In most cases you will need to include attribution, and in some cases you can’t alter the image in any way.
  • As the title implies, this one is all icons. I’m amazed how often I use icons in my writing. I like adding marginalia like helpful hints or references to other pages. I like using icons to set those off. So this is a great site for finding lots of icons.
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Classroom Posters for the First Day of Class

These are my two favorite classroom posters. They provide great first day of school activities to help students get to know each other. What’s even better is that the bonding and team building goes beyond the first day. All by themselves, students start congregating around these posters to chat and talk about themselves.

The first poster invites students to share some words in their own language. By letting students bring their own language and identity in the classroom, you’re showing that you know they are more than the sum of what they can express in English and that learning English doesn’t mean forgetting their past. One of the big surprises with using this poster is how fast students start teaching each other words using English as their medium, of course. They start demanding to know things in English so they can translate into their own language! Furthermore, students start thinking about register, tone, difficulties of translating, pragmatics, and social context. Breaks and time before or after class will always find a student staring at this poster.


The second poster is a simple world map and I love this one I found with all the flags on it. A simple day one activity is to have students label their country with their name. Then have them look at the map and their classmates’ countries of origin. Get them to form at least one question about one other student’s country, such as what do you eat there, what is the weather like, why is your flag like that. Students find the person they want to ask and briefly share information about their home countries. This is another one that gets students hanging out during breaks, studying who is from where and discussing their countries of origin.


Both posters are for sale in my Teachers Pay Teachers store in multiple sizes: 24 x 36, A2, legal, and letter. Purchase and download the In Your Own Words Poster and the World Flags Map Poster.

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The Five Paragraph Essay: Love It or Hate It

There’s been a bit of a debate lately online on the five paragraph essay. It started with this post: Let’s Bury the 5-Paragraph Essay: Long Live Authentic Writing by Brian Sztabnik. Mr. Sztabnik made some good points that I have talked about on this blog before: the 5-Paragraph essay doesn’t really exist outside of the classroom and teaching such a inflexible structure and format to our students does not teach them how to write well. However, Mr. Sztabnik did seem to imply that teaching any kind of structure would be detrimental to our students, which I thought was taking the argument a bit too far.

Robert Sheppard then wrote In Defense of the 5-Paragraph Essay on the TESOL Blog, arguing many good points, but not quite convincing everyone. I wrote a response on my facebook page, which I reproduce below:

This is an interesting post in defense of the five paragraph essay. But it demonstrates the exact reason I dislike the five paragraph essay: the assumption that this structure is the basis of any writing at all outside of the classroom.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with teaching the 5-paragraph essay. It’s a great testing or evaluative tool as Sheppard points out. It also might make for a nice brainstorm or pre-writing before creating a finished text.

I also agree with Sheppard that structure or format is not confining. Writing does need to be structured and organized. Authentic writing is always structured and organized. The problem is that the five paragraph essay is structure invented for a writing test. It’s a very teacher-centered structure that makes it easy to grade a particular set of writing skills. However it is not the structure from which other genres and structures vary. A novel is not a variation of a five paragraph essay and neither is an annotated bibliography or a literature review or a diary entry. It is a great teaching and evaluation tool as Sheppard points out and no doubt uses to the benefit of his students.

It’s really not a useful structure for a book review, lab report, business case study, personal letter, reflection paper, business memo, grant proposal, application essay, or any text I can think of except perhaps a speech or sermon, since oral genres tend to require strict organization and repetition to help listeners comprehend the point.

When I discovered the genre approach to writing, promoted in the US by Nigel Caplan and John Swales and Ken Hyland, I saw how to teach students clear organized and beautiful writing by teaching them all the wonderful ways writing is put to use in authentic texts.

And recently when Mr. Sheppard’s post was shared on TESOL’s Second Language Writing IS mailing list, I discovered Nigel Caplan and Luciana C. de Oliveira’s answer to Mr. Shepperd’s post: Why We Still Won’t Teach the 5-Paragraph Essay.

I thought this paragraph:

Contrary to common myths (as Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock demonstrate), the five-paragraph essay does not work as a crutch that students will later discard, it does not teach skills that transfer to “real” academic genres, and it does not even guarantee success on standardized writing tests.

Was particularly interesting. I hadn’t seen any research to that effect but I find unconvincing in many situations the idea that we teach students a very complicated “crutch” or “scaffold” and then expect them to throw it away. I’ll have to add that Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock workbook to my teaching library.

What do you think of the 5-Paragraph Essay?

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Then and Now

This is one of my go-to activities for having students compare verb tenses. It’s really nice in that it allows for a lot of flexibility on which tenses you want to practice. You can limit it to the present and past simple or throw in the present perfect and continuous tenses. You could even work the future in.

The activity involves students sharing details of their lives from the present and another time period. This requires them to pay attention to meanings of various verb tenses as they relate to times of events, changes or lack of changes, and how verb tenses relate to each other.

Then and Now- The Differences Between Past and Present Lesson Plan

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Listening and Speaking Activities for Adult ESL Learners

I love large compendiums of activity ideas. Resource books full of simple, easy to adapt activities are the lifeblood of teaching in my opinion. And if there happens to be a free resource, available on the Internet so I can access it anywhere, that’s even better!

So here’s a really nice one put out by the Colorado Department of Education: Listening and Speaking Activities for Adult ESL Learners 

The resource also shows how the activities align to the BEST Plus Assessment and CASAS Listening Basic Skills Content Standards. Fortunately, as a private teacher I don’t have to worry about that stuff but it’s a nice way to get an idea of what exact speaking or listening skill is involved.

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