Making a Template

I mentioned last week that the TESOL Convention had ignited my interest in actual materials design i.e. what the materials look like on the page. Many years ago (about three  or four) I stumbled on Jason Renshaw’s blog which features quite a bit about materials design. I have always remembered the 3:1 principle which has informed a lot of what I do.

This is a really nice video on how to make a very professional looking template with a header and a footer. I really like the results as they hit that happy medium between overly simple and overly complicated. It looks very professional and finished without going overboard. Now Jason Renshaw tends to teach with online worksheets and presentations so these are designed with an eye to showing them on a screen rather than printing them out. For printing, I would leave the middle bit white personally.

I’ve also made a template for Word 2010 that you are welcome to use. You can change the text by just clicking on it and typing. And you can easily change the color of the header or footer by clicking on the center and going to the Format tab. Use Shape Fill, Shape Outline and Shape to change colors or add borders and shadows and stuff. I’ve been using one color as a header and a lighter version for the footer. Then I use a contrasting color for the name box over on the top right: Lesson Template.

30Goals: Get Rid of the Unnecessary Weight

Another 30 goals post on Getting Rid of the Unnecessary Weight.

Hana posts a few questions to answer and reflect on how to get rid of literal or metaphorical clutter in our professional lives or teaching. I was thinking of this in terms of my recent post on the Pareto Principle which states that you can get 80% of your output from 20% of your inputs. In other words, we should be able to dump 80% of our content and still get pretty good results from our students.

Of course, it’s debateable if the principle applies to education where results are complex and multiple. But I thought it would be interesting to take a lesson and strip it down as much as possible.

Looking at one of my more popular lessons which I wrote years ago: At the Restaurant, it seems so full of clutter. It’s presenting a sample dialogue, some key vocab and some follow-up questions. Yet it’s very long and I’m not sure what some parts are aiming at. Here’s an example of cutting a lot of weight, and rewriting to make it clearer:

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I’m not sure I killed 80% of it, but it’s a lot more concise now. I think my students will like it a lot better!

What's a Word Processor, Teacher?

Come check out my awesome presentation orienting students to basic skills such as typing and text-formatting. Not all our students grew up as wired and even students who are great on computers in their own languages get bogged down by the American keyboard and shortcut keysYou can’t get students excited about blogging and making wikis if it still takes them ten minutes to find the letter A. If you’ve got 25 minutes, I’ll introduce some of the websites and activities I do with students.

These are all things I’ve done in computer labs and let students do independently, too: What’s a Word Processor, Teacher?

World Clock: Sun 12pm GMT, 1pm London, 2pm Paris, 9pm Tokyo, 8am New York


While technology has opened up new worlds of learning for ELLs, some students may be sitting down at a computer for the first time in your classroom. I’ve had students who typed essays in their email and who didn’t know that you could save documents on a computer! Before students can really take advantage of the world wide web, it’s nice for them to know how to open an attachment or bold some text. In this presentation, I will share some activities and games I use to let students learn basic computer skills such as saving and opening files, practice typing, and to teach text formatting. A lot of these skills are transferable to other programs, such as blogs and chat forums, as text formatting symbols are becoming more universal. The techniques I will present could also be adapted to teach HTML or other more complex computer skills.


I’ve taught English in Vanuatu, Kazakhstan, and Connecticut.My students have been Russian oil executives, Afghan high school students and Saudi princes. I currently write ESL materials and keep a blog at



My guinea pig died with its legs crossed

Note that I wrote this post while trying to design a syllabus for an entire course, an enterprise that was so daunting it made me feel like a total idiot who knows nothing about teaching at all. Or an egotistical madman. In the process of some research, I found this quote that hits exactly why I sometimes find teaching a language to be such an arrogant profession:

And what, then, is communication and what are its preconditions? This is what Dakin says:

“Communication is essentially personal, the expression of personal needs, feelings, experiences and knowledge, in situations that are never quite the same. And though we may often repeat ourselves, much of our conversation about even the most mundane matters is to some degree novel. We hear or produce utterances that we have never heard or produced before in quite the same form, and which, in consequence, cannot be practised [sic]  by the teacher or previously learnt by the learner. ‘My guinea pig died with its legs crossed’ said one eight-year old girl in a tape-recorded interview. No teacher is going to present such an utterance as serious material for drilling in the classroom or laboratory.” (pages 6-7)*
Whether more than one child will ever want to talk about its guinea pig dying with its legs crossed, uncrossed, or with little boots on, is not important. Very little of what we may want to say will be this striking. But almost all of it will be equally novel. Ask a language class of six adults “What did you do last night?”. If you are seriously interested in the answer, and actually wait for it, you will find perhaps that one watched TV, the other went to a brothel, the third had a strange religious experience, the fourth had a disgusting and overpriced meal, the fifth witnessed an accident and the sixth spent the evening playing whist. It would clearly be impossible for you as the teacher to have predicted what each learner will want to say or to have given them before the language necessary in that form. So either you should never have asked the question at all, or have included in your teaching a strong element of something else.

From: The limits of functional / notional approaches

I think we’ve all had guinea pig moments where a student is trying to really communicate with us but hasn’t learned the language to go beyond “in the classroom” or “home, sweet home”. We assume we know what needs our students have. Or we say to ourselves, “OK, maybe the students want to talk about a movie, but it’s more important to teach them how to take the bus to work first,” when we ourselves live for the time we get to chat about TV with our co-workers.

To be fair, the alternative is to teach everything, which is impossible. And you could go quite mad trying to teach six adults how to talk about a TV show, a brothel, a religious experience, a bad meal, an accident and a game of whist (who plays whist anymore?) Not to mention that while you’re dealing with the one adult, the other five are going to be bored. And who is this lucky teacher with only SIX students in class?

On the other hand, I do think we have to admit that CLT has its limits and we often are not really teaching students how to communicate very profoundly. We are not THAT far away from audio-lingualism in some respects. We’ve made memorizing language chunks and scripts a lot more fun, but we haven’t necessarily always evolved beyond it.

* ‘My guinea pig died with its legs crossed’ [Julian Dakin 1973 & Robert O’Neill 1977 – Editor

Creating Custom Style Sets in Word

Source: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

As I’ve been exploring the materials writer world more and more, I’ve learned a lot about a wide range of things from task design to publishing services to textbook company expectations. One area that I haven’t seen as much information on is actual document or visual design. I think that’s something that is very important. If you’re a teacher, the design of the handouts or worksheets can help students understand the information better and it also shows that you care, that you took time to make something nice for them. If you’re putting your materials out there online, a nice design makes it look professional.

One workshop I went to, Enhance Teacher-Made Materials Through Visual Consistency, with Tammy Jones and Gabriela Kleckova was on the importance of visual consistency. In other words, all your tests should look more or less the same. All your worksheets should have similar features. And one great way to do that, if you use Microsoft Word, is to create a style set. So here’s a little tutorial on how to make your own style set and then call it up every time you make a new quiz or worksheet or whatever.

I hope that it’s a useful resource and please feel free to leave questions, comments or critiques in the comments section or shoot me an email.

Let's Kill Some Babies

A nice activity, or maybe just a thought experiment, from Nick Robinson at ELT Jam taken from the Pareto Principle. Apparently, the Pareto Principle says “for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes”. So here’s Nick’s challenge:

Grab the nearest ELT coursebook. Open up a lesson and look at the lesson objectives. Bearing those lesson objectives in mind, read through the lesson and start crossing out (in pencil, of course!) anything that you don’t consider 100% essential to helping the student achieve that objective. Nice warmer activity? Sure, but we could probably skip it if need be. Hm, interesting text used as vehicle for the grammar point? What if we just showed a few examples in individual sentences instead? Ah, sweet, some video input! Shiny. Actually, though, it’s not really adding anything that I couldn’t supply with some good old-fashioned acting at the front of the class. Keep going and see if you can get rid of 80% of the content. If you think you could get the learner 80% towards the lesson objective, using only 20% of the content, then that’s a win for Pareto!

I would say try this with your own materials and writing as well. Someone somewhere once said writing is all about killing babies, meaning editing out all the fancy doodads and trills and frills and clever allusions that pretty things up but don’t actually help the reader at all.

I think when it comes to teaching that there does need to be some entertainment and engagement. But I suspect that too often we let the fun get in the way of the teaching and learning. 80% may be too harsh. Or maybe we need to realize that engaging learners is a key objective, essential to helping the student. But I’m sure that a large percentage of what happens on the page or in the classroom is not vital to teaching students.

Get Them in Groups

Putting students in groups is something teachers do all the time. It’s something that preferably happens quickly and seamlessly without interrupting class too much. Alternatively, there are methods of putting students into groups that also teach or at least provide practice. I’ve been working on my e-book about cooperative or collaborative learning, so I’ve also been collecting methods of grouping and pairing. Feel free to add more in the comments.
1. Counting off: The easiest way to do it. Give each student a number from 1 to however many groups you want (for four groups, number from 1 to 4, for example). Students with number 1 are one group. Students with number 2 are a different group and so on. It makes for random groups, but you can also asset some control by counting off all the female students first, then the male students for example.

2. English Dinner Party: A good way to make quick pairs. Students turn to the person to their left (or right or in front or behind). This is a good way to give students many partners quickly as for part one they can turn to their left and for part two they can turn to their right. I named this after the convention in English dinner parties that you talk to the person to your right for the first half of dinner and the person on your left during the second half.

3. Animal Noises: Prepare bits of paper with names of animals on them. Hand them out to students. Students have to make the noise of the animal on their paper and then find the others making the same noise.

4. Two parts of a sentence: Take a series of sentences and cut them in half at some logical point—perhaps to highlight a grammar point you are covering. Give each student one half. Students have to find the person or persons with the other half of their sentence.

5. Q and A: A variation where some students have a question and others have an answer or answers to that question.

6. Synonyms: Write a word for each group, and a number of synonyms of each word, for the number of people in each group. Students have to find the people with the synonyms of their word.

7. Line Up: A fun game in its own right. Ask students to line up according to some principle. Lining up by height or age is fairly easy. Lining up by preference for coffee or tea, or by love of broccoli can be more challenging. Once students are lined up you could count them off, or have the students at the extremes group up and the students in the middle group up.

8. Let them do it: You can always tell your students to form groups of 3 or 4 all by themselves. Yes, friends will end up with friends but at least no one will complain. And let’s face it, in the adult world most people do choose who they interact and work with.