Predicting Vocabulary from Context

I had a really nice worksheet that I liked to give to students to help them predict words from context. It forced students to actually write down the sentence that the word came from which I really liked. Using context to predict or infer the meaning of the word is an important skill. However, realizing that context is an important part of a word’s definition is also important. Remembering how  a word is used in a sentence helps students use it to—it gives the part of speech, spelling, collocations and topics, sometimes connotations.

I have long since lost the worksheet, which was copied out of a book I would happily give credit to if I had it. However, the activity went like this:

  1. As students read the book, they look for a word that they do not know.
  2. Students write down the word and the sentence they got the word from.
  3. Students then write down what they can glean about the word from the text. These guesses might be as simple as, “a kind of animal”, “it lives in Africa.” Or “adjective”, “something bad”. Nobody expects them to actually guess the word.
  4. After students have read the text or passage, ask them to reflect on whether their guesses were enough to read and understand or not. In other words, were they able to understand the rest of the story despite not getting this word or was there something that didn’t make sense because they didn’t know this word? This takes some reflection on the part of the student. A good example of a word that you don’t need to know exactly is jaguar in the following (made-up paragraph):

    The two hunters looked for the jaguar in the trees. They knew the jaguar was dangerous. It could easily kill them with its teeth and claws if they didn’t shoot it first. Suddenly, they saw its black fur against the green leaves. John fired his gun and the animal fell from the trees.

    A jaguar is a big, black scary animal. That’s enough to understand everything that happens in the story. On the other hand, you would need to know what Keynesian means in this passage:

    Keynesian economics has been proven correct a number of times. Its central tenets explain the Great Depression and the success of the recovery. However the current government ignores Keynesian economics in favor of supply-side economics.

    In this case, the writer is assuming you know what Keynesian economics is and is getting into nitty gritty details of it. It will probably only get worse as you read.

  5. Now have students look up the word in the dictionary.
  6. Finally students can go back and circle elements of the sentence that support the definition.
  7. Now students have a new vocabulary word with an example sentence and a definition!

This has really worked with me and my students.

Apple Pie and Ice Cream

Last year, Tailor Made English put up a lesson plan competition to plan a lesson for a classroom where the power had gone out 5 minutes before class. I was working on something about intonation and emotion but never finished it in time for the contest. I just found my notes so I thought I’d share them. These are just notes, so they’re a little sketchy.

I decided to challenge myself beyond the original challenge and imagine a pitch-black classroom! I was thinking that a classroom where students couldn’t see each other was a perfect opportunity to practice intonation. Students can’t use notes or body language or facial expressions. They have to make their voice work. To implement this in a normal classroom you could:

  • turn out the lights.
  • have students sit in a circle facing out
  • blindfold students, if that’s comfortable.
  • have them pinky swear that they will not open their eyes.

Warm Up

First, students need to be able to recognize each other’s voices. So pick students at random to 1) say an odd fact about themselves. Students have to guess who is speaking….

If you are intrigued by this idea, please check out the complete activity at Intonation and Speaking Skills in Dialogue on my Teachers Pay Teachers Store!

A Fun Pre-Reading Activity: What is it?

As teachers we do a lot of pre-reading activities with our students. Some of them are more authentic than others. I prefer giving students tasks that they can apply on their own when they go on to read for engineering class, for example. When I read a book, I may or may not have access to a summary of it. But as teachers we give our students summaries of most readings. I may or may not have a question to answer about the text. I certainly don’t have a list of difficult vocabulary. Nor do I have a cloze exercise or a warm-up listening on the same topic!

I began thinking about how to make pre-reading activities authentic? The first thing I did was ask myself, “What do I do when I pick up a new book I am reading?” Close on the heels of that question came, “What information do I like to know about a book before I read it?” And then I was introduced to a lovely pre-reading activity a colleague picked up from the TESOL Conference last year that encouraged students to think about different kinds of reading materials with a little questionnaire. So basically, I just tweaked her questions a bit.

What is It?

  1. Preferably before students arrive, put different reading material out around the classroom. You can use what you like, but make sure there are a variety, and try to use things the students might read. For my academic English class, I’ll do a textbook, a bus schedule, a menu, a novel, a course catalog, an information brochure, a cookbook, a dictionary, a flyer from the Health Center…Alternatively, put students in pairs and hand them the reading materials. You can let them come up and choose their own, but if you have an engineering textbook and a short flyer, students will feel the assignment is unfair to the people “stuck” with the textbook.
  2. Put students in pairs and make sure each pair has a reading material.
  3. Hand them the What is it questions.
  4. Give them 5-10 minutes to skim and scan the reading material and answer the questions.
  5. Students present on their reading material.

That’s the activity my colleague presented with does a great job reminding students that they read things every day. But it has other uses as well.

Other uses

  • These questions could be recycled for the whole class to preview a reading. In that case, students would be reading the same text obviously. They might share answers in larger groups rather than presenting to the class.
  • Follow with a discussion of reading strategies such as skimming, scanning, reading for deeper meaning. Have students think about what type of reading they do with each material.
  • Use it as part of an evaluation–have students discuss which materials they read more often and which they have trouble reading.

Word Processing Skills

Student on Computer

Students need word processing skills. These days, professors at any rate expect essays to be typed. However a lot of ESL programs don’t include typing lessons, let alone word processing skills. And from what I have seen, international students don’t always get it at home. I have seen essays typed up in emails because students didn’t know anything about word processing. And I have seen students literally retype a final draft from scratch because they didn’t know how to save! I was lucky enough to work for a school that had a technology class and a couple of times I ran a typing/word processing lesson. Here are some of the resources I used:

  • Mystery Message teaches students to select, move, delete, cut, copy and paste text.
  • My Thanksgiving Day Word Processing Worksheet is similar but it adds some review questions and it’s adapted for Thanksgiving because I plan to use it in the next couple of weeks.
  • Not a worksheet but just an idea. Do something similar to the Mystery Message but with bolding and italicizing and underlining. Tell students to write a message on the computer and then direct them to bold a certain word, underline another word, change the font of another word, change the font size. Cover centering and right aligning and maybe margins and double spacing so they can learn to format essays.
  • If you don’t have big expensive Word on your computers, you can use this Web Editor with commands to practice and teach. But don’t let your students type essays in that box either!
  • Also, in reference to the expense of Microsoft Office:
    • Remember you can download Open Office for free.
    • Or check if you and your students are eligible for any student discounts. I got Office Student Edition for $40 through my host university!
  • A real basic tutorial on Word Processing functions. I run my students through these functions on the computer so this is a nice take-home reminder!
  • My essay formatting activity. I give students a Model Essay with Rules that I make myself. You can do one for your class. I do warn them that every teacher has their own expectations and I usually add at the bottom my rules about late essays and how they will be graded and so on. I go over the formatting with them and show them how to do it–may with a Mystery Message Activity? Then I give them the  Unformatted Essay and make them transform it to look like the Model Essay.

How do you guys teach word processing?

UPDATE: I totally forgot about my earlier post about the Microsoft Office teaching game, Ribbon Hero 2.

A Magic Key Ring of Holding

I once read somewhere that the key to teaching well is having a Bag of Holding in your brain with games, activities and ways of explaining things. Preparing any lesson involves calling up all those ways you teach reading or writing or get them to memorize vocabulary. In the classroom, we are basically stringing together techniques and activities we like. And when your lesson gets derailed, you need something to fall back on–whether it be a way to fill the time or to correct the unexpected misunderstanding the students are having.

So I was thrilled when Donegal introduced us to a Magic Key Ring of Holding. Mine looks like this:

It’s nothing more nor less than a series of index cards held together by a key ring. The title card was my idea-and stolen from Urban Outfitters apparently. Inside each index card has an activity or game attached to it.  I liked the idea of typing them up and printing them out and here is my starter pack, starting with a lot of the activities that Donegal gave us in her presentation: Key Ring Cards. A few activities won’t fit neatly on an index card so I hand-wrote those out.

The idea is that you can then have these in class and when in doubt, flip to a good activity and use it. Or hand it to the students and have them pick out a game. I just like having all my activity ideas in one place in a uniform format, although like so many things in life, it is hard to always remember to write things up on the cards.

I also improvised it a bit by adding reference cards at the beginning. Here’s an artistic little spread:

I have stages of lesson planning there, and steps for working with a text from Alan Malley, and some of the things I always cover on the first day of class. And some ideas for grammar teaching. It’s a nice thing to have in your pocket.

If anyone cares to share their special little activity to add to this, I’ll add it to my handout.








Discussion Lines

A month ago, I wrote about a way to do discussions (Pyramid Discussion), so continuing the theme of explaining some basic techniques that can be applied to a variety of situations, here’s my second favorite way to do discussions: Discussion Lines.

It works well for:

  • questions that every student can answer
  • getting students to speak quickly and fluently
  • generating a lot of opinions or ideas or answers in a relatively short amount of time
  • getting students to talk to a lot of different people.


Have your questions or topic of discussion ready. There are a couple of ways to do this. Because students will be switching pairs a lot, you can either have a different question for each pair, or have them discussion the same question/questions with a variety of partners.

The Method

  1. Put students into 2 lines facing each other. The lines should be even so every student is facing another student. If not, you get to play too.
  2. Give students their first question or topic and a time limit. When you say, “go”, they discuss the first question.
  3. When the time is over, the student at the head of one line moves to the bottom and everyone moves over one. So now they have a new partner to talk to.For example, you have these two lines:

    Bob, Jane and Sarah
    Steve, Ling and Ali.
    Bob moves down next to Sarah. Then Jane, Sarah and Bob step one step to the right So now the two lines are:
    Jane, Sarah, Bob
    Steve, Ling and Ali

  4. Now the students can answer the same question or take on a new question. When they are finished, the student at the head once again comes on down and everyone moves one over to face yet another partner. You can keep cycling until you run out students if you like.

Besides “choosing” activities, students can have a series of statements to agree or disagree with. Or they can be actually agreeing on how to manage an activity such as a group project. They could even be discussing the meaning of a proverb or reading or saying.

This is an old activity, one I think I learned from the back of the Straightforward textbooks. Other variations from my dear readers?

Pyramid Discussion

From time to time I like to share simple activity ideas and techniques I use in the classroom in order to help people who might not have heard of them and to get feedback on different ways to do them. This is one my favorite ways to do discussion in a large class.

It works well for:

  • sensitive or complicated topics where you want students to have a chance to talk in smaller groups before talking in front of the whole class. I
  • activities where students have to rank things or pick the five best things out of a list or settle on an opinion
  • practicing the language and skills of opinion, persuasion and compromise


It’s always good to have groups pre-determined so you can separate students by language, background, gender, personality, activeness, shyness, ability.

Ultimately the class will be divided into pairs, then those pairs will form groups of 4, those groups of 4 will form groups of 8, and then 16, until the class is whole. So you should plan the whole thing out and work out any odd numbers and so on. I make a little chart personally.

The Method

  1. Put your task or questions on the board. Make sure students have all the language and resources that they need.
    For example, a list of ten items on the board that can help you survive on a desert island. Go over the vocab and the language of evaluating and the language of survival/basic needs.
  2. Put students into pairs and tell them to discuss the question/come to a conclusionFor example, as a pair the students must agree on the 3 most necessary for survival on a desert island.
  3. Once students have agreed in their pairs, put the pairs together into groups of four. If everyone finishes at the same time, you can go over some common errors and questions before moving on. If they finish at different times, you can just match them up as they finish. In their groups of four, they should first report their conclusions and why and second come to an agreement as a group of four.

    For example, pair #1 chose the shovel, the matches and the radio. Pair #2 chose the map, the glasses and the bug spray. Now as a group of four, they must persuade the whole group and come up with only three items.

  4. Once the groups of four have come to a conclusion, you can put them into groups of eight. They repeat the same procedure: report their conclusion and then agree as a larger group.
    At this stage, they have discussed this matter 2 times already. The shy students should be comfortable talking, the more active will be repeating themselves and producing more accurate language, and hopefully there will be some prompting of each other–Ali had a good idea, tell them what you said to me.
  5. Keep merging two groups until you get the whole class. You could then do a classroom debate or go over answers, or have a few people discuss their conclusions and why.

Besides “choosing” activities, students can have a series of statements to agree or disagree with. Or they can be actually agreeing on how to manage an activity such as a group project. They could even be discussing the meaning of a proverb or reading or saying.

This is an old activity, one I think I learned from the back of the Straightforward textbooks. Other variations from my dear readers?