Working with Phrases Part II

Environmental collocations promoA few days ago I talked about how to make students learn words that ”belong together”. But thinking about it a little further, I realized that it shouldn’t really end there. It’s not enough just to learn isolated collocations – they need to be used as well. Also, there needs to be a warming-up kind of phase there. Of course, this could be done traditionally in the classroom, but I find that once students are working on computers, it’s usually better to allow them time to go on with new tasks at their own pace, instead of disrupting their attention span and calling them back to non-computer tasks or for new instructions. So why not give them a whole set of tasks that are pretty self-explanatory, and let them follow a logical sequence of events, which, if followed as instructed, should make them confident users of those phrases learnt.

I ended up with a didactor compendium like this with 6 “levels” using 5 different task/game type generators:


Level 1 – A simple pairing-off activity – Task type: MEMORY

This is a simple warm-up exercise based on the Memory game, but not too easy to solve. I used two sets of “cards” here for each part of the collocations – green for the first and picture cards for the last. I could have made it much easier for me, and harder for the students if I had just typed in the words, or even just made the green cards for the first parts and typed in the words for the second. But this time I made this effort, because this way I could use the images as flashcards later. Making a PowerPoint presentation with these cards for later use for revision purposes would be a small matter, and the visual aspect might work to enhance their memory for the collocations as well.

Environmental phrases I

Level 2 – Adding the time parameter – Task type: TIMEOUT

See this post for description


Level 3 – Sentences – Task type: FORM (short answers)

At this level the students have to think of different environmental contexts for the collocations to work. By not giving them the collocations as such but using the same memory-activating image from the previous task, I wanted them to use what they have learnt from the two previous activities and then add the context and the spelling, grammar and syntax into their thinking.

Environmental phrases III

Level 4 – Essay writing – Task type: FORM (long answers)

Again, the difficulty level here is higher than before. Now the students need to create coherent texts on a chosen topic, not isolated sentences, but still be using as many of the collocations as possible.

Environmental phrases IV

Level 5 – Check-up I – Task type: QUICKTYPE

This is a quiz-type game where the students have to work cognitively on many different levels simultaneously. There’s the time parameter again, together with mnemonic or associative skills as well as spelling. The student mode doesn’t really come out well in a screen shot, which is why I made a screencast video of a student playing the game (no audio

Level 6 – Check-up II – Task type: SCRAMBLER

Only here did I make use of the students’ L1, Swedish in this case, but as Swedish resembles English lexically a lot at times, I also used definitions in English for clues. And instead of collocations, I chose to work with isolated words, choosing the ones that I deemed might present the biggest problems.

Environmental phrases VI

All of these activities can easily be modified – items added, deleted or changed. The games can be re-played as many times as the student wants according to his own ambition level. Levels 3 and 4 have to be checked by me the teacher,  but the other levels are all set for immediate student feedback, a feature that all students love and that I feel is a strong aspect of giving the student empowerment over his own learning.

Integrating geography with ESL

A very short post on an online task I made in May just for fun. I have already said I make most of my lesson exercises/tasks in the platform Didactor, and this is one of them (I have over 1,700 so you may well expect a lot of posts like this one on this blog).

It looks simple enough; the student gets a list of words that need to be placed in their correct context. He can google the words before he starts or he can resort to pure guesswork, in which case he probably won’t score very high. Either way, the task involves lexical knowledge, factual geographic understanding, as well as reading comprehension. The task generator here is GAPS.

Integrating geography

Students as each other’s online teachers

Want your students to work with a text but don’t have the time or the energy to provide them with worksheets or word games? Then this might work for you.

Step 1.

Ask your school’s Didactor admin to create a new teacher account with a username that would be relatively easy for the students to remember, like student2000 for instance. Also ask for a locked password so that nobody can change it when in use.

Add student as teacher

Step 2.

Log in yourself with the new username and password, go to the Task library and create one folder for each class that you’re teaching – to save time you could start with the class that is in the most urgent need of learning material. You can always add more classes later. Open the class folder and then create a subfolder for each student. That subfolder would then be their personal file with materials they themselves have created. (It might be a good idea to ask them to share everything with you so that nothing might be deleted by mistake. Alternately you can always log in yourself and make backup copies after each lesson.)

Add student as teacher2

Step 3 (optional).

Go into the Media library and again create one folder for each of your classes. No individual student subfolders are necessary here, but that is totally up to you. If you are something of a control freak like me, you might add a subfolder on the topic that your students are going to work with and upload the text or any other material you think your students might need (a youtube-video, a soundclip, a podcast, an infograph or images linked to the topic at hand). You get the idea, again it’s totally up to you and you can always leave it up to the students to upload their own media instead.

Step 4 (in class).

Give your students the username and the password, explain how the system works and tell them to make their own games. One thing, though, it might not be a very good idea to do this if this is the very first time your students are working with Didactor. Better to have given them quite a lot of experience from working with your tasks in a student view environment first. Then they will have a better understanding of why they would be doing this and would add to their inner motivation as well.

They now have a free hand at creating such learning material they would like to have as students themselves. They can make their own soundfiles and add those to games, and they have 14 different really easy-to-use task generators to work with. And they can always use this account to prepare their own revision material for other subjects as well. The teacher tends to learn the most from preparing all the class material compared to any student working with that same material and now you have handed over that empowerment to the students. They are the ones, in fact, who are there to learn in the first place.

Add student as teacher3

Step 5 (after class – or as student homework)

Collect the students’ work in compendiums (which can be used as step-by-step learning paths) and add these to a student course for the very same students that have done all the labour here, for them to practise on each other’s games. And that will give you the material for the next class with the students as well. Evaluating each other’s tasks and games and giving feedback on how fun or educational these activities were, as well as receiving that kind of feedback, are pretty powerful self-assessment tools in themselves.

Rolf Palmberg’s tools for language teachers

Rolf Palmberg, long-time friend and mentor, always has a lot of useful hands-on teaching tools and ideas in his toolbox, and even though he has retired now from his post as a teacher of EFL methodology at Åbo Akademi University, his website is always worth a visit. He has done loads of presentations at conferences all over the world and is an expert at coming up with practical  ideas for the language classroom regarding Gardner’s multiple intelligences. Complicated verbal riddles with a subtle tinge of humour are his speciality.

His interests and passions include mathematics and geographic “oddities”, like enclaves and such – but many of his ideas here work in the language classroom as well. Go visit and get inspired!

This link might not be the most up-to-date (last updated in December 2012) but is a well of practical, versatile tools: – especially the links to worksheet generators get me going!

And don’t forget to take up on his offer of free downloads!

Random thoughts on media and a fledgling idea

After having worked all day on an expansion of the Environmental Collocations idea I wrote about yesterday into a multi-level gamified learning entity, I finally decided to call it a day, as I realized that I would not be able to finish the whole thing today anyway.


So I got myself some icecream and fresh strawberries, logged on to the RSCON 2014 web conference, let my thoughts run free while still listening to an interesting panel discussion on “Mind Blowing Media“. Also, I tried to evaluate myself and my own way of working  and creating media. I’ve seen amazing things this summer of what other English language teachers around the world are doing, and usually when I see how others deal with stuff for classes, my first thought tends to be “Oh, I see, THIS is the way one should be working!”, and feel inclined to start right over again from scratch. So I suppose the good thing for me is that I’ve now seen so many different takes on online teaching  that I’m beginning to feel it’s okay to do it my way, too. My pictures, for instance, are kind of very Finnish in the sense that they are pretty functional, no nonsense kind of things – stark and heavily rectangular in style. My favourite font that I always revert to is Calibri, notwithstanding many attempts to try something else in order to lighten up the visualisation. But I suppose I am rather stark and rectangular myself, so that will remain my layout style, too.

It’s odd that when letting your mind go sort of on its own course, new ideas might suddenly pop up from nowhere, like it did just now while I was quietly ruminating on my rather single-minded visual perception.

During the last four to five years I’ve worked quite a lot with video in the classroom, not only having students watch video clips but also produce their own video presentations. One take, for instance, on this is combining still images and their own sound files into regular video files with the help of free software like Movie maker (I am definitely not a Mac person). Over the years I’ve done countless variations on this theme, but what if there could still be something haven’t tried? What if I could have students create stories in cartoon pictures with their own avatars, put together a string of single images and add sound with them telling the story? That might actually work, hmm… Not quite their own animations because there would absolutely not be time enough for that – but something in those lines, maybe…



Well, I need to save that thought, because now my brain can’t take any more computer screens for today. Good night!

Working with phrases

Vocabulary and games

I believe in games for educational purposes. I’m aware that there is a distinction nowadays between gaming and gamification, and that the trend is moving more towards gaming and that gamification is getting a bad reputation (see my post here on the rapidly changing trends in terminology and “hipness” in edtech), but I’m kind of stubbornly adhering to very concrete and tangible learning objectives, objectives that are first and foremost measureable, as well as assessable. So I will keep on creating online word and grammar games, and for these I almost always use the platform The premium version is not completely free of charge, ie. it’s free for teacher accounts but there is a small charge for each student account per academic year, and this is the version I use for a lot of reasons that I will go into later.

Now, collocations (sequence of words or terms that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance) abound in the English language, and in order for advanced sixth form students who are preparing for their Finnish matriculation exam to really perform well, it is of vital importance that they know how to use these fluently, or at least correctly. I’ve read essays where students talk about “animals’ homes” when what they mean is “animal habitats”, just because their vocabulary can’t encompass words that do not really have any exact corresponding word in their mother tongue. Students in general, in my experience, tend to cram wordlists for their language tests, L2 words without context but with a 1-1 relationship to the L1, their mother tongue. Not a very effective language learning method, maybe for a smaller test the next day but especially not in a longer perspective.

This is where games come in.

Environmental collocations

Today I was thinking of collocations needed when we’re talking about environmental problems and possible solutions, a subject that recurs in our annual matriculation tests. What words might be useful to know here? I came up with this list:

exhaust, global, landfill, disposable, toxic, soil, extinction, irrigation, emission, pollution, annual, endangered, sustainable, pesticide, flora, fumes, resources, habitat, site, waste, erosion, location, conservation, levels, precipitation, species, residue

The easy way would be to give the students a bilingual wordlist to study, or with a little more effort, make a bilingual matching game. There is nothing wrong with either, but if I wanted to challenge the students’ cognitive skills, making them work for their “food”, which in this case of course is the learning part, I would have to add something more. First of all I wanted to take out their mother tongue here and make it more authentic. One solution would be to have them match these words to their English explanations or definitions or make a gapped exercise where these words needed to be filled in.

However, I decided to go for a collocation kind of task. And these were the collocations I ended up with:

  • exhaust fumes
  • global warming
  • natural resources
  • animal habitat
  • landfill site
  • disposable product
  • toxic waste
  • soil erosion
  • collection point
  • extinction of species
  • irrigation system
  • drop-off location
  • nature conservation
  • emission standards
  • pollution levels
  • annual precipitation
  • endangered species
  • sustainable development
  • pesticide residue
  • flora & fauna

This would also be suitable for a matching exercise but in order to make it more gamified I wanted to add the time element to the game, which meant that once the students were ready to take on the game they had a limited time in which to score. This is what I did in Didactor using the game type TIMEOUT from the student’s first view:


This is the sort of pre-game stage where the students have the opportunity to google words they don’t know or recognize (I usually recommend for  easy access to word meaning in their own language or Cambridge Online Dictionary for English definitions or example uses). Once they are confident enough to start the game, this is what they see:


In this particular game I have set the time limit for each collocation to 10 seconds but that could easily be changed and is best left to the teacher’s own discretion. The game looks easy enough, but quite a lot of thinking and reacting skills are required, and one really needs to automate the collocations in order to reach a 100% score.


What  tech skill demands does a game like this put on the teacher? Not very much, actually. The pedagogical aspects are what take time and professional ingenuity and that’s what we are trained for as teachers. The back-end version of this particular game looks like this:



The beauty of didactor games is that they are easy to create and easy to modify (in a matter of seconds I can delete items, change them or add new ones). I can add media of all sorts – video, youtube embeds, pdf documents, images etc. –  according to my own pedagogical needs, but, as I said, I will talk more about that later.

“Tell me more” – An effective language learning tool?

Yesterday in Andrew Wickham’s presentation on Blended learning I heard about “Tell me more” – an online language learning website that seems to have grown to have a lot of users. I got curious and decided to find out more today. Their homepage,, said this was “the leading language company”, but of course they would say that themselves. Well, they seemed to have a lot of languages on offer – Spanish, French, German, ESL – English as a Second Language, Italian, Chinese etc. Some of the languages apparently needed a CD or a DVD to work properly in addition to the online services. Somehow, however, this looked rather old school to me; I had seen similar layouts even in the 90s, when the e-learning industry took off. At that time this kind of layout appeared on the CD-boxes on the shelves in the computer department of department stores. How could this be blended learning? As it seemed to me it was definitely e-learning, the exact kind of learning we heard yesterday was completely OUT and deemed useless with poor completion rates and results. Decided to have a closer look, went to Youtube and hoped there would be some kind of demonstration there, as I really didn’t want to register for a 7 day free trial until I knew more. There was at least one link there, one whose title seemed to be official and promotional as it was named “Tell Me More, language learning software Walk through Part 1”.

The young student here was obviously enrolled in a Beginner’s course in German. Interesting, I thought, as I am a German teacher as well. However, the whole experience was embarrassing to say the least. I don’t know if the poor student had a bad internet connection, or if the  page loads really are that slow. Speech recognition, yes, but that worked only once in ten, and even then I didn’t see the point. Boring task, no intellectual challenge, no structural build-up. The 90s software even beat this. I remember trying out a software CD in German language acquisition at the time with my own kids, then elementary school children. They were playing games with vocabulary, and each time they said a word with the correct pronunciation, they scored and got additional sound feedback with those cheery kinds of exclamations like “Yes, way to go!”, “Great!” etc. (I really hate those, they would put off anyone from continuing any game whatsoever). Sometimes the speech recognition feature worked, sometimes not – but as it was a game, the kids were still motivated to play and went on repeating the words until it worked, all a plus from a learning point of view, I think. There is no such incentive here. If something doesn’t work, the student just leaves the task and randomly and aimlessly (as it seems to me) opens another. No games, if you don’t count those ever present multiple choice tasks as games.

Back to the original question: where does the Blended learning come in here? I can’t see that it does, actually. Not in any sense that it couldn’t have been done so (better) with the 90s software. So, I’m sorry, but this experience of today’s so called blended learning software compared to yesterday’s doesn’t tally with what we learned in yesterday’s presentation:


(And I would definitely leave out all speech recognition features from the “on-computer-phase” and do those elements in a traditional class setting.)

Blended learning

blended learning defAttended a great webinar again today, this time with Andrew Wickham on “Teachers Teaching Online” at He has a long history of working with e-learning and subsequently blended learning. His presentation made a succinct distinction between the two, something I had previously had no idea about. I’m almost ashamed now of having used the wrong term so many times – difficult this with language changing all the time and all the effort and time you need to invest just to keep uptodate with the terminology. Even a few years make a whole lot of difference  when it comes to language; something that was positive yesterday might be totally out today. People keep complaining about the ever changing fashion industry, but this accelerating speed of change has really affected everything in our lives now.

But, as I said, it was a great presentation and I’m so happy I decided to join. In spite of the linguistic shame that I personally felt, I do feel inspired to continue on the road I’ve chosen and also got a lot of my teaching principles confirmed. So, thank you again, Andrew!

Namnlöst-16Here are Andrew’s links for resources to explore for anyone interested in testing blended learning with their classes:





twitter.jpgEven though I’ve been registered on Twitter since 2012, I haven’t really used it much. I suppose I didn’t find I had the time or the energy to actually learn how to get the most out of it, since I was so busy creating my own digital teaching material for all my classes. This summer, however, I started off the holidays right away by trying to get a serious hang of it. Basically, I landed straight on an IATEFL webinar with Jill Hadfield talking about internal and external motivations in L2 learners, and I was hooked. First of all, Jill Hadfield is kind of a hero to me ever since I was introduced to her  Communication Games in my own teacher training a hundred years ago. Secondly, I was astonished to find that there were all kinds of first-class webinars out there absolutely free of charge! I loved the format – I could attend from home, didn’t have to dress up or anything, could have a cup of coffee or something to eat whenever I wanted, and the interactivity factor was a lot bigger here than at a regular IRL seminar at any of all the conferences I have attended around the world (and they were NOT free!) And lastly, I’ve learnt a LOT! Thank you, guys!

That was the start for my webinar  frenzy during June. There were lots of webinars and lots of really knowledgeable, experienced people presenting, people I had known nothing about previously. To my shame I had to ralize that I had lived in a bubble until then, filled with my own ideas and ways to make those ideas happen in class. Okay, yes, most of the time I had been successful, even to a surprising extent if one can go after students’ course evaluations. They learned in new ways, and they were actually surprised to find that learning this way was actually fun. And that’s a lot, coming from teenagers ranging from 13 to 19 years of age.

But here were a lot of people that also found technology to be an extremely useful medium for learning, and they had all found their own ways, too – even though their journeys were different from mine. And I started to follow them on Twitter and found new webinars and new people and new organizations that were there to assist ELT teachers like myself. But they all had something I did not – a blog or a homepage. And again I realized that if I really wanted to play in the same league and actually contribute something myself and give back to them, I needed to have that too. And here I am.

For those of you who haven’t been bitten by the Twitter or webinar bug yet; here is a list of all the webinars and conferences I attended during my June+ vacation, including the  presenters (all great and really worth following on Twitter) and the organizations behind.

May 2014

31st – Jill Hadfield – ‘Motivation, Imagination and L2 Identity’ ;

June 2014

14th –  2nd Web Conference: IATEFL LTSIG & TESOL CALL-IS – Gaming and Gamification – a Win-win for Language Learning

Vance Stevens & Ellen Dougherty/Nicky Hockley & Elizabeth Hanson-Smith: Welcome Address

Karenne Sylvester, UK – Honey Coated Peas vs Chocolate Covered Broccoli, Part 2

Jeff Kuhn: The World is Not Enough: The Need for Game Design

Dawn Bikowski: Training Teachers to Think in Games

Graham Stanley: Gamification – Magic Bullet or Broken Sword?

Paul Driver: “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”: Gaming the System with Mary Poppins and Mr T

Julie Sykes: Out in the World: Place-based, augmented reality games and language learning

Closing Panel Discussion

16th – Teachers Teaching Online – Intro;

16th – Teachers Teaching Online – Shelly Terrell: Virtual Makeover;

17th – Teachers Teaching Online – Nik Peachey: Getting the Most Out of Online Video Resources;

19th – Teachers Teaching Online –Vicki Hollett: Every Teacher a Video Maker;

21st – Teachers Teaching Online – Jack Askew: The Successful Online Teacher;

21st – Lindsay Clandfield: What’s hot and what’s not in coursebooks;

22nd – Madeleine du Vivier – ‘How to write an effective IATEFL conference proposal’ ;

23rd – Teachers Teaching Online – Heike Philp: How Do I Find Online Students;

23rd – Russell Stannard: Flipping your classesLandesinstitut für Pädagogik und Medien

24th – Teachers Teaching Online – Vicky Loras: Across Time and Space;

25th – Teachers Teaching Online – Barbara Sakamoto & Chuck Sandy: Building a Community of Leaders;

25th – Teachers Teaching Online – Rich Kiker: Google for Productivity in Online Learning;

25th – Teachers Teaching Online – David Deubelbeiss: Blended Learning – Woven Curriculum Design;

26th – John Hughes:  Critical thinking skills in Business

26th – Different approaches to teaching language – PPP to TBL;

26th – Teachers Teaching Online – Sylvia Guinan: Managing Group Dynamics;

28th – Teachers Teaching Online – Jack Askew: Getting Students;

30th – Teachers Teaching Online – Graham Stanley: Engaging Online Learners;

30th – Edmund Dudley: Approaches to Culture with 21st Century Teens;

July 2014

1st – Teachers Teaching Online – Marisa Constantinides: Essentials for Teachers New to Online Teaching;

1st – Teachers Teaching Online – Jason R. Levine: Getting to Know the Virtual Classroom in WizIQ;

3rd – Teachers Teaching Online – Dr. Nellie Deutsch: Leading from the Inside Out;



Starting out

I’ve been thinking of starting writing a blog for a few years now, but never really got down to it. Well, now I have and this will be sort of a record of my thoughts and my ideas on teaching (and learning) a language.
Some of it, quite a lot actually, will be about CALL, ie. computer-assisted language learning, online as well as offline. However, there will be posts on communicative language learning, blended learning and ideas for the traditional classroom, too.