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.

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.

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.