Some Things Never Change, or Do They?

Irregular verbs logo 3However hard you try, there are some things one can’t get around in learning a language and in English (and German and Swedish…) one of those would be learning the irregular verbs by heart. You can group them in categories, play around with flashcards and you would still eventually face the fact that these things really are illogical (even though there may be good historic and etymological reasons for them being the way they are) and the most sensible decision you can make is simply to learn them verb by verb the old-fashioned way.

There are, however, things we teachers can do to ease the students’ pain of having the whole list to learn all at once. One pretty common method is to give students ten verbs to learn for every lesson and then to quiz them on those every time, which I think makes the whole thing less dramatic and not too strenuous for most students. The problem is that if a student for some reason fails to study for one or two lessons, he will probably never get the same incentive to learn those particular verbs again and they will constitute a white patch, a terra incognita, in that particular area of his language proficiency. Additionally, there’s another risk involved here  – failing once or twice through simply having forgotten to do his homework might reduce his motivation altogether for the next batches of verbs. He might very well consider having blown his chances already, so what’s the point? And you can’t really blame the teacher either, can you? Having and grading (!) tests or quizzes every lesson for some 25-30 students is quite enough without having to keep track of all those students who might want to re-take this or that test. That kind of permissiveness would result in burn-out for any teacher, and there would never really be an end to it all. It’s a dilemma, all right. Everybody deserves a second chance, but certain limits also need to be set.

Pretty early on in my teacher career, I realised that this particular piecemeal of system didn’t work for me. I’m not saying it doesn’t work for other teachers, only that I felt I failed miserably. The students, even those who did well on those mini-tests, didn’t really retain the knowledge for very long – it was a system of ten new verbs in and the previous ten verbs out. Plus the problem of all those “forgotten” homework assignments. I needed to come up with something else, something that would work for all of us, and still be feasible requirements on the students’ time and effort.

The parameters I had to proceed from were

  • 1) the whole list of irregular verbs would still need to be mastered, principle parts and all
  • 2) not enough that the students were given one principle part and required to fill in the remaining two – they needed to be able to provide all three in English when given the equivalent verb in L1.
  • 3) the piecemeal system still in place, but the batches – both scope and selection – would not to be dictated by me but up to the students themselves
  • 4) second chances – there might be completely legitimate reasons for students not to have done the required studying
  • 5) differentiated learning paths – not only a list on paper but games to work on in an autonomous manner
  • 6) desirable (for me): cutting down the grading to a minimum and to make the grading into a motivating carrot instead of a punishing stick if possible

I can’t say that I came up with the optimal solution at once, but the system I have by now, after many years of modification and revision, works well enough for most students and for me.

It goes as follows – and here I’m talking about 8th-graders who already know the basics about the use of the main tenses in English:

1st lesson: Small warm-up exercise with a few high frequency verbs, well known to the students from before, such as go/went/gone, put/put/put, etc.

When they have refreshed their memory, I’ll explain that this kind of words are what we’re going to work with for a small part of each of the following 20+ lessons or so (I would be quite precise with the end date, though), and that they can start by checking themselves on how much they already know, and that they have 10 minutes to fill in as many verb forms as possible on a 3-page quiz. I will also point out that it’s paramount that they use a pencil, because they might want to review and revise their answers at one time or another. No grading from me involved at all, the whole activity right now is strictly for purposes of self-evaluation. This is what the 3-page handout looks like – the red words are in L1 – 114 verbs in all:

Irregular verbs quizWhen the 10 minutes are up, most are still writing, but I still insist on their handing me the handouts back, but promise they’ll have plenty of opportunities to fill in more yet.

When I have all their handouts, I’ll explain that they will now get a handout with the exact same list of verbs but with all the missing English parts included and that they now go quietly through all the list from top to bottom individually, checking themselves by covering up the English part with their notebook or any piece of paper they have at hand, and ticking off those verbs they didn’t know, or where they failed to give the correct English forms.

Irregular verbsBy now there usually is an intense atmosphere of positive student engagement and task involvement in the classroom. When finished I tell them to work in pairs and take turns at quizzing each other on those verbs they themselves have ticked off as particularly difficult.

When 5-10 minutes remain of class (we have 75-minute lessons), I’ll tell them to put this paper carefully away in their book and take out that pencil again, because now will be their first opportunity to fill in more on that 3-page test/handout or correct previous faulty answers – anything that they may have learnt during the last thirty minutes or so.

And this is how we will spend the last 5-10 minutes of every class for the next 20+ lessons. For the first 1o I will do no grading at all; I won’t even glance at what they’ve written or rewritten, other than cursorily check that they’ve understood the system with the principle parts and that they’re making progress. 

I also tell them that their own complete list of irregular verbs is an extremely important document because they are going to need it for every one of those next 20+ lessons. They will, however, also have electronic access to it on our LMS, in case it, against all odds, gets lost. On the same LMS, which in our case is the combined LMS and game generator, they will find various games on the exact same verbs as on their paper.

For one batch of those optional autonomous exercises I’ve divided all the verbs alphabetically in groups of 20 each, but within the group the verbs appear in random order. This I feel is best described by a graphic representation of what actually happens in the game:


Click on the picture to get an enlarged view.

Click on the picture to get an enlarged view.


As the visuals here show, the feedback is immediate, and the game is not only a quiz but first and foremost a means toward learning in itself. The learning process is further reinforced by the final feedback when the student has finished the last item. Here he’ll find the key answers to all items as well as exact representations, letter by letter, of his own responses. (The additional comments here are inserted later by me, in the average student’s voice, to illustrate the actual cognitive processing taking place in an activity construed like this.)

Irregular verbs didactor result jpg

Another type of game within the same game generator focusses on  distinguishing regular verbs from irregular ones. Being able to recognize the irregular ones might assist the student in eliminating many of otherwise likely errors in his own future use of the L2, both in writing and speaking. A screen shot of a very simplified version of this activity clarifies how this kind of learning situation might pretty effortlessly come about.


Irregular verbs SORTER game

There is no immediate feedback – there would be little need for thinking if there were. The programme accepts without blinking everything the student decides on. But he can also undo – without losing points – any sorting he deems to have been incorrect. The time factor is not at play here either – he can take his time, consult his verb list, or dictionaries, or Google, or he can take his chances and rely completely on getting the correct answers in the final result feedback, which in itself provides food for additional revision and learning.

Irregular verbs SORTER result

In this particular case, five items were incorrectly categorised – no further comment needed.

These are only two instances of additional or alternative learning paths to the traditional irregular verb list on paper, and many more that work in a similar way might be added. I won’t, however, delve further into them here and now. None of them, I think, excludes another; on the contrary, they complete and reinforce each other by activating different parts of the brain, creating new thinking patterns and giving impulses for new brain synapses.

What then could motivate the students to do any of this; why spend time after school revising grammar stuff, when there are so many fun things a teenager could do in his sparetime? The gamification aspect is, of course, one motivating factor, but would it be enough? We certainly couldn’t spend all 20+ lessons on the verb list – there simply wouldn’t be time and there’s a lot more in the school curriculum that I, as a teacher, am obliged to have my students learn. So sparetime activity is where the verb work would be delegated to.

There is another highly motivating factor at play here – not for all students, but for many more than with any other method, 10-verb-batches or not, that I have tried. And surprisingly that would be the grading process, and the 3-page test paper that would appear over and over again in front of the student at the end of every lesson. Up to the student himself to decide on whether to do everything by piecemeal and on the sizes of thoses piecework portions. Does he want to slack now and save the whole lot until the day before the deadline, or does he want to get it over and done with as quickly as possible and be free to do whatever he wants for the rest of those-end-of-20+ lessons? (I’m talking about a “he” here for the sake of convenience, I do include the girls here, they are neither invisible nor insignificant but highly esteemed and respected in my classroom – I’m just saving up on letters here.) And there really is no easy road here, no shortcuts by doing sloppy work and say they’re finished. If they tried, I would immediately start grading their paper and unless there were aboslutely no mistakes or errors there, they would get it back, and go on working on it.

What about the grading or the marking here – in what way could that both reduce my workload and motivate the students?

It all depends on the way it’s done and the timing of it. The 3-column grid on the right hand side of the test paper comes into play after the 11th lesson, and the grid is there only to make my own life a little easier. Every correct verb form yields 1 point, and the column to the far left is reserved for a verb with one correct  and two incorrect verb forms – and it needs to be completely correct, spelling and all, in order to yield a point. The middle column stands for an answer with two correct and one faulty (or missing) verb form, and the column to the far right is, of course, for a full 3-point score. Now is when my grading starts, but I will focus exclusively on the 3-point column and mark all those answers that are perfect, leaving the rest blank. That will tell the student which ones he doesn’t need to bother with any more because they are perfect as they stand. The unmarked ones, however, need completing or correcting.

GridI will repeat this procedure for the remainder of the assigned classes until the very last lesson, ie. the day of the deadline, and then I’ll mark the 1- and 2-point columns as well, and subsequently sum up all points into a total score which will be divided by the maximum score 114*3/100 =3.42, yielding the final score in percentage. 50% is the required score for a Pass. The more marks in the 3-point column, the easier it is for me to get to the final score.

Let’s have a look at the parameters from the onset of the procedure:

  • 1) the whole list of irregular verbs would still need to be mastered, principle parts and all – Yes, definitely.
  • 2) not enough that the students were given one principle part and required to fill in the remaining two – they needed to be able to provide all three in English when given the equivalent verb in L1. – Yes, still valid.
  • 3) the piecemeal system still in place, but the batches – both scope and selection – would not to be dictated by me but up to the students themselves – Yes, they decide what, how much, and when (within the given time parameters)
  • 4) second chances – there might be completely legitimate reasons for students not to have done the required studying – Yes, they can skip studying a few times and make up for any omission at the next opportunity
  • 5) differentiated learning paths – not only a list on paper but games to work on in an autonomous manner – Yes, described in detail above
  • 6) desirable (for me): cutting down the grading to a minimum and to make the grading into a motivating carrot instead of a punishing stick if possible – Yes, this grading method is fast and efficient for me, and the 3-point column marking makes those 3-point scores highly desirable and completely feasible for the students, and it makes them concentrate on improving what they don’t know and not spend unnecessary time on what they already know.


Quod erat demonstrandum 😉




Authentic video in the classroom: Ireland II

My second example of utilising authentic video in the EFL classroom is based on the same 50-minute travel video as my first. Of course, one can apply this to any video, but this time I will stick with Ireland. How I do it now will, however, differ from my last post because now I’ll concentrate on the language and vocabulary awareness in detail (but I wouldn’t use both methods on the same video in the same class, though). This approach is, however, associated with a lot of painstaking preparatory work for the teacher, because transcription of the video material needs to be done, at least for some of the clips. It takes about 1 hour to take down 5 minutes of video material, so one needs plenty of time to get a complete transcript. I rather enjoy transcribing videos and sound; oddly enough I experience the process as relaxing, especially if there is no deadline approaching. And having a transcript for a video makes the creating of tasks so much easier.

I’ve previously said that I use the gamification platform Didactor for most of my online material, and this is true for when I want the students to work with authentic video as well. This set of tasks/games are connected by following Ian Wright on his aforementioned tour of Ireland. They are, however, separated by task type and Ian’s activities. Variation is important for student motivation, and even though I might use the same game types over and over again, I try to vary how they are used.

The “game board” that the students start out with looks like this:

VideospelThe idea is that they start with task number 1A and then follow Ian’s route one step at a time until they reach the end of the journey. By then they should have a pretty clear idea of what life and travelling in Ireland is all about as well as key concepts and vocabulary needed in order to get by.

In order to illustrate the student’s journey, I’ve recorded the learning process in nine shortish video clips, because I thought those would better describe what the student is supposed to do than if I tried to do it in words. NB! In some of the tasks I’ve made use of my students’ mother tongue, Swedish, but that could be changed into any language really. In fact, Didactor can be used for any language learning whatsoever, not only English, and also for other subjects.

1. Antrim – Giants’ Causeway

There are three different steps here, ie.  two different gap texts – one based on vocabulary, the other on verbs – and a vocabulary game on the videoclip vocabulary with definitions in English for clues.

2. The Troubles

Here I’ve simply used a multiple choice task type for the first step, which therefore is simply traditional listening comprehension, whereas the second part comprises a bilingual wordlist to the video clip, with the English part scrambled. A lot of background info on the violent and bloody history of conflict between the Loyalists and the Republicans is provided here, something every student, language learner or not, should have in his bag of general knowledge when he steps into adulthood. The activity is rounded off with a take on pub life and the traditional Irish pint of Guinness.

3. The craic and nightlife in Belfast

This is quite simply a dictation kind of task involving intense listening and writing (+ spelling and grammar).  I’m a firm believer in the theory that one can’t write what one can’t understand when listening, and technology has revived the ancient language learning methodology of dictation, something that quite simply does not work in the non-tech classroom any more. But given the control over the audio, many a student actually enjoys dictation activities.

This is also the last video clip here involving two tasks, the latter on the same principle as the one described in Environmental collocations – but this time having the student provide the English translations of single words from the dictation.

4A Road bowling

This is a memory game played a little differently. First of all, hardly any of my “memory” games are played with hidden cards – I don’t think remembering where something was is as important as getting the student’s brain cells working by trying to connect one item with another. But here I’m not aiming for words, instead I have made the game consist of bits and pieces of lines from the video. The student has to actively listen for what is being said in order to connect two pieces of sentences to each other.

4B Janus the fertility god

The task type SORTER is based on the idea of  sorting words or concepts into various categories. Well, it can be used for sorting scrambled lines of text, too. I would argue that this task is impossible to solve or to score satisfactorily on without listening, which again serves the idea of active listening in the classroom, ie. listening serves a functional purpose, and not just perfunctory activity.

5A Dublin and checking into a hostel

At this stage, the flipped classroom might well come into play because this activity is very much based on a communicative situation; Ian is checking into his hostel, and the skills to successfully obtain accommodation in a foreign country is something all of today’s language learners most certainly will need at some time or another in his life. Supposing hotel bookings and checking in will be the theme for the next communicative lesson, this task might very well fill the function of “homework” in anticipation for that lesson. It’s based on a combination of scrambled lines of dialogue, clues in the form of the same lines in the mother tongue, and a hangman-type activity without the “hanging”.

6 Attending a hurling game in Dublin

No sport except Gaelic football can be more Irish than hurling and therefore a must when dealing with Ireland in the English language classroom. This is a very short and rather simple game-type activity with a time factor, but it still gives the student an idea of what distinguishes hurling from other sports.

7 Cobh – the seaside town

The Titanic, the Lusitania, World War I, and Irish emigration are all part of the history of the small town of Cobh. A true/false/doesn’t say activity here.

8 Blarney Castle and the gift of the gab

This is the very last of my demonstrations here, one on the myth of becoming a good speaker by performing the rather awkward ritual of kissing the Blarney stone. The activity comprises the unscrambling of whole chunks of sentences to be heard in the video clip. Scaffolding in the form of mother tongue versions is provided.

 The whole Ireland-theme presented this way could be finished off with the same post-video/post-computer activities as described in my previous post here, but now wordchecks or quizzes on vocabulary and collocations could be added.


Authentic video in the classroom: Ireland I

What you see here is an approximately 3-minute clip from a 50-minute travel video on Ireland. It is authentic, in the sense that it’s intended for English-speaking people interested in travelling and other countries, not for language learners per se. “Ireland” is one of many videos in the Globetrekker series produced by UK-based Pilot Productions. The series is based on the concept of having a travel guide touring a specific country, experiencing cultural highlights, meeting local people and basically learning about the country together with the viewer. The “guide” is not the expert here, the experts are the locals, and the viewer travels the country in the “guise” of the guide, which makes the videos quite entertaining and exciting – and ideal for the language classroom.

There is hardly any language classroom without the use of videos at one time or another. Youtube videos abound and you are sure to find something suitable regardless of subject matter at hand. Authentic video clips are the obvious choice for introducing real-life people, accents and situations, as well as giving the students a cultural frame of reference for the target language.

What activities are used in connection with video-clips in class? Most common, I would say, are the following:

  1. – for introducing a new subject: Watch and guess what we are going to talk about today.
  2. – to go together with a text: Watch and find similarities to what was said in the text
  3. – to go together with a text: Watch and look out for certain objects (= make a list)
  4. – for discussion: Watch and tell me (the teacher) what this has to do with the text we’ve read
  5. – to go together with a grammatical point: Watch and write down all the instances this particular structure is used
  6. – to illustrate situations: Watch and then tell me what this situation is all about. How would you react / What would you have said in the same situation?
  7. – for listening comprehension: Watch and answer the following questions

Quite a lot it would seem. However, I would argue that we could do much more if we applied the blended learning concept.

Hardly ever do the video clips replace  texts, and there is a good reason for that: the time variable that basically defines the video and audio media. Watching a video together in a class makes it rather impossible to pause, to rewind, to replay according to individual demands. By making watching video possible for all students at the same time, we make it impossible to adjust for individual needs and individual study. But if we take out the “all students at the same time”-aspect, and gave over the play and pause buttons to the students, a whole vista of new possibilities emerge, increasing the overall as well as individual student activity.

So, what could these alternative activities be? I will try to give at least a few scenarios in this blog.

Ireland I

Skills: Listening, reading, speaking/writing

Objectives: the student should be able to talk/write about life and travelling in Ireland based on the facts presented in the Globetrekker video

Pre-video phase – tuning in to the subject

The teacher writes down words having to do with Ireland on the whiteboard, eg. LEPRECHAUN, GUINNESS, GAELIC, JAMES JOYCE, CONNEMARA, THE TROUBLES etc. The students guess what country is represented and when they have arrived at the correct destination, Ireland, they can try to guess what phenomena these individual words are associated with. The answers will be found in the subsequent video.

Video phase – instructions what to do + work sheets –> student activity


The students are asked to do three things while watching the 50-minute video:

  • 1) Before watching he needs to read through all the keywords so that he knows what to listen out for.
  • 2) During the watching he is to draw the travel route in the blank map, and
  • 3) watch and listen for the given keywords on the worksheet, make additional notes in order for the keywords to make sense to him.

As he has access to the video online (in a closed community/LMS) he can pause the video whenever he likes, re-play what he didn’t catch the first time around, ie. he will now enjoy total empowerment and control over his own learning process. Neither is he confined to the classroom space – he can work from home as well.

The keywords have been sorted alphabetically, ie. they do not appear in the correct order. Thus the student has to read through the keywords several times in search for something to match what he has seen and heard. He does not have to find all of them – there is no 100% score to aim for here. The teacher decides how much  time will be allocated for this, and when he thinks it appropriate he stops the activity and calls for the students’ attention back to the class.

Post-video phase 1– Discussion in small groups

The students compare their findings in small groups, assisting each other in filling in missing information on the worksheet.

Post-video phase 2 – Debriefing

There are countless possibilities here , but I’ll just give a few, based on a simple PowerPoint slide show with ten keywords from the worksheet. 

Powerpoint1) The students work in pairs, but no worksheets allowed any more. You will show a keyword and the students take turns in telling his partner all there is to know about that keyword. If the partner has nothing to add, the first student will score a point. For the next keyword the partner in turn does the same. If none of them has anything to say both will lose a point.

2) Divide the class into 4-5 groups and give each group 10 blank papers. Explain the rules: You will show 10 keywords, one at a time, and each group should write down as many facts associated with that keywords as they can. The group with the most correct facts will score a point. The same with the next keyword until time is out or all ten keywords have been dealt with. The winning team will get a prize.

3) Let the students write down their names on small pieces of paper. Collect the names, put them together in a hat, let a student draw a name. That student will have to explain all he knows about the given keyword.

Post-video phase 3 – Final task for evaluation and assessment

Alternative 1)

Give the students a choice between 4-5 broader topics in connection with the video and have them write a composition of 200-250 words. For example:

  • 1. Music in Ireland
  • 2. Irish history
  • 3. Farming in Ireland
  • 4. Sports in Ireland
  • 5. Irish climate and geography

or a communicative topic like this one:

Imagine –

you have a friend you have met on the Internet and there only.

Now he/she tells you he/she is about to go to Ireland in a couple of weeks and as you have told him/her that you have done and read a lot about Ireland in school he/she asks for advice on where to go and what to do and see there exactly. His/her interests are very wide which means he/she is open to all kinds of activities. Write your reply to him/her now and try to uphold his/her image of you as the real expert on Ireland.

Length: about 200 words

Alternative 2)

A short test on facts related in the video. For example:



Alternative 3)

A photo album with nine stills from the video. The students’ task is to write short texts about six of them. For example:

Photo album


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.