Tag Archives: teaching

The twin-steer car: a lesson in resourcefulness

A while ago I was called in at short notice to cover a lesson for an absent colleague. As we know, there are various ways of handling these situations, but because I was familiar with the coursebook that the group was using, I decided not to do an unplugged lesson but rather to go in and use the book as a starting point. My idea was to do a few communicative activities to revise the most recent topics and vocabulary.

At our school everyone learns English, but different class groups have different ‘profiles’. This particular tenth-grade class has extra classes in Art and Design, and I noticed straight away that one of the guys sitting near me was doodling absent-mindedly in his notebook as I took the students’ names and did all the admin at the start of the lesson. ‘Aha – an artist!’ I thought, but said nothing.

Then I began teaching. I got a fairly good response from the students, who were quite active and willing to talk. One student seemed quite reticent, though, a little bit uncomfortable, even. Which one? The doodler. He still had his notebook open, but he clammed up whenever he was supposed to speak or make a contribution to the lesson. I gave him a long, quizzical look (I was really just trying to decide what to do) and then I saw him move apologetically to put his doodle-filled notebook away. That’s when I got the idea.

“No, it’s OK. The others can do this task. I’ve got a special job for you. I want you to draw me something.”


Actually, I had no idea what I wanted him to draw for me, I just thought it had better be something a little bit out-of-the-ordinary. So I said the first thing that came into my head:

“I want you to design me a car with two steering wheels.”

And that’s exactly what he did. For the next twenty minutes he was totally absorbed in his task, drawing away happily as the lesson hummed and coughed around him. Occasionally he looked up at me cautiously to see if it really was OK for him to be sitting there drawing instead of getting involved in the lesson. I caught his eye  and just nodded to indicate that everything was fine.

This is what he drew:

(You can click on the image for a closer look.) Now I think this is brilliant. As you can imagine, I told the  student what a great job he had done and showed the sketch to the rest of the group. Then I got him to explain his design in a few sentences. Everyone listened – and helped out with vocabulary, too, when he got stuck. When the bell rang for the end of class, it felt like the lesson had not been a waste of time for anybody.

And that might have been the end of it.

I kept the sketch, actually carried it around inside the notebook I always take to lessons. From time to time I looked at it and smiled. I wanted to use it in some way – it was too good just to chuck in my desk drawer and forget about. I just didn’t know what to do with it.

Time passed.

Today I taught my eleventh graders. I asked them to do three things.

1. Warm-up. Think of a radical new car design.

I got some interesting ideas. Here’s one:


These students are the scientists and engineers, as you can probably guess. There were plenty of other great ideas, ranging from rotten-veggie-powered cars to design-it-yourself ‘skateboard cars’. There was even an idea for an i-Car – “using the iCar app you can just swipe the i-Key to start the engine.” Pretty impressive, I thought 🙂

2. Look at the picture. What is it? What do you think about it?

Then I showed them the picture of the twin-steer car that I had been carrying around with me all this time. My original, idle request for a car with two steering wheels had been just that: idle. My students, however, saw all sorts of possibilities in the design:

3. Then came the main focus of the lesson: a writing task based on the twin-steer car design, which also allowed students to practise producing the kind of texts commonly featured in the writing section of language exams – which is it what they are all preparing for, of course.

I showed them this slide:

I’ll leave you with a selection of the students’ efforts, in extract form.

A review:

A for-and-against essay:

A letter of complaint:

A couple of marketing leaflets, which I’ll reproduce in full. Click on the images for a more detailed view:

Some wonderfully witty and original pieces of work here. A car that runs on the energy created by the shattering of childhood dreams – did you see that? Brilliant. How interesting to reflect that if a few months ago in class I had told a certain doodling artist to put his pad away and pay attention none of it would have been possible in the first place.

The real lesson of the twin-steer car is not to rush to judgement. The doodling student who seemingly made little meaningful contribution to my lesson in fact produced the very materials which subsequently inspired an impressive selection of top-quality work from another group of students.

Keeping an open mind in the short-term about the supposed ‘usefulness’ of our students’ contributions to one particular lesson can unlock a fantastically rich potential palette of student-produced materials for use in the long-term, provided we are resourceful enough to notice that potential and then to carry it around with us until we work out what the next step is.

Webinar – Good to go: Engaging one-off lessons with teenagers

Thanks to those who took part in this webinar. Being called on at short notice to go in and cover for a colleague is one of the “known unknowns” of teaching – we know it is bound to happen at some point, but it always manages to take us by surprise. It was enjoyable for me to have this opportunity to share some of the ideas for coping with these situations that I have managed to scrape together over the years.

Here is a link to a recording of the webinar for those that missed it.

Webquest activities about dyslexia

Here are some simple webquest activities that I made to help students find out more about dyslexia. Feel free to try them out – and let me know what you and your students think about them. They are designed for lower secondary.


1. How much do you know about dyslexia?

a.) Look at the sentences below. Circle the correct word. If you are not sure of the answers, guess.

1. Dyslexia is a difference in how the brain/eye works.

2. Dyslexics have trouble with reading/speaking.

3. Dyslexics are often good artists/communicators.

4. 1% / 10% of the population is dyslexic.

5. Dyslexia affects/does not affect intelligence.

6. It helps to talk about your feelings /read about dyslexia.

7. Dyslexics can be happy and have a lot of money/success.


b.) Now watch the YouTube video called Dyslexia, so what is it all about and check your answers.


2. Famous people with dyslexia

a.) Can you identify the famous dyslexics? Find a full list at xtraordinary people

1. A.E. – scientist       ___________________________

2. W.G. – actor          ___________________________

3. J.O. – chef              ___________________________

4. W.D. – film maker ___________________________

5. W.C. – politician    ___________________________


b.) Agatha Christie was a very successful crime writer. She also had dyslexia. Answer the questions about her. Use her Wikipedia profile to help you find the answers.

“I was . . . the ‘slow one’ in the family. Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me.”
Agatha Christie


1. How many detective novels did Agatha Christie write? ____________

2. Can you name one of the detectives she created ? __________

3. What does the Guinness Book of World Records say about her? ____________

4. How many novels has she sold? ­____________

5. Where can you see The Mousetrap? ____________


3. Choose another famous person with dyslexia. Write five sentences about him/her.

KEY:1 a.) brain; reading; communicators; 10%; does not affect; talk about your feelings; success

2 a.) 1. Albert Einstein 2. Whoopi Goldberg  3. Jamie Oliver 4. Walt Disney 5. Winston Churchill

2 b.) 1. 66   2. Hercule Poirot / Miss Jane Marple / Tommy and Tuppence   3. She is the best-selling novelist of all time   4. about 4 billion   5. the Ambassadors Theatre, London

When students make you smile…

Recently I was teaching a lesson to a group of intermediate-level 10th graders. The students and I get on very well – they are bright and funny, which is a terrific combination – and they are good enough at English to have plenty of opinions about the way the language is used. We were checking the answers to some practice exercises on question tags. None of them had any problems with it – they had figured out how to use question tags correctly and could do it pretty well – they just thought that the question-tag mechanism in English was unnecessarily cumbersome.

“Why do you need all these different question tags? Couldn’t you think of a simpler way to do it?” one of them asked, as if I had personally been on the committee that had devised the question-tag rule.

As a group they’re pretty good about remembering to let me know whenever something annoys them about English grammar, and I do my best to commiserate with them on those occasions. There have been some low points (the units on the present perfect continuous and future continuous spring to mind) but we always manage to get through with a smile.

So, I conceded straight away that the Hungarian way of forming question tags is – ugye? – a whole lot simpler and more straightforward than the English way, but praised them for being able to handle English question tags so well. As an interesting aside, I pointed out that many young people in the UK have taken to using innit? as an all-purpose question tag themselves. Naturally, I stressed that this was incorrect and that they should use question tags the proper way.

Anyway, this afternoon I sat down to correct a pile of tests, including one lot done by my intermediate 10th graders. A huge smile spread across my face when I got to the section of the test on question tags. Here’s why:


I’m going to give the guy who wrote it bonus points, of course 🙂

As for innit, it will be interesting to see what happens over the next few decades. There’s no denying that some teenagers in the UK use it all the time, especially – but not exclusively – to antagonise teachers and parents, in a sense proving that even though innit itself may be gramatically incorrect, the circumstances of its use are nevertheless heroically authentic. Will it ever become an example of acceptable usage? Time will tell, innit?

New English File demo lesson in Szekszárd

Last week I was at the I. Béla Gimnázium in Szekszárd to do a demonstration lesson for English teachers using New English File. I’ve done plenty of demonstration lessons over the years and have been observed teaching countless times, too. On those occasions, I have always been in my own classroom with my own students. This time I had to go to another town and teach students I’d never met before from a book I don’t use regularly. That’s quite a different challenge!

The lesson I was teaching was from the Upper-Intermediate level of NEF. The topic was burglary and pickpocketing. If you know NEF, it’s File 3A ‘The one place a burglar won’t look’. Looking through the book the day before, I was again struck by what you might call  the user-friendliness of the materials and the teachability of the topics. As someone who has spent years trying to get reluctant teenagers to engage with a topic in the English-learning classroom, I think I have a good sense of what is going to work and what isn’t. I had a sense that this was going to work. The quiz about burglars would provide a challenge, allow personalisation and get the students working in pairs. The listening task about pickpockets was both enjoyable and instructive in a real-world sense. I hoped the students would talk so much that I wouldn’t have to go past the first speaking and listening section.

The big day. I had to teach some lessons with my own students in the morning, so I decided that if I couldn’t have a dress rehearsal with the students in Szekszárd, then I could at least try out the lesson on one of my own groups. So, armed with photocopies of the pages (sorry, OUP!) I had a dry-run with my tenth-grade intermediate students. I wasn’t worried about the lesson being too difficult for them (this was NEF upper-int  and we use Solutions intermediate) as I know they have tremendous English and can ‘punch above their weight.’ And so it proved. The rehearsal lesson went really well, the materials really got them talking, thinking and debating. I was delighted.

I planned a couple of ice-breakers for Szekszárd: a what’s-in-the-box? guessing game revealed a light bulb, which led to an information-gap anecdote about a market trader selling burnt-out light bulbs, which I thought offered a nice introduction to the topic of thieving. I then found some great pictures of items of value camouflaged to make them seem less desirable. The students had to examine the photos and try to see through the subterfuge, as a way of getting warmed up for the topic of the first task, which was beating burglars. My final ploy was to bring along a bag of szaloncukor, shamelessly taking advantage of the holiday season by using them to bribe the students to get involved in the lesson.


The pickpocket consultant interviewed in the  listening section talks about the technique of ‘misdirection’ as being key to a pickpocket’s success. Just before playing the track I ‘accidentally’ dropped one of the szaloncukor on the floor next to a student’s desk, seizing the moment as he stooped down to pick it up to pinch his name card. I was trying to demonstrate the concept of misdirection. Pretty smooth, huh? Just a pity that the whole room saw me do it, even the guy I was stealing from. I guess I’d make a lousy pickpocket. Better stick to teaching, I suppose!

I won’t pretend the lesson went as well as I would have liked it to. The students were extremely attentive and well behaved, but I found it hard to get them to talk. It’s hardly surprising, when you think about it. When there’s a strange teacher you’ve never seen before teaching you and a load of people watching you, the smart choice is to keep your head down and say as little as possible. Given the difficult circumstances, I think the lesson was OK, at least in terms of  providing meaningful input and stimulating some interaction. I just felt that it was a pity that there was so much TTT. Further evidence – if any were needed – of the importance of establishing a relationship of mutual trust between teacher and students before any real progress can be made. I was basically being sized up for 45 minutes. Thanks to the students for giving me the benefit of their doubts 🙂 I enjoyed the afternoon.

Returning to  I. Béla Gimnázium reminded me of the first time I ever went to the school. It must have been about ten years ago. The gimnázium was hosting an English language competition, and I’d been asked to be one of the judges. I took the bus from Pécs to Szekszárd (about 60km), then got a taxi to the school. Not much of an event in itself, but for me it provided a lasting memory: the Best-Ever Conversation With a Taxi Driver. The guy in question was fairly garrulous, and we were chatting away in Hungarian (both moaning, I expect) about this and that. At one point he turned to me and said, “Where did you come from, again?” I knew from the wording of his question that he was asking about my journey, rather than my nationality (Honnan is jött?) so I told him I’d come from Pécs.  Longish pause. “So is that a Pécs accent you have? I didn’t realise they spoke so differently there.”  When I told him I was English he did an actual double-take, one of the few I’ve ever seen in real life.  I’m fairly pleased with my spoken Hungarian, but don’t often get mistaken for a native, so this was one of those champagne moments. I gave him a handsome tip.

11:11:11 11/11/11

A few minutes before quarter past eleven last Friday saw the auspicious (or merely suspicious) phenomenon of the date and time lining up in a satisfying little single file, like a row of dominoes. 11:11:11 11/11/11. I knew that when the moment came I would be at school, teaching a group of 10th graders, so I thought it would be fun to mark the occasion in some way.

The magic moment

All my other lessons on Friday were in some way concerned with November 11 as Poppy Day: the tradition in Britain of wearing a red (and/or white) poppy to commemorate all those who have died in the services since the First World War. It also gave us a chance to discuss the role of days of remembrance and commemoration in society, and to compare traditions in Hungary with those in the UK. In one class we looked at a lesson in Solutions Intermediate that focuses on Poppy Day. Some students were already aware of the tradition of wearing poppies. Some had already learned about it, others had seen poppies being worn on TV by Premier League football managers and UK X-Factor judges. Some interesting discussions emerged about whether or not it is important for a nation to honour its war dead.

I decided to do something a little more light-hearted for the 11:11:11 class. I’d read Hadley Freeman’s piece in the Guardian about ‘Corduroy Day’ but didn’t think that wearing three items of staid corduroy would achieve much other than making me look like a parody of the English teacher I already am. I’m not much of a dominoes fan, and the thought of messing around with dominoes in class stirred up the feeling of torpor that washes over me whenever I see those Dutch students on TV trying to break the world record for falling domino chains.

If I’d wanted to be really cruel, I could have just announced that I was giving everyone ‘a one’ to mark the occasion. Instead of using letters for assessment (grade A, grade B, etc.)  in Hungary teachers give students numbered grades from 5 to 1. The failing grade is 1. That would certainly have made the lesson memorable! In the end I went for Kit Kats. Four bars got me sixteen sweet singles. Then to work. It was a race against time. The group had the task of setting up some kind of image on the IWB to act as a backdrop to the epochal photo, while also deciding how best to arrange  the Kit Kats as a visual prop. The internet was down (of course) so they decided to create a powerpoint  slide instead. The chocolate bars were snapped and nibbled into shape and with the clock ticking away, a tableau began to emerge.

You're the ones that I want

Then, right on cue, our resident student photographer grabbed his camera for a buzzer-beating group photo. Mission accomplished, the students took their seats and polished off the evidence.

It was then time to debate whether the moment we had just marked had been of any real significance or not. We looked briefly at the  topic of numerology and also discussed  the story of Egypt’s closure of the Great Pyramid  – which, again, the students had heard about.

'Ones all round!'

After the lesson, when I got back to the staffroom – which is situated under the classroom –  one of my colleagues asked me with a smile what we’d been doing in class. She said they could hear the laughter and commotion from below.

“It sounded like you were enjoying yourselves.”

We were!

IATEFL-Hungary conference

My session at the IATEFL- Hungary conference in Budapest on Saturday was on the  topic of ‘Using vocabulary inside and outside the classroom with Oxford Word Skills.’  Thanks to all those teachers who came along and got involved. (I’m not making all the slides available here, as the session contained a load of photographs of my students and scans of their work, and I don’t want to go public with all of them without their permission. )

One of the tasks I got my students to do involved working with newspaper headlines. Students had to look at a headline and imagine a story to go with it. They had to dream up descriptions of the people in the article and present a summary. I also asked them to find a way to match a bizarre and incongruous photograph that I gave them to one of four headlines, providing a caption to go with the photograph.

These were the four headlines that the students had to work with:

Which headline proved to be the most popular? No contest. There was a hands-down winner: ‘Man claims dog can talk’

I got an array of illustrated articles from my students with various imaginative takes on this (shaggy?) dog story. What was really interesting was that even when I gave them illustrations to work with which  had no obvious connection whatsoever to dogs (talking or otherwise) they still managed to make a connection.

There was clearly something about this topic of the talking dog that the students liked. I mean, look:


One of the enduring fascinations of teaching is its unpredictability. Students very often respond to input in marvellously unexpected ways. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years is that rather than trying  to get my lessons ‘back on track’  when this happens I am usually better off just going with the flow. So next week I’ll be finding out a bit more about this talking dog – from my students. Watch this space 🙂