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Teaching Tips 182

Reconstruct the text
Expanding the Talk
Speaking in mother tongues

Reconstruct the text

Rolf Palmberg from Åbo Akademi University, Vaasa, in Finland, joins us again with this week's Tip - A house and a number of rooms.

The purpose of this exercise is to practise learners' text-reconstruction skills and at the same time increase their vocabulary awareness. It is suitable for most proficiency levels, provided that the learners are familiar with (most of) the vocabulary included in the text. The exercise also encourages the use of dictionary work in the classroom.

Step One

Explain to the learners that the text in the first box (displayed e.g. on an OHP transparency)

I live in a red house near the main road. Our house has eight rooms and two balconies that overlook a big garden.

can also be conveyed like this:


Give them enough time to notice that there are no spaces or punctuation marks. Answer any questions, if necessary.

Step Two

Ask the learners to form pairs or groups of three and hand out copies of the worksheet below. Give each learner his or her own worksheet, and emphasise that everyone has to fill in a worksheet of their own even if they work in pairs or in groups. If needed, read out the instructions.


To be able to read the text, you must put the groups of letters in the box below in their correct order and provide the text with spaces and punctuation marks. Do not add or delete letters. Do not change the order of letters.

This is the beginning of a text: ILIVEINAB (not included in the box)


The text ends with this group of letters (not included in the box):

Write your passage in the box below. Use both lowercase and uppercase letters. Don't forget to add spaces and punctuation marks.

Step Three
When most of the learners have completed the task, ask them to re-group and compare their findings with their classmates.

Solution - This is the unscrambled version of the text:

I live in a big house. On the ground floor we have a kitchen, a hall, a living-room, a dining-room, a bathroom and a toilet. On the first floor we have three bedrooms, a bathroom and a small toilet. On the second floor there is an attic.

This is a modified version of an exercise taken from my eBook Multiple Intelligences revisited [Palmsoft Publications 2011]. The eBook can be downloaded free of charge at courtesy of

For a past Tip on a similar idea check out 'Runningtexttogether':

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Expanding the Talk

IThe Oscars are upon us so for class material check out:

A simple topical discussion warmer - put the following film titles on the board, elicit the Oscar film winner - 'The Artist',& get the students in small groups discussing:

- if they agree with the choice of winner
- if not, which film do they think should have won
- & explain to each other about films in the list that they have seen but their group members haven't - plot, characters, stars...
- round off with a class discussion

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Before beginning, put up some sentence stems on the board for the students to incorporate into their discussions, alter to suit level e.g.

I don't agree at all with the winner because..
I'm for...
I really don't agree...
Quite right.
You can't be serious...
What about..?

We ask out students to do a lot of speaking in a lesson - for example;
as a class:
- responding to you, the teacher,
- responding to each other
in pairs of small groups
- discussing language discovery
- general problem solving & information gap tasks
- discussing opinions
- comparing answers e.g. after listening & reading tasks

All the time the students are developing their speaking abilities, their communication strategies, but they will use the same language. So to maximise the effectiveness of the limited time we have with our students we really need to take advantage of these incidental speaking tasks. One way is to focus them on the type of language they will be trying to use e.g. persuasion, agreeing/disagreeing... by eliciting the areas from them. Taking it a little further & elicit ways of expressing these functional areas & write some of the more advanced ones on the board for them to refer to when doing the task. Add some more of these stems in yourself, language that will stretch them & help them to incorporate new exponents, with a brief phonology spot on them before moving on to the actual task.

Choose the occasions you are going to incorporate this development & use the other times to monitor, & take notes on, their language use, feeding in your observations to future occasions.

For the general English student this area will usually be at the top of their speaking skills needs' list, the language of discussion in the classroom. They spend so much time discussing& it is immediately useful outside the classroom. It's easy to waste the opportunities & expect the speaking skill to take care of itself.

Here are some ideas on developing speaking skills from the past Tip 'Speaking Up':

1. Lots & lots of controlled speaking activities - from drills to dialogue reading aloud to building dialogues to flow charts. Here are some past Teaching Tips dealing with these controlled speaking areas:

Building it up

Review those drills

A communicative drill?

Going with the flow

Meaningful & meaningless drills

Shadow reading

Mumble drills

2. Incorporate the ideas from the 'Fill it with English' Teaching Tip.

3. Try to keep the whole lesson in English so that it just becomes a habit that the students are expected to respond in English. Work on introducing & practising classroom language & routines. This will then help to reduce the general embarrassment level when speaking English.

4. Explain the purposes of pair work & group work - to maximise student talking time. Explain the purposes of the roleplays & discussions.

5. Choose motivating, interesting & manageable topics for roleplays & discussions.

6. Prepare the students for the speaking with information & role cards. Give them time to think about what they might say & help out with any questions.

7. Rotate the stronger roles so that all have a chance to take lead roles. And don't let the stronger, more extrovert students dominate the others.

8. Stay out of the way. Let the students do the activity as much as they can.

9. Use video rather than audio tapes where possible to work on the listening skill. This is not only more realistic & less stressful but the speaking skill can be fully appreciated.

10. Give positive feedback, as well as helpful ideas for improvement. Also try to help them with things that they couldn't say during the activity by encouraging them to note these things down as they occur & deal with them afterwards.

11. Exploit any spontaneous conversations that arise in the class. These could come from something that has happened to a particular student or something in the news that day.

12. Record the students at the beginning, in the middle & at the end of the course to show them that have made progress with this skill. It may not be part of the examination but it still needs highlighting.

13. With the secondary class one of the most motivating things you can promote is the idea that speaking in another language is 'cool', pop music being an obvious way into this.

Here are some more past Teaching Tips concerned with the speaking skill:

Sophisticated ideas with little language

Speaking grades

Speaking homework

Building it up

Come in & take a seat

The expert talking

Fill it with English

Work out where you are

Strangers on a train

Discussion visitors

Quick-thinking group roleplay

Blocking roleplays

Circular roleplays

Promoting specific language use in freer oral activities

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Speaking in mother tongues

It's International Mother Language Day on the 21st, certainly a topic well worth reflecting on in this age of three or four dominant languages.
A recent article from the BBC, 'Digital tools 'to save languages'':

The UN page for the Day this year:
'Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.'

And on the site there is a past Tip with some classroom ideas, 'International Mother Language Day':

World languages

Your students' mother tongue is clearly a very important factor in the classroom. Here are a couple of related past Tips:


If you are teaching monolingual groups it is clearly very useful to know the mother tongue of your students as you can pre-empt some problems they might have. But actually using the mother tongue as a teaching tool has been a different story as teacher training courses used to banish it to ELT oblivion & we used to ignore the poor student who was desperate to translate, encouraging them to 'think' in English. Nowadays it is recognised as a useful & natural tool in the process of language learning. There is still a case for not using it on the initial training course as some teaching skills might not be developed if translation were relied on. Here are a few translation activities:

1. Same day articles - for news stories that have international appeal, get hold of copies of the English story & the students' language story - newspapers, internet, radio.
- predict the content of the story.
- read the English version & picking up on any useful language.
- students translate the story.
- they then compare their versions with the mother tongue version.
- they could also then compare the mother tongue version & the English versions, looking at style & content.
The shorter the article the better!

2. False friends - picking up on them as they crop up or in warmers/coolers. There is a page about Spanish/English false friends on the site.

3. New language consolidation - after the presentation & before the practice, elicit & have a quick comparison with the mother tongue version of the target language to highlight the similarities or differences. This can be a very comforting stage for the students.

4. To provide variety to your array of techniques, use the Community Language Learning (CLL) procedure now & then. Very basically, this involves seating the students in a circle with a tape recorder in the middle. They have a conversation, preferably about a subject of their choice but you could lead into it from the current theme, & all of their contributions are taped. When they have a problem, they call on you & you whisper to the student the English version of what they want to say. They then say this in the conversation. This technique can be used at all levels, & is especially useful at very low levels. If you don't speak the students' language, then you could do all of this in English although the students would need a level of English to be able to tell you what they would like to say.
Before the next lesson, transcribe interesting parts of their conversation & use it for analysis & consolidation.

5. Word-for-word versions - good for the translation obsessed student. Give out a literal translation of a short article or conversation & the students translate it into their language & discuss how it could be more naturally expressed in English.

For professional translations.

6. Get hold of a copy of 'Using the Mother Tongue' by S.Deller & M.Rinvolucri (Delta) - excellent ideas for the classroom.

The important thing about using translation in class is that it is used in a principled way - you know why you are using it, the students know, there are times when it is OK & when it is not. The alternative is a lazy use of translation where both the students & the teacher become reliant on it. Discuss these issues with your students.


But I don't speak their language!

As an observer of a lot of lessons at different levels of teacher experience I see quite a few with teachers who do not know the mother tongue of the monolingual groups, in this case, Spanish. Communication breakdowns between student & teacher can sometimes seem obvious to me but totally bewildering to the teacher. The teacher is left shaking her head wondering what it could possibly be that the student wants to say.

These teachers are at a disadvantage as having a degree of ability with the mother tongue can help in several ways;
- understanding what the students want to say in speech & writing,
- anticipating what they might have problems with,
- understanding some of the causes of their errors,
- using translation as a tool in the lessons.

But then there is the danger that as we know the mother tongue we make allowances when students express themselves, we know what they want to say & incorporate that in the interaction. If they were faced with native speakers of English, the reaction they get might well be very different. However, the advantages of knowing the students' mother tongue clearly outweigh the disadvantages.

So what can we do if we are faced with a nationality that we have no awareness of their mother tongue? Here are a few ideas:

1. Quickly get hold of 'Learner English' Edited by Michael Swan & Bernard Smith (CUP 2001). This is an excellent reference book, each chapter dealing with a language in terms of pronunciation& structure, together with problems learners might have. To see the review of the book on the site:

2. Learn the language if you can. If you have moved to a new country the obvious thing is to immerse yourself in the language & try tom pick up as much as possible as quickly as possible. If you are in an English-speaking country, the likelihood of dealing with one nationality is much reduced.

3. Talk to colleagues when you are planning to see if your students will have problems with what you are going to teach. Anticipating can go a long way.

4. Learn from your students. Ask them how certain things are expressed, although don't rely on this as you have no way of knowing if they are right.

5. Possibly insist that your students keep everything in English as there's no way you can tell if they are translating things right or not.

6. When there is a communication problem between you & the students, insist that they clarify what they want to say.

7. Find out not only about the language differences but also the cultural differences.

8. Talk to your students, if they are of a level to discuss it in English, about how useful it is that you are unaware of the mother tongue as you are reacting as any other native speaker, making the students work harder to clarify their messages.

9. With younger learner classes, find the translation for some basic classroom instructions. These might save a lesson with a boisterous group of youngsters.

And then there is the complicated, but incredibly interesting & dynamic, situation of the multi-nationality group.

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