A web site for the developing language teacher

Teaching Tips 185

Hot Rods
Speaking volumes
Teaching 1-to-1

grey rodred rodgreen rodpurple rodyellow roddark green rodblack rodbrown rod

Hot Rods

Time for a look at one of my favourite teaching aids, the cuisenaire rods, small blocks of wood (or plastic) of varying lengths & each length has a different colour. Originally invented by Georges Cuisenaire, who was a Belgian primary school teacher, for the teaching of mathematics - his book 'Les Nombres en Couleurs' was published in 1952. He met Caleb Gattegno, the founder of the Silent Way, in 1953 & Gattegno realised that the use of cuisenaire rods combined discovery learning & language & were ideal for teaching of languages.

The rods are still widely used in the teaching of maths with a lot of information on the web explaining how to use them. Unfortunately there isn't much information at large for language teaching.

Below are some ideas on using the cuisenaire rods. Some of them are illustrated here on the site -

- Introduce them them bit by bit - get your stds used to them so at first don't ask them to do anything too taxing with the rods. Have them at hand & use them for short activities.

- To teach literal representations - 'rod' & the different colours - & use these as an aid to teach other things such as prepositions of place: 'Put the red rod in front of/behind/on the blue rod. Or imperatives & one/s: ' Pick up the white rod, put down the rod one, put the green ones to one side etc..'

- To highlight comparative & superlative adjectives: Which is taller; the red one or the blue one? And which is the shortest, tallest, brightest, dullest, more interesting, most boring, etc.'

- For storytelling: choose any narrative & the rods represent the different things such as roads, trees, people, shops, -- whatever you want them to be they will be invested with a magical meaning.

- For previewing a reading article. If you've got a tricky reading or listening article coming up in the coursebook, then tell the story of what happens before they listen/read so that the load is a lot lighter when they come to the text.

- For representing just about anything - relatives & friends: stds are asked to take 7/8 rods & decide which relative or friend each rod represents & then tell a partner about them - you'll find that they pick them up & demonstrate with them, making the activity much more interesting - there is a real focus. The same could be used for talking about the area the stds live in, describing their company, colleagues etc.

- For dictations: the teacher creates a scene with the rods, which the stds cannot see, & then describes the scene & the stds re-create the scene with their rods. At the end they compare with your scene to see if it is similar. The stds do the same with each other.

- For memory tests to review a lexical area e.g. animals - take a rod & ask which animal it represents, put it down & then get a different coloured rod & elicit another animal, put it down & recap on the first & second rods - carry on with the ten different colours so that you have ten animals represented - don't forget to keep recapping as you go along. When all ten are out ask the stds to close their eyes & tasks 2 or 3 away, they open their eyes & tell you which animals have gone. Can be done with any related vocabulary.

- For graphs: use a long rod for each axis & the others to represent trends which could come from a text or you could be looking at the language of trends - going up slowly, coming down, peaking off etc.

- For telling the time: a long rod & a short one is all you need to represent the clock - use this to present the time & then give the stds a couple of rods each & they test each other - 'Could you tell me the time please? It's five o'clock Thanks'

- For clarifying meaning: e.g. present & past deduction- it must/can't/might/ be behind the red/green one.

- For clarifying form: the present simple affirmative, negative & question form e.g. I / get up / at / seven. / - / I / do / not / get up / at / eight / - What time / do / you / get up?/ Each section has a colour, lay out each utterance using the rods & the stds can see at a glance what is happening to the word order. Good also for the active/passive voices.

- Directions: make a street map with the rods & use this to teach directions - turn right/left/around, go straight on etc - & if you've got a small toy car to use with it as well..

- Correction awareness: For those stds who want to be corrected all the time, give each a red, green & orange rod. If they want to be corrected they put out a green rod, if they don't want correcting they put out the red one & if they want correcting at the teacher's discretion they put the orange one out - just like the traffic lights. They usually begin with green, get fed up & go to red, get fed up & end up on orange - which is what you wanted all along! See the Correction Triangle Teaching Tip -

- To use when listening a non-linguistic task e.g. for an extensive task with a difficult text they could simply use the rods - when they hear speaker A they put the rod standing up & for speaker B they lay the rod down. Or they could choose the rod that represents X.

- For representing meaning: timelines & tense clarification lend themselves very much to the rods. A long rod represents the horizontal left to right time frame & the other rods can be placed to represent states, habits & events.

- For clarifying phonological aspects: lots of uses here from sounds to intonation. e.g. for awareness of rhythm & stress teach the group a nursery rhyme, you will need all of the rods of two colours, & lay out the rods according to the stressed & unstressed syllable. There's an example on the illustration page & we've also put in a page of nursery rhymes, with their corresponding rod representation over in the phonology section -

- For grouping stds: ask the stds to pick a colour & when all have got one they sit beside the person with the same colour. As tokens for ensuring all speak: all have ten rods & when they speak they discard a rod & when they have discarded all ten they cannot carry on in the conversation. Allows the quieter less assertive stds to have a chance.

- They can be used as tokens in other activities too e.g. in a bargaining roleplay where the rods represent different things.

- Apart from planning specific activities that use the rods, take a box with you into each lesson & you'll soon realise how many uses will occur to you.

To get hold of a box of rods, Educational Solutions will be pleased to help you out. They have a web site at & they offer a small carry around set plus a bigger international set.

An article titled 'The Cuisenaire Rods and Silence'
by Tim Hahn that looks at how the cuisenaire rods can be used to create a productive & stimulating silence.

To a lesson plan by simon Ferdinand that incorporates the rods -

Back to the contents

discussing Speaking volumes

I've recently put up a lesson plan about developing conversation skills with a fairly low level group of younger learners by Bindu Grover. You can see the plan at:

This is what she says of her lesson:
'In this lesson we are focusing on phrases for expressing feelings as a way to improve the students' conversational skills, having looked at other aspects of conversation (as mentioned above) in previous lessons and we will continue with the same in future lessons too. The reason for focusing so much on conversation skills in general is that as the group has a wide range of levels in it, the weaker students have shown signs of monosyllabic responses at times and getting frustrated at not being able to say what they want.
The main focus of the lesson is expressing self and showing interest in what another speaker says. I have noticed the discourse skills to be distinctly lacking in some of my students' repertoire and this is mainly because of the cultural difference.
I'd also encourage them to use of 'fillers' to practice giving themselves time to think and a few phrases for getting back on the subject or framing what they want to say, e.g. 'well, hmm' etc. to gain thinking time during the conversation.
The reason for looking at these features is essentially the same as the reason for looking at the phrases for showing interest. I've often noticed my students lacking these features, and often hear 'I don't know what to say' from them.
Another thing that I'm going to focus on is giving the students' time to prepare before telling their own experiences, repeating the task and encouraging them to notice some relevant features from the listening.'

The use of preparation time, repeating the task & setting a noticing task while the speaking is going on are all useful techniques in the development of speaking skills. Here are a few reasons why our learners might not be very forthcoming during speaking tasks:

1. Some students may be shy in front of their peers.
2. The topic may not be interesting.
3. They don't have the necessary language to accomplish the task.
4. The students may not know what is required of them.
5. The students may feel that the activity is relevant to their learning objectives.
6. One student may be dominating.
7. The task has been over-prepared and there is little else to say on the topic.
8. The students would rather interact with the teacher rather than their class mates.
9. The roleplay might seem childish eg when asked to take on the role of a younger person.
10. Personality conflicts may mean that students don't want to work with each other.
11. They want to be corrected when they may mistakes. They hear others making them & wonder why you aren't doing anything.
12. The students just speak in their mother tongue.

Not a comprehensive list, I'm sure you can think of some more. Now here are some ideas for helping, in no particular order.

a. Analyse the task beforehand, predict what language they might need & teach them it before the task. If there is too much language to teach, then maybe this task is an inappropriate choice. If they don't have the language then they will naturally turn to their mother tongue to help them out.

b. Explain why you are asking them to carry out the task. It maybe a roleplay alien to their lives but the language may be transferable to different situations. Also explain the use of pairwork to maximise class time & that we always learn off each other.

c. I would never get adults to roleplay youngsters.

d. Be aware of the personalities in the class & choose who works with who carefully. If this becomes a big problem, talk to individuals to sort it out.

e. Rotate the roles you give so that all have a chance to play a strong role, so the quieter ones get to come out of themselves & no one person can dominate every time.

f. Help students to ease into the roles by getting them to do some preparation, perhaps before the class at home. Help them out with questions they may have & feed in language they might need.

g. Explain your methodology. If you aren't correcting during the task, tell them that you are monitoring them & will look at areas afterwards. If you step in during, then you will stop the flow of the activity. Talk about the difference between controlled & freer activities.

h. Try not to give out too much material when setting up the task. Be clear with instructions & check all know what they have to do.

i. Choose topics careful, & not just the next one in the coursebook because it's there.

j. Involve your students in the choice of topics. Give out a list &, as a class, select the next few to look at.

k. Maybe you're expecting production too quickly after introducing new language. Some more controlled activities might be needed.

l. Use noticing tasks so they can see the language others are using & then after you can work on this area, followed by another attempt at the task with new language - test-teach-test.

m. Set a public performance after the task - ie say you will choose a pair/group to do the task in front of the class afterwards. This means the initial task is taken more seriously by all & performed better.

n. Set up a reflection task after the speaking. This could be with the task sheet for the noticing or a new task sheet, to help them focus on certain skill areas. There are some feedback tasks in the excellent 'Conversation' by Nolasco & Arthur (OUP):

It can be a challenge to get our students to speak but a lot lies in the preparation, both in our lesson planning & the preparation of the students for the task.


For another recent speaking skills lesson, First Certificate Speaking: Part 2. Avoiding "ermmm": Adding coherence to spoken discourse using discourse markers by Jonny Frank


A couple of other speaking skills books:

Roleplay - G.Porter-Ladousse (OUP)

How to Teach Speaking - S.Thornbury (Pearson Education)

Discussions That Work - P.Ur (CUP)

Back to the contents


Teaching 1-1

Last week we looked at storytelling in the classroom & although I mentioned Andrew Wright's two books, I omitted his site which contains lots for the storytelling teachers. Check it out at:

And yet another book from Andrew:
Writing Stories by Andrew Wright & David A. Hill (Helbling Languages)


If we are teaching adults, most of us find ourselves teaching one-to-one classes at some time & as a general rule these tend to be less popular than teaching the group class. This is probably due to the crowded nature of one-to-ones. It can be difficult to 'get away' from the student, whereas in the group, there is a certain distance provided by the sum of the parts.

Clearly from a learning point of view, a one-to-one offers a special situation in which learning can be tailored to the learner & skills & language covered can be relevant & interesting all the time, boosting the pace & depth of learning in the process.

Here are a few pointers for one-to-one teaching:

1. Find out about the student's area of specialisation & show a layperson's interest in it. Be on the lookout for material related to this area.

2. Be careful about going into the lessons thinking that you will be teaching them the vocabulary for their specialised areas, as more often than not, they already know these & need the surrounding language, functional & grammatical language, as well as skills development. Also the idea of 'business English' might well be reduced to the need for social English as they may be able to cope very well at work but not outside the office.

3. Let the student provide some material for the lesson. Invite her to bring in letters & emails she wants correcting, an article she needs to read, a website she needs to visit in English etc... Let her take the reins in the lessons now & then.

4. Take a 'process approach' to the syllabus & timetable. React to what comes up in lessons by planning it into the next few lessons. As the course progresses, the student will have different problems & directions so go with these rather than sticking rigidly to a coursebook.

5. Use a test-teach-test approach to new language; test the student through a roleplay/discussion >> teach the student what she needs >> test her again with the same or similar roleplay/discussion. This shows her that the language you are looking at is relevant to her needs.

6. Record progress together. Go though what has been covered regularly, keep a diary of areas that were found difficult, promote self direction - what she would like to work on etc.. Explain why this is important & explain other areas of methodology - why you are doing different activities, procedures etc. As with any class, awareness is half the process won.

7. Use the class for real rehearsals, simulate work-related situations - roleplays, meetings etc.. If necessary, emphasise the confidentiality related to this - you might be teaching elsewhere in the same company & this might dampen enthusiasm for real rehearsal.

8. Use different medium if possible. You can have a lesson in the office one day, in a different situation the next, over the telephone another day & then on the internet on another. Vary the material you use as well. Variety is the spice of life.

9. Give the student psychological space - see the Tip 'Space' at:

10. Take breaks. You can stop anytime with a one-to-one. Explain you will stop an activity, a stage in the lesson if you feel a break is needed. Encourage the student to say if she would like a break as well. This helps the overall effectiveness of a lesson.

11. Use project work. For example, a manager might find the ' Management Guru' material from the BBC useful. It could actually be a course in itself. See the Tip at:

12. Use different seating positions to suit the different activities you carry out. Instead of sitting at either sides of a table, sit next to each other, sit away from each other when the student is working on something alone.

One-to-one teaching is very interesting & rewarding & a little planning & thought can go a long way to providing a successful course.

Some one-to-one books:

Learning One-to-One - Ingrid Wisniewska (CUP)

One to One - A teachers' handbook - P.Wilberg (LTP)

Teaching English One to One: How to Teach One to One Classes - For the Professional English Language Teacher - Priscilla Osborne (Modern English Publishing Ltd)

Back to the contents

To the Past Teaching Tips

Back to the top

Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us Online Development Courses    Lesson Plan Index
 Phonology — Articles Books  LinksContact
Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page

Copyright 2000-2016© Developing