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Teaching Tips 188

International Literacy
Creative worksheets
Left out

Literacy Day

International Literacy

It's International Literacy Day on 8th September & clearly very much related to our jobs. Here's the Wikipedia definition of 'literacy':

'The traditional definition of literacy is considered to be the ability to read and write, or the ability to use language to read, write, listen, and speak. In modern contexts, the word refers to reading and writing at a level adequate for communication, or at a level that lets one understand and communicate ideas in a literate society, so as to take part in that society. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has drafted the following definition: "'Literacy' is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society." In modern times, illiteracy is seen as a social problem to be solved through education.'

Within our general area of English language teachers, dealing with 'literacy' usually refers to dealing with students who are illiterate or semi-illiterate in their mother tongue i.e. they have problems with reading & writing skills & so we need to help them with the problems this causes when they are learning English. For example, students who cannot write in their own language will clearly find writing English very different from those who can transfer their writing skills from their mother tongue to English. Our contact with literacy issues would depend on where we are working in the world & the kind of English training we are involved in. If working in an English-speaking country in an adult education state institution dealing with the immigrant population we would have greater contact with literacy issues that if we are working in a private language school.

Unesco say of Literacy Day 2012:

'The theme of International Literacy Day 2012 is Literacy and Peace. This theme was adopted by the United Nations Literacy Decade (UNLD) to demonstrate the multiple uses and value that literacy brings to people.

Literacy contributes to peace as it brings people closer to attaining individual freedoms and better understanding the world, as well as preventing or resolving conflict. The connection between literacy and peace can be seen by the fact that in unstable democracies or in conflict-affected countries it is harder to establish or sustain a literate environment.'

And then go on to say:

'Why is Literacy important?

Literacy is a human right, a tool of personal empowerment and a means for social and human development. Educational opportunities depend on literacy.
Literacy is at the heart of basic education for all, and essential for eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality and ensuring sustainable development, peace and democracy. There are good reasons why literacy is at the core of Education for All (EFA).
A good quality basic education equips pupils with literacy skills for life and further learning; literate parents are more likely to send their children to school; literate people are better able to access continuing educational opportunities; and literate societies are better geared to meet pressing development.'

There's an interesting video titled 'ESOL learners with basic literacy needs – where do I start?' a talk given by Judy Kirsh. She 'explores some of the different approaches involved in teaching basic literacy to ESOL learners who have no, or very little, literacy in English or any other language. She begins with a brief overview of possible approaches and theories of literacy learning, followed by a closer examination of the 'language experience' approach.'

Links on literacy:

Excellent material on the BBC site:

Wikipedia's page on the Day:
Simplified spelling lesson from Ed Rondthaler, age 102, former president of the American Literacy Council - QuickTime video
Literacy Tools
The really useful guide to words & numbers.
Handwriting help.
Write On - an interactive web site to help you improve your reading, writing and numbers skills.
Literacy Resources for Learners of English as a Second Language
Picture Stories for Adult ESL Health Literacy
The aim of these ESOL citizenship materials is to help the ESOL teacher develop the learners' knowledge of life in the UK, help them become more active citizens and to support applications for citizenship and settlement. If you are an ESOL teacher working with learners at Entry 1, Entry 2 or Entry 3, we hope you will find them useful anyway. But if you are teaching ESOL citizenship, they are essential. Use of Citizenship Materials for ESOL Learners in an ESOL citizenship and settlement course is now a Home Office requirement, if the learners wish to apply for UK citizenship and settlement.
Sample British-ness tests.

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Creative worksheets

One of our regular article & lesson plan contributors, Alex Case, has sent us a short article on what to do with worksheets. At the end of this Tip you can find a list of his other articles on the site & you can also find a host of other articles at hisblog:

Starting to Get Creative with Worksheets

Ways of easily moving from just using other people's worksheets to creating your own materials.

Many people criticize the use of photocopiable worksheets in TEFL by telling stories of teachers running from the bookshelves to the copier with the first thing they found that looks vaguely suitable. This is certainly a fairly common experience, and I have been guilty of it myself, but it is going a bit far to use that as proof that the use of photocopiable handouts is the ultimate escape from putting any thought and creativity into your classes. Most of my best teaching activities started as someone else's worksheets, even when they later morphed into something unrecognisable. I also know that many people use the worksheets on my blog as the starting point to come up with their own ideas. This article gives some tips on how you can start that process yourself, mainly based on how I got started.

Copy, Paste And Tweak

With worksheets in electronic form, the first thing you should do is highlight, right click, copy and paste. For example, nowadays PDFs are fairly easy to convert into Word documents this way, with the necessary changes in font size etc afterwards to make it look nice only taking a couple of minutes. As you are looking through the document to make these kinds of aesthetic changes, you can also fiddle with the content at least a little to make it more suitable for your classes. The most basic tweaks are things like:

  • Change the instructions to make them match the way you are planning to use the worksheet in class
  • Take out things that are too difficult or easy for your class, and maybe replace them with things that are more suitable
  • Add other things that are particularly suitable for your classes, e.g. vocabulary that came up in the last lesson
  • Add a reference to the class, page of the book, grammar point etc you have chosen the worksheet for
  • Rearrange, add or cut out stages
  • Take out or replace things that are aimed at one particular group of students, e.g. correction of errors that are only aimed at speakers of Romance languages

Even though this article is only about worksheets that are clearly marked as free to copy, there are obviously still copyright implications to all this. You can't pass someone else's work off as your own, so unless you have ended up completely changing someone's worksheet you can't publish or distribute the result, and even just for your classes it is at least good manners to acknowledge where the original ideas or language came from, including usually a link to the original if it is online. The copyright messages at the bottom of many worksheets claim that they cannot be saved electronically or altered, but I think we are safely in the area of fair usage when it comes to the kinds of changes I am speaking about for use by just one teacher. Again, though, you'd want to include a message like "based on…", this time to save your students blaming your typos on the original site! You may also want to check your school's policy on the kinds of materials you can store on their hard disk.

The advantages of copying, pasting and usually tweaking rather than just printing are many:

  • You can easily find the worksheet next time you want it, and have an improved version of it when you do so
  • If you arrange your versions of the worksheets into logical folders and give them easy to identify file names, you can use your hard disk as a source of ideas for each language point the next time you have to teach it
  • You can use it to help you remember how you approached that worksheet last time, e.g. how you changed the rules of the game
  • You can tweak it further after the lesson to include things you learnt from how well or badly the lesson went
  • You have the worksheet in a format that is easy to adapt further, e.g. for classes of another level or to make your own worksheet for a different language point with the same activity

Doing The Same With Hard Copies

With worksheets that you only have paper copies of but want to adapt, there are both low-tech and high-tech ways of adapting them. Especially with worksheets with little text (e.g. card games and board games), the simplest option is often just to Tippex out the bits you don't need. You can then write on top of the Tippex if you like, or if your handwriting is as bad as mine perhaps type something up and stick it on top of the Tippexed section before you photocopy. You can also cut bits off the worksheet, or cut it up into sections and glue just the bits you want in the order you expect to use them on another piece of paper.

The mixed high-tech/low-tech approach is simply to type the content of the worksheet into your computer. Although this is rather time-consuming, it is perhaps the most thorough way of looking at a worksheet and so seeing whether it is exactly what you want – especially as missing stuff out or summarizing it saves you time and effort while typing. I generally adapt in two stages – as I'm typing the information up and once more when I have it all in a word processor document.

It is also sometimes possible to scan things in a way that converts it into editable text.

Other Tips

Here are some other things I do with other people's worksheets that I find help me come up with my own variations or even totally different ideas:

- Keep a "things to try" folder that you throw anything that looks good into and look through it whenever you can't think of what to do. I often find even totally unconnected worksheets in this file give me the initial ideas I need.
- Store worksheets by language point or skill rather than by particular level or textbook, because with the techniques given above it is better to adapt the best ideas to the right level or content than it is to just choose because of good grading.
- If I only like a very small part of a worksheet such as a couple of phrases or a game idea, I type that up as an unfinished worksheet and keep it on my hard disk for possible later use.
- If something sounds like a great idea just from its title or description in the contents page or index of a photocopiable materials book, I sometimes type up my own idea of what it might be like before or instead of looking at the actual materials.

Articles by Alex on the site:
Wrong about Business English and ESP

How the future of textbooks has to be

Writing While Listening - Tackling the Double Challenge of Note Taking

Reading: Preparing Intermediate Students to Tackle Authentic Texts

Discourse analysis, advanced learners and the Cambridge CPE Exam & the accompanying lesson plan

Formal Letters for Everyone: Ideas of why and how to bring formal letters into every classroom in fun, interactive ways

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left hand

Left out

I enjoyed the Olympics this time round, spending my time watching diverse sports such as clay pigeon shooting & the rowing, & wondering why on earth some sports made it into the Games at all, instead of getting down to work!
One of the many highlights was watching swimmer Mireia Belomonte get two silver medals for Spain. Recounting highlights & interesting things about the Olympics would make a great focus for a lesson, assuming your students have not had too much of them already.

There's a huge amount of material to use on the net & a first-stop is the BBC site:

A short video - Top ten performers of the London 2012:

There is also some general Olympic Games classroom material at a previous Tip at:


There was also a lot around on what the visitor to London should expect. The BBC ran an article 'London 2012: A 12-part guide to the UK in 212 words each', , which looked at 'a host of ... oddities and complexities that visitors might do well to acquaint themselves with.' These range from nationality, the bobby, to queuing.
And then readers provided their own ideas:
If you are a non-British teacher of English it would be worth familiarising yourself with the cultural ideas here as they crop up in coursebooks & authentic materials you might use, as well as your students asking about them.


What have Pat Bonny, Paul Klee, Marilyn Monroe, Oprah Winfrey, Jack the Ripper, Paul McCartney, Nicole Kidman, Bill Clinton got in common?

Yes, they were/are all lefthanded. Not particularly startling you might think but this week we are going to use lefthandedness in some lesson ideas to coincide with Lefthanded Day, which is celebrated on August 13th. Did you know that 10% of the general population is lefthanded, although this is reduced to 0% in Japan due to the cultural stigma that has been associated with lefthandedness.

Very recently, scientists claim to have found the lefthanded gene:
Might well make an interesting article to use in class in addtion to or in place of the article that follows.

On 13th August it's Lefthanded Day so here are some ideas & materials to use in class:

Here is a procedure for part of a lesson you might like to use:

1. Put the famous people above on the board & get the students in pairs to come up with possible links.

2. Introduce the idea of Lefthanded Day. (Obviously find out if there are any lefthanded students in the class beforehand & explain there is lesson coming up on it.)
As a bit of fun, tell the students that they should write with the other hand for the remainder of the lesson.

3. Ask if the students do anything better with their left rather than with their right hands - if they are righthanded, of course. Give out the quiz to do individually & then discuss the answers.

From The Left-Handers Club:


We all, of course, know in which hand we hold a pen, but how far does this bias extend throughout your body? Are you left-eared? Left eyed? Here is a simple test you can apply to yourself.

1. Imagine the centre of your back is itching. Which hand do you scratch it with?
2. Interlock your fingers. Which thumb is uppermost?
3. Imagine you are applauding. Start clapping your hands. Which hand is uppermost?
4. Wink at an imaginary friend straight in front of you. Which eye does the winking?
5. Put your hands behind your back, one holding the other. Which hand is doing the holding?
6. Someone in front of you is shouting but you cannot hear the words. Cup your ear to hear better. Which ear do you cup?
7. Count to three on your fingers, using the forefinger of the other hand. Which forefinger do you use?
8. Tilt your head over on to one shoulder. Which shoulder does it touch?
9. Fixate a small distant object with your eyes and point directly at it with your forefinger. Now close one eye. Now change eyes. Which eye was open when the fingertip remained in line with the small object? (When the other eye, the non-dominant one, is open and the dominant eye is closed, the finger will appear to move to one side of the object.)
10. Fold your arms. Which forearm is uppermost?

If you have always considered yourself to be right or left-handed you will probably now have discovered that your body is less than total in its devotion to its favoured side. If you are right-handed the chances are that you were not able to be 'right' 10 times.

4. Tell the students some interesting facts about lefthanders:

From The Left-Handers Club:

Most left-handers draw figures facing to the right
There is a high tendency in twins for one to be left-handed
Stuttering and dyslexia occur more often in left-handers (particularly if they are forced to change their writing hand as a child, like King of England George VI).
Left-handers adjust more readily to seeing underwater.
Left-handers excel particularly in tennis, baseball, swimming and fencing
Left-handers usually reach puberty 4 to 5 months after right-handers
4 of the 5 original designers of the Macintosh computer were left-handed
1 in 4 Apollo astronauts were left-handed - 250% more than the normal level.
Left-handers are generally more intelligent, better looking, imaginative and multi-talented than right handers ( based on discussions among members of the Left-Handers Club! :)

5. Students in pairs brainstorm difficulties that lefthanded people might come up against in daily life eg. Desks, machines etc.. Get them to collate a list. Feedback with one list on the board - get a student up to the board to do this, reminding her/him to use the other hand to write with!

6. Reading - below is a rather old article, but still useful.
a) Put the title on the board & get the students to predict whylefthanders still feel left out - collate the ideas on the board.
b) Students skim the article to see if any of their ideas from the prediction or the problems mentioned earlier are mentioned. Alternatively, cut up the article into paragraphs & students sequence it as logically as they can, given the genre, & then discuss why they made their decissions, looking at the cohesive features of the text.
c) A more detailed comprehension task, for lower levels?

7. Language focus - pick up on some relevant language to your group in the text, a noticing task & then clarification & practiise. Don't forget the written record.

8. Response to the text - discussion - have they heard of lefthanders being discriminated against eg. in Spain I have heard in the past of school students having their left hand tied behind their backs so they had to use the right. This could lead on to a discussion of other discriminations in society & why they might exist.

Why left-handers still feel left out

Guardian, Thursday June 6, 2002

Over the centuries they have been beaten on the knuckles, locked up, ridiculed and prevented from reproducing in case they spawned freaks.

Now left-handers are facing another affront. A psychology professor told the Guardian Hay festival yesterday that society will never stop being biologically and culturally dominated by right-handers at the psychological expense of those who hold their pencil in their left hand.

Chris McManus, a professor of psychology and medical education at University College London, trawled thousands of years of the history of cells and culture - from "left-handed" amino acids, to stone age tool-making practices and Giotto frescos - and found that "right equals good and left equals bad" in common perception.

In his book Right Hand, Left Hand, he noted how expres sions for the word "left" had become terms of abuse in every culture - something that New Labour might already be aware of.

"Our society is organised according to right-handers. Left-handers are the last of the great neglected minorities," said Prof McManus, who is a right-hander with a left-handed mother and daughter.

In Britain around 13% of men and around 11% of women are left-handed, compared with 3% before 1910. Left-handedness coincides with high incidences of genius and creativity, and also autism and dyslexia.

"The one thing that will change the suffering of left-handers is to get engineers to see that for 10% of users, their designs are still back to front. Scissors, microwave doors, power saws and water gauges on the side of kettles are a constant reminder. Psychologically, left-handers still claim to have problems. The social consequences are immense."

Here are some links on lefthandedness to follow up for more material & classroom ideas:
The Left-Handers Club
Wikipedia page on left-handedness, including a list of famous left-handed people.
The Lefthanded Universe.
For righthanded people learning to write with their left hands.
Lefthanded Liberation Society

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