Two Kinds Of People – A Getting To Know You Activity

Two types 5

As it’s the start of a new school year, I thought it was time to try out a new ‘getting to know you’ first lesson activity. I came across the website 2 Kinds Of People which simply and beautifully portrays how easily the people can be separated into different groups. I thought it was a fun way to help the students learn something about each other, while giving them the chance to learn some very useful contemporary vocabulary and functional language.

Here’s the activity plan…

1. Before class, print out (and laminate, if you can) the pairs of pictures. Cut them up into individual pictures and shuffle them.

2. Give students in pairs / threes the shuffled pictures and ask them to find the matching picture.

3. The students will need some vocabulary at this point, so as you go through the correct answers to the matching activity, take the opportunity to check what they know and teach unknown vocabulary items.

4. Next the students are going to talk together in their groups about which kind of person they are by choosing one of the pictures. Before they begin, make sure they have the functional language necessary for the task, if you think it’s necessary:

“I prefer … because …”
“I’m the kind of person who…”
“Which one are you?”
“I’d definitely choose this one because…” etc

And some adjectives to describe how they are as a person:

Old fashioned

Two types 15

5. During the discussion, listen for interesting language as used by the students as well as any problems they have. Make a note of it and give them feedback after the discussion has finished.

6. Get some feedback from the class. Ask the students to tell the rest of the group what they learnt about their partner.

7. For a follow up activity, ask the students to write a paragraph to describe themselves or their partner based on what they learnt during the activity.

Images are taken from 2 Kinds Of People. Permission was requested to use the images but no reply was received.

What’s Talking For Then?

I’m an avid podcast listener and comedy fan, so the Comedian’s Comedian Podcast is one of my favourites. I find it fascinating to listen to comedians talk about their craft, and in one episode, the comedian Nick Doody was talking about his love for stand up and how it allowed him to talk about anything he wanted. The way he phrased it really resonated with me:

What's Talking For Then?

Dealing with these kinds of issues in the classroom is a tricky balancing act. There are so many factors involved and it is necessary for the teacher to have a really good grasp of their teaching environment for it to be done successfully, but if it can be done why wouldn’t you?

If you want to listen to the interview with Nick Doody, click here. It has nothing to do with ELT, but it’s very interesting. And here’s a video of him doing his stand up. It’s very NSFW.

Greetings from Brasília

With my last group in San Jose

With my last group in San Jose

This is the first post I’ve written since I left San Jose, Costa Rica in July and moved to Brasília, Brazil. Inevitably I’ve been reflecting on my time in Costa Rica and I look back at it with nothing but warm memories. On a personal level, it was a great country to live in, and there are times when you are animal spotting in the forest, basking on the beach, or staring down into a smoking volcano that you realise that you live in one of the most unique and beautiful countries in the world. I’ll always be grateful I had that opportunity, just as I am that experienced Belgium, South Korea and Brazil before it. I hope I can go back one day (read more about that here).

Professionally, I learnt a lot too. I can’t speak highly enough of the school, Centro Cultural Britanico, where I worked and I’m grateful to all of my colleagues for the time, at work and out, that we spent together. In Belgium I taught mainly one to one business and presentation skills classes in a dogme style. Following that in Costa Rica, I taught groups of four to ten students using a coursebook. I think that having had the opportunity to try out both of these ‘styles’ of teaching will help me immeasurably with my development as a teacher in the long run.

I also had the chance to teach teenagers for the first time, and I’m delighted at how this came about. The teens didn’t have their own classes, they were in amongst the adults, which meant that I didn’t give them any special treatment and that they had to raise their game. It was very useful that I wasn’t the only ‘grownup’ in the room, and it fostered the collaborative feel between me and students, and between them as a group. It also meant that I didn’t have to deal with “a group of teenagers” which might have prompted me to think I had to teach in a specific or different way. Faced with this situation in the future, I’ll be much more ready.

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Back in Brasília. I do have other shirts.

So now I’m here, in Brasíia, back where it all started for me as an English teacher in 2007 (read more about that here, here and here). Back then I had no experience and no qualifications. I’d never read a methodology book or been to a conference. I didn’t have a Twitter account or a blog. I wasn’t aware of IATEFL or Braz-TESOL. This time things are rather different. I was in a position to discuss possible jobs before I left Costa Rica and I have been accepted to speak at a conference within the first month. I’m planning to meet teachers in Brazil I’ve only met before online. Anyone who is active in the online ELT world knows that Brazil has one of the most organised and exciting professional development scenes in the world, and I can’t wait to get involved and tell you all about it. Vamos!


A Letter To My Younger Self


This post is part of a blog challenge created by Joanna Malefaki in which we write a letter to our younger teaching selves. To read more posts in the challenge, click here.

Hi James,

So you’re just about to give your first lesson, armed with nothing more than a few pages of interview questions and a whole lot of curiosity. Before I give you some advice, you should know that I’ve teaching English for 9 years now and you have no idea about the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met and the things I’ve seen. But you’ll discover all of that in time. Here’s what you need to know right now…

  • Teaching is all about people being together and sharing. Your job as an English teacher is to make sure that your students have the language ability to have these conversations. You teach adults, so there’s no hierarchy, and they don’t expect you to be some great authority on the English language. Engage with your students, and engage them with each other, and the rewards are huge.
  • Remember, and I can’t emphasise this enough, that the lessons do not belong to you, they belong to your students. What you are in doing in the classroom is nowhere near as important as what the students are doing. Stop thinking about yourself, and start thinking about them.
  • You’re going to meet a lot of very interesting people because of this job, so learn from them. Make sure they know that you are genuinely interested in their lives and professions and you will learn as much as your students.
  • The quicker you can learn about the language the better. At this time, you don’t really know anything. If you don’t believe me, then tell me what a preposition is. Trust me, in a few months that will seem like the most basic of terms. Spend some time learning how English works, you’ll make my life much easier now if you do.
  • Right now you are all potential. You have no experience and no qualifications (English being your first language is not a qualification!), so stay humble, be grateful for the opportunities you’ve been given, and learn quickly.
  • Really pay attention to your colleagues and what they do. You can learn a lot from watching other teachers, and not just the things they do better than you, there’s a lot to learn from people’s mistakes too.

That will do for now, I don’t want to overwhelm you. You don’t know it yet, but this first lesson is the start of something life-defining, so enjoy yourself and work hard. The rewards are yet to come.




Photo credit: Photo taken from by insEyedout, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, 

A Distraction of Collective Nouns

The best thing about living in Costa Rica is the nature. A narrow country with an Atlantic and a Caribbean coast, and a spine of volcanoes down the middle, it is host to an amazing array of natural habitats containing more biodiversity than North America and Europe combined. And my favourite aspect of that environment are the birds.

I liked birdwatching as a kid, but like many of these things, the interest wanes. Then one day something sets you off and a long forgotten passion is rekindled. For me it was an 8 hour birdwatching walk in the Monteverde cloud forest that was arranged as my dad’s sixtieth birthday present.

While I’m sure my Dad enjoyed it, I loved every minute of it, all 8 hours, and I found it to be a surprisingly peaceful and reflective experience. There’s something about standing still, listening intently only for bird song and the rustle of branches, with barely a word passing between you, that is both meditative and requires a degree of mindfulness that I find otherwise almost impossible in my daily life. There’s no conversation, no listening to podcasts, no homework to review, no emails or messages to reply to, nothing. And of course you get to look at beautiful creatures like these.

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And as an English teacher, not surprisingly, I also have a keen interest in the English language. I’m fascinated by its quirks and eccentricities. In other words, the things that make it so damn difficult to learn.

So you can imagine my joy at coming across this book on my last trip to the U.K. A Conspiracy of Ravens: A Compendium of Collective Nouns for Birds* is a simple compendium of collective nouns for birds, accompanied by beautiful wood carvings from 1743 by the artist Thomas Bewick.

a conspiracy of ravens cover

There’s something immensely pleasurable about these phrases. Take a gander at this one:

a runcible of spoonbills

As if the word ‘spoonbill’ wasn’t enjoyable enough, you also get to luxuriate in its collective noun, ‘runcible’. Go on, treat yourself. Say that coupling of words, bound together by an article and a proposition, out loud five times. Let the syllables swim around your mouth. You’ve had a long day, you’ve earned it. And now try this one on for size…

a murmuration of starlings

and this one…

an orchestra of avocets

Which, in a roundabout way, leads me to thinking that ELT really needs its own set of collective nouns. Why restrict them to the animal kingdom alone? Here are my nominations, if you’ve got any suggestions of your own, drop them in the comments below and I might do a follow up post with the best ones.

An anarchy of prepositions
A lateness of homework
A saviour of resource books
A tiredness of students
A whinge of teachers
An underuse of interactive whiteboards
A relief of break times
A desperate why of phrasal verbs
An if of conditionals
An Adobe of webinars
A decline of vocabulary notebooks
A tote bag of conferences
A mandatory of training sessions
A crutch of coursebooks
An Amazon** of handouts
An obligation of exams
A straitjacket of syllabi
A pressure of parents
A tsunami of blogs
An abandon of cd-roms
A graveyard of student notebooks***
A distraction of collective nouns

By the way, I’m not really as cynical as these suggest, but negative ones are so much more fun to write! I just wish I had a set of appropriate wood carvings to illustrate them.

* Full disclosure: if you buy the book via this link, I get a tiny amount of money and you pay the same price as you would have anyway. This is as close as I get to making money from this blog. Amount of money raised thus far: £0.00.

** This is not another plug for the website I’m referring to above, it’s a plug for the forest.

***Hat tip to Michael Lewis Swan for this one. I read somewhere that he referred to students vocabulary notebooks as places ‘where words go to die’ or something along those lines. Any link would be gratefully received.

Think! – Learning From Carl Sagan

Back at the end of 2012, I had a bright idea for a new blog. Taking inspiration from culture and the sciences, I would write about the intersection of these areas with language teaching and learning. I posted a few times, but as happens in life other things come along and the project drifted away.

However, I wasn’t happy to let these few articles drift away into lonely isolation, so I’ve dusted them off and resurrected them here on my regular blog, where hopefully a few more people will actually read them! The first post talks about how my main inspiration as a teacher is my favourite scientist, Carl Sagan.


Starseeds © Jon Lomberg – Inspired by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

One of the joys I have found in my new interest in science is that it has brought me into what was a previously unknown world of inspiration, enlightenment and influence. As I am exposed to the likes of Neil Degrasse Tyson, Richard Feynman, and Richard Dawkins, I’m gratified that I have been able to bring their wisdom and intelligence into my life, and hopefully just a little bit will rub off somewhere. But one name sticks out above all others. In the last few months, I have been watching the finest television series I have ever seen, a source of wonder and learning for me which I cannot believe took so long to become part of my life. This series is Cosmos, presented by the legendary Carl Sagan.

I’m still struggling to comprehend how I wasn’t aware of the show before now. I’m a culturally aware person, but somehow it passed me by. I guess jokes like this just went over my head:

In each programme he leads us on a personal voyage through the history of scientific discovery  and the universe, known and unknown. The show is aimed at viewers without a scientific background and not only explains the cosmos around us, but also the achievements of the great thinkers of the past, such as Copernicus, Brahe and Kepler.

So as a result of watching the show my knowledge of the universe is increasing, but I’m no cosmologist and I can’t claim to understand everything. But there’s a lot we can learn from a programme like this even if we don’t understand particle physics or string theory. Essentially, in the show, Carl Sagan is a teacher and we are his pupils. Watch the video below to see what I mean. As you watch, you can try and learn about Flatland if you like, but mostly I want you to pay attention to what you can learn from him as a teacher.

If you were one of my students, it is at this point I’d ask you compare your observations with a peer. This time however, we are both learners, so you can compare your notes with mine:

  • He’s explaining a difficult concept, something many of the viewers will be unfamiliar with. Despite this he isn’t at all patronising, treating the audience with intelligence as he diligently and precisely explains the concept.
  • He displays an in-depth knowledge and is not shy about you knowing that he is an authority figure when it comes to this subject. In other words, he is clearly the teacher and we are definitely the learners.
  • While he treats the subject seriously, he is not without humour. He is very effective at breaking up the moments of seriousness with moments of levity. He handles the tone of the discourse beautifully.
  • He is clearly spoken and precise in his language. His ability to deliver a complicated concept in an economical way makes it easier to comprehend.
  • He uses practical and clear demonstrations to illustrate his point, again making the idea easier to understand. He’s not afraid of being very explicit in explaining what his point is.
  • His use of language is particularly interesting. He speaks beautifully and yet you never feel that he is talking ‘over you’. In fact, I love the mixture of registers he uses, ranging from “the universe is finite but unbounded” to “the only conclusion is that he’s gone bonkers”.
  • His body language is open and inviting. He frequently smiles, and you feel more like you’re being led on a journey of discovery by a wise uncle then bewildered by overly serious academic.
  • He occasionally uses aphorisms, for example “If you want to know what it’s like inside a black hole, look around”. They act as a form of punctuation, summarising the key points that he has just stated or asking the main questions that need to be emphasised. Phrases like this are memorable for the learners, and will enable them to recall key concepts at a later date.

It is vital that we, not just as language teachers but as educators in general, are prepared to look outside of our immediate circle to find influences and heroes. We have much to learn from Sagan and his like and we should not be cowed by his intellectual might and obvious gifts. Rather we should look to his example and and attempt to his follow in his footsteps with a ready heart and an open mind, although, as Sagan himself famously said (or did he?):


To read about more ‘outside influences’, head over to the iTDi blog:



Why Is ELT Politics Free?

P - Pizzeria

On a recent trip back to the UK, I met up with an old friend of mine who works as a lecturer at a university training new primary school teachers. I asked him about learning styles and its place in the current training of teachers, and what struck me about the conversation was not so much his thoughts on the subject, but rather how politically he viewed it.

When I say politically, I mean Politics with a big P. His discourse on the the subject was framed within the context of what the current and previous Education Minister was in favour of, government education policy and the current political climate. As someone who works in an education system that is constantly having to reflect, deal with, resist and manage these things, this is quite understandable. For me, as someone who works in a very different educational setting, it was fascinating to observe.

Rarely in the world of ELT do we have to face up to these things, it seems. Some of us definitely like to talk and write about what you can call small p politics, whether that’s the topics we can discuss in the classroom, such as the environment, homelessness, consumerism etc*, or the issues that affect our profession, including the situation for non-native teachers, gender, and racial inequality. But from what I’ve observed, whether that’s on blogs, social media, presentations, conversations at conferences and so on, Politics seems to be almost completely absent.

The most obvious reason why this is the case is that ELT is a global industry and private language schools are generally quite disconnected from the state system. This is problematic for me because the vast majority of people learning English today are children studying in schools, firmly within a government run education system, and it seems to me that the our profession is over-represented by a minority of teachers, like me, who don’t have to engage in the big P politics. The reasons for this misrepresentation are numerous I’m sure, and I’m not in a position to speculate why, but I can’t help but feel that as a profession we need to engage more with the majority of our colleagues and learn from each other.

How this is done is another matter, and I’m not sure what the solutions are.* I’m also assuming that our state school colleagues actually want to be part of it, which may be a big misunderstanding on my part, I really don’t know. What I do know is that unless we widen the scope of our conversation, we will continue to be disconnected from the majority of our peers.

Does this sound representative to you? Obviously not every country is the same, and perhaps your situation is quite different. If so, I’d love to hear about it.

*For some excellent lesson ideas for some of those small p issues, take a look at the IATEFL Global Issues SIG website

*One possibility is for local teaching associations to make sure that local teachers are aware of them, and at BELTA we are working very hard on this. It’s easier said than done though.

*Just as I was about to post this, the most high profile example of ELT and small p politics I’ve ever seen was posted on the Guardian Facebook page.

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Click here to read more.


Thanks To Mike Harrison for pointing out the work of English For Action, who provide ESOL courses for adult migrants in communities across London.