App Update July 2014

Below are seven apps that I have recently downloaded and think have potential, either for English language teachers in the classroom, or for teachers writing lesson plans and bloggers. I hope you find them useful too.

Tiny Games

Tiny Games “is a smartphone app that enables you to play fun, social games in the real world. You tell the app where you are, who you’re with and what’s to hand, and it supplies a game to fit.” It can definitely be modified for use in the classroom and could provide some interesting and language rich contexts for your students to practice in.

The free version of the game includes one setting, ‘home’, in which you’ll find the following options:

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As an example, I chose ‘Lounge’. You then select the number of players, from 1 to 5+, so there’s lots of flexibility depending on your teaching context.

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It will then ask you a question to find out your mood. It’s up to you how seriously you take it and if you decide to share this vocabulary with your students!

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It will then start to set up the game by seeing if you meet the conditions it requires, for example:

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And then the game begins. It’s very helpful with classroom instructions!

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What I particular like about this app is that the games are very simple and easy to adapt to your classroom and students. And if the app is in the hands of your students, not only are they responsible for choosing the game, they also have to run it effectively too, freeing the teacher up to sit back and pay attention the language they produce in order to give them feedback after they have finished.

The Tiny Games app is free on iOS with paid upgrades for added environments, including ‘walk’, ‘road’, ‘queue’ and ‘pub’! At the time of writing it is only available on iOS. There is also a kids version developed for Sesame Street called Family Play:

Decide Now!

This app is designed to help you make decisions by taking it out of your hands and leaving it to the spin of a wheel. With the wheel below the students could complete the question “Should I…?” with their own language before spinning the wheel and getting their answer.

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Not only do they have to fill in the gap in the question, they will also want to respond to the answer they get, and they’ll learn some interesting vocabulary along the way (“why bother?”, “no way!”, “forget it!”, for example).

There are plenty more wheels to choose from, some more useful than others:

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Perhaps the best feature is that you can make your own wheels. Here’s a one I made for my students to practice the present continuous. They have to tell me what they are doing by using the verb that the wheel selects for them.

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Decide Now is 69p / $1 for the full version. There is also a free version, but you can’t make your own wheels. At the time of writing it is only available on iOS.

Was That You

This app is an old fashioned parlour game, 21st century style. There are instructions to follow and the game seems quite fun, but I prefer the idea of using at a way of asking unusual, interesting and possibly funny warmer questions at the beginning of a class. For example:

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Although some of them you might want to avoid…

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Was That You is available for free on iOS. As far as I can see, at the time of writing it is only available on iOS.


This creative writing app, designed to help you get over writer’s block, can give your students help with story writing. It starts by giving you the opening fragment of the first sentence of your story:

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You continue to write until inspiration dries up. You can then ask the app to help you by pressing the thunderbolt icon at the top of the screen. It will then give you a random question or statement to encourage you to think in a different way, hopefully giving you the kickstart you need to continue.

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It would be interesting to try this as a group writing activity in class. You could give all the students the same beginning sentence, and after one minute you could give them their first piece of inspiration, followed by another a couple of minutes later and so on. It would be interesting to compare how their stories develop in different ways.

Prompts is available for £1.49 on iOS. At the time of writing it is only available on iOS.

The following apps are for bloggers or teachers seeking a creative spark.


Oflow describes itself as “the only app of its kind to offer hundreds of proven creativity techniques”. It does this by giving you a variety of techniques and ideas to look at what you are creating, whether it’s a piece of writing or a lesson plan in a new way.

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Oflow is available on iOS for £1.49. At the time of writing it is only available on iOS.

Obliques Strategies

Originally created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt and first published in 1975 as a set of cards, they “are intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.” Although at times, they are a little, well, oblique, they can also provide you with a new perspective and a moment of inspiration when you need it.

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Oblique Strategies is available for free on iOS and on Android (finally!). It’s also available online.

A special mention…

Dragon Dictation

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This app transforms your spoken words into written texts, which you can export to use however you wish. I had used it in the past, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with it, as it seemed to have great difficulty in translating my clear English teachers voice into accurate text. I was recently tempted to try it again, and it seems to have improved considerably.

I wouldn’t, however, recommend it for students. You still need to use a slightly unnatural rhythm to make it understand you, and it will still struggle if you attempt to speak naturally with words blending together and the errms and errrs that we should automatically produce. So the model of speech that the app encourages is not one that I would recommend for learners, but for writers I think it can be very useful and time-saving.

Dragon Dictation is available for free on iOS and Android.

“i’m going to italy” and other intermediate errors (Updated)

What follows is a public service announcement on behalf of all teachers who have students at intermediate and above…

Below are examples of common mistakes some of my Spanish speaking students continue to make in speaking and writing at intermediate level and above, even though these are things they should have dealt with at a lower level. They…

1) …swap the pronunciation of e and i

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2) …incorrectly pronounce -ed words

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3) …write sentences like “i’m going to italy”, forgetting that capitalisation of some words is not an option

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4) …and neither is spacing and the placement of punctuation

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5) … get more complex numbers wrong, or they need time to think about it

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6) …confuse he and she

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7) …make basic verb errors

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I understand why these happen. If we’re teaching lower levels, you have to prioritise and decide what’s important. We can’t and shouldn’t correct all their errors, it’s just not feasible and it would drive them mad if we did. My intermediates also have a lot of trouble with prepositions and phrasal verbs, which is definitely understandable. There’s no teacher in the world who can teach students to master that anarchic and messy bit of the language. So it’s okay to let them get those wrong for a bit.

However, the ones I listed above are not the kinds of mistakes that we should be letting go of, they are fundamental aspects of the ability to communicate at a higher level. If we don’t teach them now, then another teacher will have to do it later when they really shouldn’t have to. If I’m trying to work with them on the passive voice, or conditionals, or the language of polite disagreement and so on, we don’t have time to deal with these.

Of course the students also have a responsibility here. It may well be that we’ve done your bit and taught them appropriately, and they just haven’t done the work. But these are the kinds of errors that will show up repeatedly after we’ve moved on to another language point, and I think this is one of those occasions where we really need to be a bit strict, talk to them about it and make sure they correct themselves. In other words, a bit less of a ‘collaborator’ and a bit more of a ‘teacher’.

So prioritise by all means, but think carefully about what you are selecting, because they’ll have to learn it at some point and it might be you who’s having to fit it into your already busy schedule. Now I’m going to teach my beginner class, and I promise you, I’ll won’t let these mistakes slide, for your sake.

TEFL Equity – A Reaction

#ds618 Equals

On May 20th a post that I wrote for the TEFL Equity Advocates blog run by Marek Kiczkowiak and Katalin Hári was published. In the article, I looked at the ways that non-native English speaker teachers (NNEST) have advantages over their native English speaking teacher (NEST) counterparts and argued against the continuing prejudice against the employment of NNEST’s by certain employers in certain countries.

The idea behind the post was not to suggest that NNEST’s are better than NEST’s, merely that there are some areas of language teaching where they have an advantage. I wanted to remind NNEST’s of these strengths and encourage them to assert themselves and feel more confident in both their teaching and when applying for jobs.

I also wasn’t trying to suggest that NEST’s can’t do anything about these issues as I think they can. There are lots of things that NEST’s can do, like learning the language of the country where they live or learning any other language, but that wasn’t the point of the post. NEST’s don’t need that article as much as NNEST’s needed one about their strengths, I felt. NEST’s are the ones who can go to virtually any country in the world and be guaranteed some kind of job. This article was not for them.

The original post

The original post

The response to the post was pretty overwhelming, as for many native and non-native teachers alike it provoked strong reactions, predominantly in support I’m pleased to say. Thanks to Marek for asking me to write it, and thanks to everyone who commented on the blog, Twitter and Facebook, and who shared it with their networks. I was delighted that it caused such a reaction, as this is an issue that we should feel outraged about, and as with any form of prejudice, it will take many people getting organised, getting together and doing something about it. I hope this is an early step in encouraging this process.

This situation won’t change overnight, but every small push by every one of us will eventually make a huge difference. If you want to find out what you can do next, head over to the TEFL Advocates blog for a list of possible next actions that I’ve written. I hope it will encourage you to do what you can to contribute.

Get Involved by James Taylor


Conversations This Week

ELT ELF ESL conversations

A couple of weeks ago Sandy Millin posted a list of all the topics of conversation she had discussed with her students that week. It included subjects as diverse as BlackadderThe Norman Conquest and Crimea, Russia and Ukraine, the last one not unsurprising considering where she lives. It reminded me of one of my favourite things about being a language teacher, which is that we can talk about anything we like. The only limitation is the language we discuss it in.

So here’s my list from last week – how would it compare with yours?

  • Football
  • The different nationalities of my students
  • Trolls (on the Internet)
  • Trolls (that live under bridges)
  • The bat that flew into my living room
  • The kind of holidays we like
  • Mexico City
  • People who live on lakes
  • Viral videos
  • The London Olympics 2012
  • The World Cup
  • Basketball
  • What it feels like when you play a sport anymore
  • Tulipmania
  • The English and how they compare with Costa Ricans
  • Video games
  • Different types of teacher
  • Painting and DIY
  • Arreglados
  • Football
  • … and many, many more things.

 Audio Version (not the same as the text!):

Seven Word Biographies

A couple of weeks ago, I started some new classes, so I decided to create a new getting to know you activity based on seven word biographies. I think it’s an enjoyable way to kick off the new term and should provide some interesting language opportunities for my intermediates and up. It also makes a good accompaniment to the My Life in Twenty Lines activity I shared here earlier, which could be done later in the course as an expansion activity.

1) Write your own seven word biography and put it on the board. Here’s mine:


2) Ask the students to discuss in pairs what they think I mean by this.

3) Give out one seven word biography per student or in pairs. Ask them to read it and think about what it could mean. If in pairs, get them to discuss it, and if not, ask them to share with a partner (all of these biographies were taken from here, where you can also find descriptions of the writers).

Jim Holt - Failed mathematician who happily declined into journalism.
David Byrne – unfinished, unprocessed, uncertain, unknown, unadorned, unsettled, unfussy
Daniel Kahneman – Endlessly amused by people’s minds
Brian Eno – I like making and thinking about culture.
Malcolm Gladwell – Father said: “Anything but journalism.” I rebelled.
Rufus Wainwright – According to Elton John world’s greatest singer-songwriter
Don DeLillo – Bronx boy wondering why he is here.
Anish Kapoor – As if to celebrate I discovered a mountain
Joan Didion – Seven words do not yet define me.

4) From the biography, try and guess what the person does for a job (some of them are fairly easy, but you could ask them to try and be more specific i.e. what kind of journalist is Malcolm Gladwell? What do you think he writes about?)

5) Ask them to check online and find out more about the person. Ask them to write down four key facts about the person so they can describe them to the rest of the class.

6) They can now read their biographies to the rest of the class, and they can guess what job the person does. The students can then answer by using the facts they wrote down.

7) Talk about the different styles of biography (Eno and Wainwright’s are very straight descriptions, Didion, Holt, DeLillo, Gladwell and Kahneman’s are clever or funny, and Kapoor and Byrne’s are abstract and poetic.) Point out how some of them skip parts of the language (pronouns, articles, to be etc), some of them are lists and some are complete sentences.

8) Ask students to write their own seven word biographies. As they work on them, make yourself available to help, and check to make sure they are correct.

9) Ask them to write the seven word biography in big letters on a piece of A4 paper so they are clear to read (if you have the facilities, you could use a website like to make them into attractive images, like I did above). Stick them up around the class so everyone can read them. Give the other students an opportunity to ask questions to the writers so they can expand on what they’ve written.