Word match

Bat-BedOur goal in teaching pronunciation is not to rid learners of their own accents and distinctive ways of speaking. However, clarity in communication should be the number one goal and learners accents can sometimes be an obstacle to comprehensibility.

A very common problem which non-native speakers may have is that phonological elements of English might not exist in their own native language and so are hard to reproduce, or the letter of the alphabet used has a different sound leading to L1 interference.

A common way to make students aware of these possible problems and set them on the road to correcting them is with the use of minimal pairs. These are pairs of similar words which have different meanings but which a speaker might have problems vocally differentiating. For example, German speaker often have a problem distinguishing the words bad and bed due to the absence of the vowel sound in their own language. Similarly a native speaker of Spanish might have problems distinguishing the words yolk and joke because the letter has the same sound as the letter in the Spanish alphabet. Therefore, for this activity try and find groups and pairs of words that your students tend to have a particular problem with.

A google search for minimal pairs + language should give you a run down of the kind of pronunciation problems that your learners might have, and EnglishClub has a great directory of minimal pairs for each set of problem sounds.

Stage 1

Choose four or five similar minimal pairs and write them on the board in two columns, for example:


Say one of the words from the board and have students tell you whether the word is from column 1 or column 2. Repeat this a few times and then have students do the same in pairs. Repeat this stage for each minimal pair which you want to review and practise.

Stage 2

You will need to create a set of cards (twenty or more) that contain examples of minimal pairs that you wish to practise (example set). Each student will need their own set. Put students in pairs, each pair will need to set up some kind of barrier between them so they can’t see which cards the other studens has laid on their side of the desk. A course book held up by one of the students should suffice.

Student A must now choose eight cards from their set and lay them out on the table behind the barrier, the student then tells student B each card which he/she has laid and student B lays the card which they think they heard. Student A can only repeat the word a maximum of three times before moving on. After student B has put down his/her 8 cards, the barrier is removed to see whether the student have managed to create sets of matching cards. Rotate the pairs so that students are exposed to different speakers.

As a bonus activity you could have pairs or groups of students make up a story using the words from the cards.


Minimal pair cards

Question of the week

writing activityI find that writing is an area of teaching that I tend to neglect which is a shame because it is a vital skill and also a fantastic way to see student’s progress and identify problems which they may have.

I avoid writing exercises in class because it feels like a waste of good speaking time. Students can write anywhere but the classroom is often the one place where they have a chance to interact, hear other English speakers and have their mistakes corrected. However, simply setting writing exercises as homework can also pose problems, such as:

  • Students handwriting is often difficult to read and there is little space to make meaningful corrections
  • They don’t get to see what each other have written, (you could pin the corrected texts up on the wall but this isn’t always practical and depends on students writing nicely formatted texts on single sided pieces of paper).
  • Reading the texts aloud can be unnatural and boring and often the other students don’t understand everything which is being said.

I now regularly use the following activity for writing practise and it has proved to be both popular and rewarding.

Create a shared document (I use Google docs) and share it with each of the students. Student’s don’t need to have Google accounts, anyone with an email address is able to access it. Set a question and ask students to write their responeses on the shared document. Questions might include:

What are you optimistic about? 

Which figure from history do you most admire?

What is your favourite place in the world?

Set a cut off time and then correct the texts. I use strike through for errors and  bold for where I have added words. I put alternative suggestions in brackets. For example:

“So I admire social movements more than “important” individuals, because I don’t think that history is made (forged) by “important men”, but by a lot of “small” people working with other small persons people. As an example, I name Georg Elser, as an important person (figure) in German history.”

After making the corrections, I print the texts, one for each student. Then in class we read (quietly) each text and then discuss that contribution as well as any issues arising from corrections made before moving onto the next text.

After the first week, I assign a student responsibility for setting next week’s question and all I need to do is set up and send out a link to a new blank shared document, the students take responsibility for everything else.

Show and tell

esl show and tellShow and tell is one of those great activities that motors along under its own steam without needing much direction from the teacher. I really enjoy being able to sit back and listen to the students’ stories, jumping in when there are difficulties or adding appropriate vocabulary. If there are grammar points which need addressing I would make a note of them and go through them after the activity.

Students should be informed prior to the lesson that they should bring in something to talk about. It can be anything as long as there is a little story behind it being important to the student. Inevitably some people will turn up without an object, ask them to think about whether anything they have in their possession at the moment has some meaning to the student. Usually, an item of clothing or something in the student’s wallet has a deeper meaning than might first appear. In the worst case scenario, the student can describe and talk about something they would have brought in if they hadn’t forgotten or misunderstood the instruction.

I like to start the class with a couple of activities.

First I brainstorm and write on the board words that can be used to describe generic objects. For example, thing,item, stuff, tool, souvenir, trinket, conversation piece, contraption, thingamabob, watchamacallit, accessory,etc. We talk about the meaning of the words and think of examples of each.

Next play a game of picture taboo, this is a nice way to warm students up and hopefully practise a bit of the vocabulary from the previous step.

Now you’re ready for show and tell. I let this activity run very freely. Students produce their object and talk about why it is meaningful to them, then the other students ask any questions they have. Don’t try to restrict or limit the conversation other than making sure that everyone gets a turn and that you have time left for anything you want to talk about at the end.

Number quiz

a380This number quiz gives students a chance to use numbers other than their age and the date which is all that is usually required of them. The answers to these questions range from very small to very large numbers.

Divide the class into teams and ask the question, the team with the closest answer gets the point. Make sure you start with a different team each round because the first team to answer has a disadvantage.

If there are only two teams then you can play over and under. The first team gives an answer and the second team must simply decide whether the answer is over or under the other team’s answer.

Q How far away is the sun?
149.6 million km

What is the population of Canada?
35.15 million (2013)

How many kilometers in a mile?

How many holes in a standard round of golf?

How high is the Eiffel Tower?
300 meters

What is the square root of 144

What is nine squared?

How many astronauts have walked on the moon?

How long is the great wall of China?
21,196 km

What is the maximum number of passengers an Airbus A380 can carry?

What is the speed of sound?
340.39 meters a second, 1,236 km an hour

What is the value of Pi? (whoever gets the most digits right wins)

How many states in the USA?

No-prep warmers part 2

More no preparation warm up activities to keep your students occupied while you do some last minute photocopying, grab a much needed coffee, etc. (For more stimulating warm up ideas we recommend the book 700 Classroom Activities)

Word Association

Sometimes the simplest ideas turn out to be surprisingly effective and word games don’t get any simpler than word association. Give an initial word, for example, banana and each student takes it in turns to say a word which they associate with the previous word. If the connection isn’t obvious, challenge the student to justify their choice.

banana – monkey – zoo – tourists – hotel – bible …

Three things in common

This is a great icebreaker, but you can also use it as a lead-in to a theme or to test your students’ knowledge of a grammar point. Simply ask students to work in pairs and find three things that they have in common and then report back to the class. You can narrow the topic down to areas like: three things we both did at the weekend, three foods we both like, three things we both don’t like about this city,three things neither of us have done yet but would like to, etc.

Just a Minute Tic Tac Toe

Based on the BBC Radio show. Draw a Tic Tac Toe grid on the board and in each space write a topic that you think some of your students might be interested in or have some knowledge of. Play the game with two teams, to claim their X or O, a team member must attempt to talk about the topic in the chosen square for 45 to 60 seconds (depending on their level) without pausing or repetition.


I discovered this great activity at BusinessEnglishResources.com. Start off by explaining the concept of one-upmanship, that some people always like to appear to be more interesting or superior to others in their company. Tell the students a relatively mundane story about something that happened recently and invite a student to tell a similar story but to top it in some way. Each student in turn tries to top the previous student’s tale. For example:

You: Yesterday I overslept and was five minutes late to class.
Student: That’s nothing, I overslept and was an hour late.
Student B: An hour! I once overslept a whole day!

.If the students are sufficiently advanced you could have them watch/read through Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch which is a very funny illustration of the concept.

Spontaneous Scatter Sheet

Scatter Sheets are a great way to review vocabulary, introduce a theme and get students talking. As a warmer, have students brainstorm words connected to a theme, for example, the seaside, London, marketing, etc. Write these words on the board randomly, not in straight lines or columns but higgledy-piggledy and at jaunty-angles. When you have around 20 words on the board, go round the room asking each student in turn to describe one of the words, when it’s been successfully guessed, circle it and move on to the next student. Encourage students to let the describer produce at least two sentences before shouting out the answer.

Spin the marker

Sometimes students just want a chance to talk and express themselves in an unstructured way and it’s a good idea to encourage this. Spin the marker pen and whoever it points to can dictate the conversation, ask questions, suggest the topic, etc. Spin the marker again when you feel the conversation has run its course. I find this activity works best when students are sitting in a small circle not too far apart.

Fortunately / Unfortunately

English learners often have trouble remembering and correctly pronouncing these two useful words. One way to practice it is to start a story and have learners alternately advancing the story using these adverbs.

For example:

Teacher: Yesterday my car was stolen.

Student A: Fortunately, it was insured.

Student B: Unfortunately, the insurance company went bankrupt.

Student C: Fortunately, my grandfather said he would buy me a new car.

Student D: Unfortunately, he’s lost his mind and doesn’t have any money.


Organise yourselves!

Have students arrange themselves in order according to a given criteria. For example by age, alphabetical order of first name or surname, number of shoes owned, etc.

Letter string dictation

This is a great way to lead in to the topic that you want to cover in the class and also serves as a good way to review the alphabet. Think of a couple of questions for students to discuss in pairs or groups. Write the questions down and then dictate them as a long string of letters. For example,




After dictating the letter strings, students should attempt to form the questions and then discuss and report back to class.

conversation questionsAnother way to never struggle for warm-up / filler activities is to have a copy of 50 Conversation Classes on hand. The book contains easy to copy and cut out conversation questions and further exercises on over 50 topics. Hand a pile of cards to students at the beginning of the class and they will produce all kinds of ideas, vocabulary and hopefully, interesting questions too.

Business collocations

Give pairs of students a copy of the venn diagram. Ask them to sort the collocations below the diagram into the two areas stated in the circles. If the collocation seems to fit in both areas then they should write it in the middle section.

When everyone is finished, draw the diagram on the board and have students feed back where they think the words should be placed. Give examples of the collocations in use.


Taboo is a great way to introduce a lesson about inventions, you can find some invention taboo cards on our taboo page.

Used to
The theme of inventions is a great way to practise talking about the past with used to. Divide the taboo vocabulary cards among groups of students and have them write sentences using used to to describe what people did before this particular object was invented. You could have them omit the name of the invention and turn it into a game. For example:

  • Before this was invented, people used to guess the time by using the sun
  • Before this invention, families used to talk to each other and sing songs

Mini presentations
butter stickA google image search of crazy inventions will give you a wealth of material to introduce this concept. Choose a couple of examples and have students think about how to describe the invention and its benefits to potential customers. For example:

  • It’s a cross between butter and a glue stick
  • You don’t need to use a knife
  • It’s very handy and you can carry it with you

Challenge students to come up with their own inventions by crossing or adding to some of the inventions you have already spoken about. Get them to draw their inventions and make mini presentations to the class.

Discussion ideas

  • Have students rank the top ten most important inventions
  • Discuss which inventions are now obsolete and which might be on their way to becoming obsolete
  • Speculate about what new inventions might be on such a list in 20, 50, 100 years time





Who lives in a house like this?

who lives in a house like thisYou’ll need a laptop and a projector to play this game which is based on an old BBC TV show Through The Keyhole where the host walks around a celebrity’s house trying to establish their identity from his or her interior design choices.

For homework, have students email you some photographs of, for example, their living room, their desk, the contents of the fridge, the view from the window, etc.

Show each picture in turn and students have to discuss who they think the photograph belongs to.

To turn this into a game, create teams of four or five and remove a student from each team, including the one whose picture is coming up next. Have them stand with their back to the screen so they can’t see the photograph in play. Teams have to decide who the picture belongs to and get a point for each correct answer.

Listen to the students discussions, feeding in vocabulary as necessary and at the end of each round, fill in gaps in the students’ language by describing some aspects of the picture which didn’t come up in the discussion time.