Jigsaw caselet | A QR code activity


My learners often get bored with traditional text-based case studies. Presenting it as a jigsaw task explored using QR codes is one way of making it more engaging.


  • Transform staid case studies into active, jigsaw tasks


  • Printed QR codes which you can stick around your classroom using Blu-tac or similar
  • Focus questions
  • Learners will need to have downloaded a QR code reader on their smartphones


  • Select a case study that you can condense into a caselet narrated preferably from different perspectives. For example, if the caselet involves a manager and her team member, chunk it so you have 4 bits of information from the manager’s side and four from her team members. Eight is a good number in terms of chunks for this exercise.
  • Copy-paste each chunk into a QR generator (I like using QRstuff). Select plain text from the panel on the left and paste the text into field. Download the QR code that’s generated.
  • Print the QR codes. I prefer to use coloured paper so they’re easier for learners to find.
  • Prepare some focus questions that learners will answer incrementally at they uncover the text in the QR codes.
  • Stick the QR codes randomly around the classroom.


  • Signpost your focus questions and tell learners that the answers are hidden within the QR codes posted around the room.
  • Learners work in pairs to scan the QR codes and analyse bits of the caselet.
  • They need to answer a question after scanning and reading an odd number of QR codes (for example after the first QR code, the third one, the fifth one, and the seventh one). Make sure they write their answers down.


  • Ask learners to share their reaction to the caselet. How did their perception of the issue change as they uncovered the perspectives of the people involved and got a fuller picture?
  • How do the different ‘agents’ feel?
  • How might this relate to their own work?
  • Get learners to discuss other context-specific questions based on the caselet.


The caselet I’ve used is adapted from Bob Dignen’s session on Leading International Projects at the recent BESIG Annual Conference in Munich.

Focus questions

  • After scanning one QR code: What do you think is happening?
  • After scanning three QR codes: Who is at fault? Why?
  • After scanning five QR codes: What should be done to resolve the issue?
  • After scanning seven QR codes: How could this situation have been avoided?

Image attribution: QR_Code_in_HandCropped by @GwynethJones -The Daring Librarian!  | Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Pronunciation as protest | A thought experiment


I was intrigued by this recent NY Times article about two newly elected members of the Hong Kong legislature and their anti-China protests during their swearing-in ceremony. What’s particularly fascinating is how both of them pronounced China as /ˈtʃiː.nə/ , and how it instantly infuriated Beijing (this despite all sorts of other apparently anti-Beijing activities happening at this oath-taking event). Sixtus, the young man in this video, later blamed it on his poor English accent, and did so in perfectly fluent English. The Chinese government, it seems, perceives  the aberrant pronunciation as a slur from the time of the Japanese occupation.


This is the first time I’m hearing of pronunciation being used to mark protest. I am , however, familiar with the sentiment, because I’ve been doing something similar subconsciously for a while. A lot of Indian place names have been officially renamed over the last two decades to make them sound (allegedly) more Indian. Like a lot of people, I use the old Anglicised pronunciation out of habit, but never with any kind of consistency. I have met language chauvinists who’ve corrected me subtly reformulating my pronunciation or explicitly pointing out my dirty elitist, colonial ways.

I now use the Anglicised pronunciation intentionally, even with people who I reckon it’ll provoke. I think it’s great that place names are pronounced in ways that reflect the culture that shaped it in the first place. But what I take issue with is the empty populism of politicians who fritter away public money that could have been spent on more pressing needs like health, education, sanitation, and hunger – yes hunger – on meaningless name changes and all the associated costs that entails.

So if you live in India, here’s a thought experiment for you. Over the course of a fortnight, keep a record of which of the following you use and in what situations.

Bombay or Mumbai

Madras or Chennai

Poona or Pune

Calcutta or Kolkata

Bangalore or Bengaluru

Cochin or Kochi

At the end of the fortnight, analyse the results. Do you for example use Bombay consistently with your friends but Mumbai at work? Do you (like a lot of people I know) use Bangalore and Cochin all the time but can’t bring yourself to say Madras?  Is it because Chennai is a totally new name and not just a different pronunciation? If you haven’t made a clean break from the old names to the new ones, what’s your reason for favouring some from the old lot and others from the new one? Or are you, like me, using pronunciation as a form of low-level protest?

If you’re not from India, I’m curious about whether you have any parallels in your own culture or region where you feel pressured to pronounce a word in a certain way and the impetus to rebel.

Icebreakers | Book review

Icebreakers Ken Jones.jpg

Title: Icebreakers. Book of Activities

Authors: Ken Jones

Publisher: Training Sources | Viva Books

Year of publication: 2009

Companion resources: NA

Source: British Council Library

I’m on the hunt for quick icebreakers and energizers for use in the teacher training I facilitate for the state sector where establishing some sort of bonhomie is extremely critical for keeping people focused.

Icebreakers is divided into games, exercises, and simulations (a slightly arbitrary distinction). The overall feel is very dated and the activities are overtly complex. The first three alone are quite representative of the rest of the book.

Birthday Scores: Participants compare each others birthdays and form groups to get the highest scored based on a point system (born on the same day 12 points each etc.). Each activity is divided into Facilitator’s notes and Players’ notes which also includes some kind of handout. The instructions in the Player’s notes are generally so verbose that I suspect participants would spend most of the activity trying to understand the written instructions.

Diverse points: Participants meet and talk in a leisure area and then move over to a negotiation area where they allocate 100 points between themselves using one of four combinations 90/10, 80/20, 70/30 or 60/40. This activity has some potential but it’s not clear what participants are meant to be negotiating about (Who seems to have the best personality? Eeek!)

Growing paper clips: Take a look at these instructions for an activity where participants join their own paper clips to others while introducing themselves and mind you these are the instructions that are meant to be handed over to the participants.


It’s hard to understand why you would want to run a simulation (in fact they’re not really simulations, they’re role plays) as an icebreaker. For instance, in Monolith, participants pretend to be archaeologists and sociologists examining a stone object in the south American jungle.

I’m sure I might be able to dig out some ideas I could adapt from this book but I just don’t have the patience to go through each activity carefully. On the flip side, excerpts from this book could serve as a useful demonstration of how not to write activities.

Icebreakers is available as a low-priced edition for India but it’s really not one for the resource bookshelf.

Inquiries from the obverse side | A questioning activity


Last night, the Indian Prime minister in a televised address to the nation, demonetised our highest denomination currency notes: ₹500 and  ₹1000, in a bid to curb corruption, terrorism, and money laundering. It was really quite shocking and unanticipated, particularly because it was effective midnight and would affect ₹14,000,000,000,0000 (US$21,038,416,000,00) worth of cash in circulation.

So it seems an appropriate time to revisit an old activity for practising question forms using currency notes. I’m not sure who originally came up with this activity – it’s been around for a while as an ELT game as well as a soft skills activity. Here’s my version.


  • Form Wh or open-ended questions accurately
  • Probe more deeply to uncover information
  • Reflect on how routine might spawn mindlessness.


  • Each pair will need one currency note of any denomination between them which they’ll hopefully supply themselves. I like to get them to pull out a ₹10 note because it’s got really interesting design features on the reverse side such as some animals and the words ‘ten rupees’ in 15 of India’s 21 official languages. (BTW, did you know that the front of a note is called the obverse side?) 

ten rupees.jpg


  • Make two columns on the board and label them “Descriptive questions” and “Evaluative questions”.
  • Elicit question stems from students such as “How many … “, “What do you see …”, “Where exactly …” under descriptive; and “What do you think of… “, How do you find …”, “What’s your opinion on …” under evaluative.
  • Divide students into pairs.
  • Ask each pair to pull out a single note from their wallets and hold it between them. Students take turns to ask each other descriptive questions about what they see on their side such “How many animals are there?” “Which ones?” “Which way is the rhino facing?” etc.
  • Quickly get feedback on how familiar they were with the currency note. You’ll generally find people are quite ignorant about what’s on these notes despite handling them day in and day out.
  • Now ask pairs to flip the note over so each student is now looking at the side that they were questioned about previously. Have pairs ask each other evaluative questions such as “Which of the three animals do you like best? Why?”

Debrief & feedback 

  • Based on your rationale for using this activity, you might want to ask questions to elicit how we see things without really noticing them and how this observational blind spot might affect our work and relationships i.e., how routine might spawn mindlessness
  • You could focus on the students’ ability to probe and ask questions going from general to more specific, building on previous questions & responses.
  • Alternatively, you could simply highlight language issues with question formation or explore the ability to ask questions in a less interrogative, more conversational way.

I’m curious about which currency note or bill you’d choose to use if you were to conduct this activity with your students.

My evolving relationship with coursebooks


Everyone seems to be debating coursebooks again or perhaps it’s an issue that never in fact left the spotlight. There seems to be somewhat of a consensus among bloggers that course books are evil and ought to be eschewed. If that’s the case, I’ve succumbed to the dark side.

I left a full time job in early 2014 and started working independently in July 2014 when I’d completed the DELTA. Since 2014, I have been required to use course books mandatorily twice; during the DELTA with New Headway and last year when I taught a semester at a university with New English File. Except for these two occasions, I’ve had autonomy in making decisions about which materials to use on my courses. Have a look at the number of course books I’ve used between 2014 and 2016. Do you see a pattern?


There is no doubt that bespoke materials drawn from the learner’s context are more effective. This holds good in general contexts and is particularly true of business contexts. So why am I increasingly relying on coursebooks? Unfortunately, most of my clients refuse to pay for the time spent on designing customised materials. They tell me to use what I already have. In the early days, I accommodated this objection and invested unpaid time and effort in producing bespoke materials, naively telling myself that enhanced learner experiences and outcomes justified this small sacrifice I had to make. Small, however, was an understatement. To design a two day workshop, I’d have to spend approximately five days developing the materials. This is actually well below learning & development industry averages which estimate four to six hours of development for each hour of instructor led training (I’m not sure what the parallel ELT figures are).  So, I’d end up spending seven days on this project (which probably doesn’t even take into account the time spent on need analysis and client meetings) but only get paid for two.

I refuse to be enslaved by a cycle of unpaid drudgery. Therefore, until I find a better solution … long live the course book.

Post-script: Funnily enough, what’s stopped me from embracing coursebooks with more fervor is their lack of availability. Adult ELT coursebooks are rarely used in India. The big publishers mostly cater to the K12 segment and I frequently run into situations where the distributor doesn’t have enough copies or has had to sift through warehouses across the country to put an order together.

Image attribution: I think I do by eltpics | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0

A task-based approach to reading | Module 6 reflections

Task-based reading.jpg

This is the last in a series of posts I’ve been writing to review and reflect on my learning from this Coursera MOOC . This module focused on selecting suitable texts and constructing appropriate tasks.

  • Narrow reading newspaper article tasks: Learners read two or three newspaper articles on the same topic, discussing their reactions after each one. They then compare the texts to notice differences and make inferences about the reporter’s stance. Alternatively, ask them to create a table where they add to incrementally as new information emerges from each text. This task will only work well if there’s an adequate gap between the texts to allow learners to deliberate over the veracity of the information.
  • Tasks structured around texts that present different opinions: First ask learners to identify the different perspectives and summarise each viewpoint. They then present these opinions in an oral role play such as an interview.
  • Texts with conflicting perspectives: Ask learners to debate who they agree with.

Some suggestions for adapting dry textual exercises from coursebooks:

  • Don’t go immediately to the comprehension questions. Instead, construct a small task that allows learners to explore their reactions to the text.
  • Extend discuss questions to make them more productive. For example, a question that asks learners what could be changed could be modified into an action plan that they need to produce. The action plan could be conceptualised as a poster or a PowerPoint presentation.
  • Instead of answering opinion questions individually, ask students to mingle and discover the perspectives of their peers. They can report the findings in a graph or a presentation.
  • If a text is prefaced by survey findings (as they often are), ask learners to conduct the survey with their peers before comparing it with the results in their coursebook.
  • Pre-reading vocabulary exercises can be made interesting using pictures or word search puzzles.
  • Introduce texts using video or picture-based tasks which allow learners to brainstorm ideas and produce target vocabulary.
  • Copy-paste the text into a word cloud and ask learners make predictions.
  • Subvert tasks or texts that are contrived by asking learners to make them more authentic (great idea from Prof. Pauline Foster)

The final assignment was on creating a task-based reading activity that met the course’s criteria for designing a task. Here’s mine:

My overall experience with the course

I believe this is an excellent course for training teachers on teaching reading skills more effectively. It goes beyond the knee-jerk skimming and scanning (or scheming and scamming as some of my learners refer to them) and offers teachers lots of interesting techniques couched within insights drawn from research. However, in terms of task-based teaching and learning, the course is weak. It attempts to reconcile conventional ELT reading approaches with task-based sequences and does so unsuccessfully. This is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive – for my assignments including this last one I was able to construct some approximation of a task-based reading lesson, but most of the assignments I peer reviewed weren’t able to achieve this.

I think the primary reason behind this shortcoming is the course’s inability to suggest real world tasks where meaning is indeed primary. It was almost as if they were scraping the bottom of the barrel for task creation – designing book covers as an example of an authentic post-reading task – honestly?!  The three course facilitators, Dr Amos Paran, Dr Andrea Révész and Dr Myrrh Domingo who I assume also designed the materials, were very focused on younger learners, particularly teenagers and I can see how it might be challenging to construct authentic tasks when the context for language learning is very general. This is reflected in the relative strength of each module, the weakest of which was ironically this week’s module on designing reading tasks.

On the other hand, some of the guest speakers were able to suggest relatively more authentic tasks because many of them were looking at adult-learning contexts, often with specialised needs where it becomes easier to design tasks that genuinely reflect the activities that learners carry out regularly in their personal and professional lives.

This limitation notwithstanding, this is a great course and I highly recommend it to both new and experienced ELT professionals. My experience in this regard has been fairly similar to Sandy Millin who’d originally recommended this course on her blog. I thought I knew quite a bit about teaching reading skills but I discovered a lot of new insights.

This is also the first Coursera MOOC I’ve actually (and diligently) completed since 2014 when I’d been on a MOOC binge. I’ve been finding it really difficult to stay focused and complete MOOCs. What helped with this one was that I paid for a verified certificate which helped me stay honest and on track.

Recommended reading 

Here are the additional reading lists from each module of the course.


Made with Padlet

Image attribution: Nancy Avery’s class by EarthFix | Flickr | (CC BY-NC 2.0)