500 Grammar based conversation questions | Book review

500 Grammar based conversation questions .jpg

Title: 500 Grammar based conversation questions with explanations of grammar points

Authors: Larry Pitts

Publisher: ESL Conversation Questions Publishing

Year of publication: 2015

Companion resources: NA

Source: Print copy bought from Amazon India

What really attracted to this book was the caption “Conversation questions designed to elicit the thirty most common grammar points”. I increasingly find myself in situations where I need to answer the question “how can I elicit this target language?’

500 Grammar based conversation questions is a large book in terms of dimensions but it’s fairly slim both in terms of its page count and contents.  It has lists of questions prefaced by a brief explanation of the target language. In principle, this could still be invaluable to new teachers. However, almost every single question includes the target language.

As … as : Are cats as fun as dogs?

Present perfect: What are some good restaurants you’ve eaten at?

Used to: Who did you use to play with in elementary school?

Will : What will happen to privacy  in the future?

This is consistent throughout the book with the exception of the section on imperatives which has scenarios that would prompt the use of the target language:

Imperatives: What’s a card game from your country? How do I play it?

So I gather that the author’s interpretation of the word ‘elicit’ is different from how I see it. I think by elicit, he means targeted practice and he’s got some commentary at the back about using these questions in the classroom. He’s essentially describing a stage of the lesson where we provide practice with language that’s been taught as opposed to the language presentation stage which is what I had in mind.

From that perspective, this book isn’t all that useful. It contains suggested topics along with the target language in the form of a question. These sorts of conversation prompts are more effective when they are aligned to learner interests and the context of the lesson. In How to Teach Speaking, Thornbury describes criteria for effective speaking tasks and there are two that I reckon are really critical: productivity and purposefulness. I doubt whether prompts like “Where should I go to buy electronics?” will achieve either criterion in the context of advice.

On the other hand, I suppose for new teachers, the questions could be a helpful starting point but I don’t see them dipping into 500 Grammar based conversation questions for too long.


How dare you tergiversate! | The problem with power words


Many of the professionals I teach have a perception that their American colleagues and clients have access to vocabulary that is more ‘powerful’ than theirs. One of them recently showed me this book – Power Verbs for Managers and Executives which includes eccentric entries such as tergiversate, the goose hangs high (how is that a verb), and topline (as a verb, really?). All this, mind you, from just one page.

There’s a whole genre of self-help books, usually from the US, ostensibly written to enhance an individual’s ‘lexical prowess’. Power words, however, seem to be a thing. I just googled the term and it seems to be commonly used across sales, marketing, and even blogging. There are glossaries of decontextualised power words prescribed for all sorts of situations.

These books and word lists are designed for proficient users of English and I suspect they’re not of much use to them either. In the hands of a less proficient speaker or writer, a power word has the potential to do some serious damage in a business context because the user is probably not familiar with its register, appropriacy and less critically the collocations it appears in.

Does pragmatics have an explanation for why perceptions of words differ in how they are received by readers and listeners? Do power words have any basis in research? I’m simultaneously irritated and intrigued by the whole idea and it’s something I’m going to be exploring.

Life after CELTA | An interview with Khadija Tambawala

Khadija Tambawala.jpg

Last year, I blogged about the types of qualifications Indian ELT professionals could explore after completing the CELTA (Post-CELTA Development (PCD) | A primer for Indian ELT professionals). I wrote that post in response to the questions I got from teachers who’d just completed the CELTA. There’s also understandably a lot of anxiety about career prospects after the CELTA. Many of the conventional routes that CELTA qualified teachers take in other countries are either not available in India or are closed to teachers from India.

So here’s the first in a series of interviews I hope to do with Indian ELT professionals documenting their post-CELTA journey, with the aim of addressing some of these apprehensions and showcasing the rich range of meaningful career opportunities that are possible for someone who wants to work in this field.

I met Khadija Tambawala a couple of years when I was doing a demo lesson at a CELTA course. We met again, recently, albeit virtually, on a MOOC. I was curious about Khadija’s post-CELTA journey. Here’s what she told me.

1. What sort of work were you doing before the CELTA? 

I did the CELTA two years after I graduated, during which I experimented with different kinds of work to see which one I liked best and considered worth pursuing. I worked as a content writer for a social media marketing company, as a PR professional, as a voice artist (something I still do in my free time), and also as a production executive and content creator for English e-learning services.

2. What motivated you to do the CELTA? 

In 2014, I got an opportunity to volunteer as an EFL teacher for a month in Yemen, and even though I had no direct experience teaching English, all the work I had done until then was based on my love for the language and proficiency at it. So, I went for it, and what an experience it was! It was absolutely exhilarating, and once I came back I decided that this was something worth exploring because I found it so challenging and enjoyable at the same time.

3. When and where did you do the CELTA? Have you completed any other formal qualifications since then? 

I did the CELTA in May 2015 in Mumbai with the British Council. Since then, I haven’t completed any other formal qualifications.

4. What kind of impact did the CELTA have on your teaching style? On your professional life? 

The CELTA shaped my teaching style because I didn’t have substantial teaching experience before it or any other teaching qualification like a B.Ed, which other CELTA participants often do. It exposed me to very effective ways of teaching English as a second language, great methodology and techniques, and things I would never have known otherwise. I felt better equipped and more confident about teaching and training in the field, post the CELTA.

5. In what contexts have you been teaching post-CELTA? 

Post CELTA, I worked with an MNC to train their employees in spoken and written communication skills in a full-time capacity, and after that, I started freelancing as a corporate trainer for different clients. I’ve mostly worked with young adults and junior level employees in organisations, focusing on grammar, conversational skills, soft skills and employability skills.

6. In your experience, how do Indian employers perceive the CELTA? 

Either they’ve never heard of it, and are just looking for someone who has relevant teaching experience, or they are aware of it and are only willing to hire people with a CELTA because they think it brings some credibility to the training and they can vouch for the trainer. Sometimes, employers just have ‘CELTA’ as a required qualification in their job profiles, but don’t really know how that should translate to the training quality and experience once the person has been hired. They believe getting a CELTA-qualified trainer will guarantee quality training and are thus also willing to pay for it, because it shows them that you’ve invested time and money towards your craft and are serious about it.

7. Did you apply for any jobs overseas? What was your experience? 

The first few months after I completed my CELTA I often contemplated looking for a job oversees and getting a year or so of experience teaching people from around the world, thus widening my repertoire. However, the opportunities are extremely bleak if you aren’t white-skinned or don’t hold a passport to prove you’re a native speaker. I did a lot of research about teaching in places like China and Vietnam, where it is believed that some schools and institutes are willing to hire “non-native” English speakers, but it honestly didn’t seem worth it to me. Most of them had crazy working hours, or were in extremely remote places, often hard to find on a map, so I gave up the idea.

8. How have you been developing yourself? 

I’ve been looking for a substantial qualification to further my career, something that doesn’t just look fancy on paper but also adds significantly to my skills and knowledge- I’m primarily considering an M.A. in ELT- but there aren’t a lot of options if you’re looking to do it in India. I’ve done a lot of research on credible digital M.A.s in ELT too, but can’t find anyone to vouch for them or share their experiences. In the meantime, I’ve been doing whatever I can to upskill myself, like taking courses through sites like Udemy and FutureLearn, participating in webinars and following blogs and websites that I find interesting.

9. Where to next? 

As a freelancer, I’m currently working on getting more consistent work which would be ideal. I’m looking to explore different kinds of training as well as polish the kind of training I already do. Within the next few years, I not only want to get another useful qualification, but also work on different kinds of projects with varied clients.

10. What advice do you have for new CELTA qualified English teachers in India? 

One very important thing I would say is, don’t expect the CELTA to create jobs for you overnight. From what I’ve seen, in India it’s quite a niche qualification for a niche industry, which not a lot of people are even aware of; but if you look really hard and in the right places, you will find people who are interested in your qualification and willing to hire you for what you bring to the table. It’s not like an MBA that often promises high-paying jobs in big companies, but what you learn from the CELTA is something that will always be with you and can’t be replaced by any other qualification.

I would also advise newly qualified CELTA teachers to keep themselves updated with what’s relevant to their fields. It’s easy to get comfortable at a full-time job that pays the bills, but keep developing yourself professionally, or one day you may just become obsolete!

If you have questions for Khadija, please put them into the comments section and I’ll pass them on to her. 

‘Topless’ images | A bias exploration activity

Topless image

This activity is inspired by something I saw on a project I was on although that particular activity was being used to explore gender roles. Since then I’ve used ‘topless images’ many times with my learners. Whether or not you want to explore biases and stereotypes, it’s a really productive speaking activity that gets everyone talking.


  • Explore biases, stereotypes and their impact
  • Develop oral fluency in this context

topless photos ELT


  • You will need to keep an eye out for images that are sure provoke a discussion on biases.


  • Snip the tops of the images and place them on slides or print them out.


  • Put learners into small groups.
  • Bring up each image and ask learners to come up with a backstory for the person in the image.
  • Take whole class feedback (Learners will generally suggest that A is a Hindu/Indian woman who is getting married, B is an Asian female model and that C is a Scottish bagpiper).


  • You can either display the original images and tell learners who these people are or ask them to visit the Huffington Post articles they’re taken from and confirm their backstories.
    • A is from http://www.huffingtonpost.in/2016/11/08/heres-theresa-may-looking-gorgeous-in-a-saree/
    • B is from http://www.huffingtonpost.in/2016/11/04/80-year-old-model-crushes-stereotypes-with-his-runway-swagger/
    • C is from http://www.huffingtonpost.in/2016/11/07/indias-first-female-bagpiper-is-a-self-taught-delhi-girl/
  • I usually keep QR codes ready and ask each group to send a representative to scan the QR Code on his or phone, access the article, skim and discuss it with their group members. Alternatively, you could stick the articles up on the walls of your classroom.
  • Ask learners to discuss how similar or different the real stories are from the back stories they came up with. Ask them to consider what this might reveal about their biases and the impact stereotypes have on their thinking. Get them to discuss what kind of impact this might have on their interactions with others, at work and in their personal life.

Here are the original pictures:


Image attribution –  fair use for educational purposes: 

  1. Here’s Theresa May Looking Gorgeous In A Saree (Link), Huffington Post, 09/11/2016

  2. 80-Year-Old Model Crushes Stereotypes With His Runway Swagger (Link), Huffington Post, Suzy Strutner, 04/11/2016

  3. This Woman, Who Claims To Be India’s First Female Commercial Bagpiper, Has Made Some Really Cool Music (Link), Huffington Post, Anwesha Madhukalya, 07/11/2016

The headless black and white image is in the public domain.

Text mapping | An alternative approach to designing listening tests

Designing listening tests Rita Green.jpg

Earlier this year, I attended a course organised by the Hornby Regional School on designing communicative language assessments in Bangladesh. The course was taught by Dr. Rita Green, from Lancaster University, who is a research leader in the field of language assessments. My biggest take-away from the course was an alternative approach to designing listening tests called text mapping. Text mapping is a technique that Dr. Green conceived as a way of addressing some of the issues test designers experience when they select items from a listening text for a test. In January, when I was at the course, the technique was literally hot off the press and her new book Designing Listening Tests had just been published.

Text mapping questions prevailing practices for selecting items in a sound file for a test. Here’s what I normally do and perhaps you do something similar.  I usually skim the transcript to get a sense of the text and maybe write a gist listening question and then read it again to come up with some listening for specific information questions. I might then listen to the clip to ensure that the accent or speed isn’t too challenging for the target learners.

Dr Green challenged this practice and these two quotes she cited drove the point home:

A transcript and the speech it represents are not the same thing, the original is a richer, contextualized, communicative event.

Lynch, 2010

Life doesn’t come with a tapescript.

Helgesen, 2008

Text mapping attempts to address this gap in how we deal with listening texts. But, before we get on to the actual process, it’s important to distinguish between Specific Information & Important Details (SIID) and Main Ideas and Supporting Details (MISD). I think in teacher training, when we refer to these two listening strategies using the oft-used terms, listening for specific information and listening for detailed understanding, we inadvertently obfuscate what they really are. Dr Green differentiated the two in a way that was very easy to understand.

SIID requires selective listening. We listen for information such as dates, times, places, names, prices, percentages, numbers, measurements, acronyms, addresses, URLs, adjectives and nouns.

MISD requires careful listening. We listen for ideas, examples, reasons, clauses (nouns + verbs), descriptions, explanations, causes, evidence, opinions, conclusions, recommendations and points.

Text mapping can be used for gist, SIID and MISD but I’m going to describe the process for SIID which is what I experienced at the course and subsequently tried out on some unsuspecting colleagues.

1. Prep

Choose a level appropriate audio clip and organise a quiet room with good quality speakers. The text mappers you assemble should not have heard the clip before.  The clip should be short (approximately 30 seconds)

You will need to prepare an Excel sheet with SIID from the clip along with the time stamps of individual items which means you will need to text map the sound file yourself.

2. Briefing 

You need at least three text mappers to ensure validity. A larger pool will increase validity. Explain to the text mappers that they are going to be listening for Specific Information and Important Details. You may need to ICQ this to ensure that all the text mappers are on the same page about what constitutes SIID. SIID is usually not more than one or two words.

3. Listening to the sound file

Play the clip only once and ask the text mapper to listen for SIID. They must not make any notes during this time. When the clip finishes, ask the text mappers to write down SIID. The clip is played only once because Dr. Green suggested that over exposure could lead to too many items being identified.

4. Text mapping 

Ask the text mappers to tell you the SIID they wrote down. Enter these into an Excel worksheet. Poll the group to see who else got this SIID and maintain a tally. If you have variations in the response because they only heard a part of it or misheard it, record these as separate entries. After you’ve finished eliciting these responses, copy paste the time stamps that you’d prepared earlier. You’re likely to get items that are not SIID. A simple test is to check if the information being offered has a noun and verb in which case it is MISD and not SIID.

There may be variations with numerals because in real life we tend to write down numbers immediately or ask for them to be repeated. The test designer will need to keep this mind when selecting an item which has achieved consensus through a number of variations such as Room No. 4045, 4045, 4054, 4055 etc.

The text mappers might not give you items chronologically which is alright. You’ll just need to reorder them so that they appear sequentially in the worksheet.  You’ll also need to be strict about disallowing any  responses that were not written down. I experienced this with my colleagues when several said “Oh I remembered that but I didn’t write it down.”

5. Analysis 

Look at the SIID that a majority of the text mappers were able to identify. These are the items you ought to be testing. However, there are some things to bear in mind. Items at the very beginning of the clip should be disregarded even if you reach consensus (consensus means at least two thirds of the text mappers have identified it) with it because a test candidate may miss it merely because she is orienting herself to the clip in the first few seconds. Additionally, if two items appear within four to six seconds of each others, we ought to test one but not the other. Items should be evenly distributed through the sound file. It’s also important that all items test the same kind of listening behaviour – in this case selective listening for SIID.

6. Writing the test

The next step is to design questions using the items that were identified.

Reflections on text mapping

Here’s one that a colleague and I worked on with a sound file on making a hotel reservation. By text mapping a sound file, you have a systematic approach for identifying what you ought to test as we did with this file. The fact that you are listening to the file as opposed to reading a transcript facilitates the selection of  more authentic items  i.e., that reflect how we receive and process information in real situations. Selecting items from a transcript (and this often happens with me) may result in the testing of obscure items which we may not even register in a real life context.

Text mapping.png

When we ran this exercise with a group of our colleagues, we faced some resistance to the concept. The main bone of contention was that we were testing memory instead of listening skills. I think the clip we selected (at 2 min 10 seconds) was far too long. I recall Dr. Green using really short clips with us (around 20-30 seconds). In a Google Preview of her book, I also recall seeing something about chunking the clip for MISD and allowing text mappers to make notes while listening for SIID with longer clips. Unfortunately, those chapters are no longer available online.

However, our colleagues came around when they saw the extent to which there was consensus for the items outlined in yellow in the preceding table and interestingly this coincided with an earlier round of text mapping with another group of text mappers.

I’m still a little uncertain about the relationship between the text mappers who are selected and the items that are identified through consensus. Text mapping as a process is designed not just for test designers but also to empower teachers to work collaboratively to design meaningful tests.  Therefore, wouldn’t the items selected depend on the language proficiency level of the text mappers? I suspect that in a monolingual English-speaking environment, the results of text mapping may be different than one where English is not the L1 like I experienced in Bangladesh. Further, what kind of impact does this have on item selection from the learner’s perspective, taking into consideration their own language proficiency. While theoretically, a sound file at B1 should have all of its items at B1 but in reality, this may not be the case.

These unanswered questions not withstanding, text mapping is a useful alternative to the somewhat random way in which listening tests are currently constructed. If you try out text mapping, do let me know about your experiences in the comments section.

Dr Rita Green.jpg

No prizes for guessing who in this triad is Dr. Green!


  • Green, S. Designing Listening Tests: A Practical Approach. Palgrave Macmillan: 2017.
  • Helgesen in Wilson, J. J. How to teach listening. Pearson: 2008.
  • Lynch, D. Teaching Second Language Listening. OUP: 2010.

Many thanks to Azania Thomas for creating the text mapping sheet that I’ve used in this blog.

Dr. Green’s book is unfortunately really expensive (as interesting ELT books tend to be). You can read a preview here. It includes some relevant chapters on text mapping for gist and issues with listening texts and working with authentic sound files.

Audio QR codes with Vocaroo | AR in the classroom


QR codes are the most basic form of Augmented Reality (AR) and can be easily integrated into a wide range of classroom activities. Last year, I blogged about using QR codes to run a jigsaw caselet task. The premise of exercises like the jigsaw caselet is that we take a piece of written text and place parts of it within a QR code to reduce cognitive load, increase engagement, and allow the learner to store the text on his or her device for future reference. However, QR codes don’t need to only be about reading – you can also use it for listening. Here’s how:

Vocaroo qr code.png

Vocaroo is a site that allows users to do audio recordings in three steps.

  1. Access Vocaroo and select ‘Click to Record’. You may need to allow access to your microphone if you get a pop-up.

Vocaroo ELT.png

2. When you select stop, you’ll get the following screen.  Select ‘Click here to save >>’

Vocaroo ELT 2.png

3. You’ll get lots of options. Select ‘QR Code’.

QR Code elt 3

4. The site will then generate a QR code as a PNG file which you can save and print.

vocaroo qr code 2.png

When students use their devices to scan the code (using a QR Code reader/scanner), they’ll be directed to the URL that contains the audio recording.

ELT qr code mobile.png

Using audio QR codes in the classroom

Differentiation in listening activities 

Listening lessons generally entail having all the learners listen to an audio clip in a situation closely controlled by the teacher. By placing the audio clip or clips within QR codes, we can give control to the learners and they can listen to it on their own devices as many times as they need to and pausing where they want to. From an activity that’s done collectively, we can transform it into a genuinely individual exercise which the learner can adjust based on his or her needs.

This allows us to offer learners choices in listening activities. Borrowing from Agnes Orosz idea of ‘support’, ‘medium challenge’ and ‘extra challenge’, learners can be asked to select a listening activity based on the level of challenge and then complete it by scanning the associated QR code and listening to it on their phones.


Listening using QR codes is particularly effective for raising awareness of features of connected speech and spoken discourse. Micro-listening activities can sometimes be painful in whole class settings. But by having each learner use headphones on their own devices, we can facilitate micro-listening in a more meaningful way.


I’ve shared this technique with some teachers who have suggested that they would use it to teach the pronunciation of individual words. I don’t think that’s a good use of your time because there are lot of existing sites and dictionary apps where learners can look up and listen to the pronunciation of words. However, it might be more useful for highlighting sentence stress or intonation. Students practise saying some sentences to each other and then scan a QR code stuck on the wall to check if the intonation pattern they used was similar or different to the one embedded in the code.

Integrating listening & reading 

A typical reading format we often use (or more accurately that coursebooks use) has several people sharing their ideas or experiences within captions next to their photographs. This could be made more multimodal by including a QR code that contains an audio recording of that person sharing some additional information. For example, students read about each person and answer an inference question and then listen to the recordings and validate their inferences.


Unlike QR codes that have embedded text, audio QR codes require data services from the user’s mobile service provider of WiFi access.  Unless you’re using QR codes for pronunciation activities, it would make sense for students to use their headphones while they do the listening activities to avoid disturbing each other. This shouldn’t be too much of a challenge because students tend to carry their head or earphones around. Students need to download a QR Code Reader or Scanner to scan the codes. There are hundreds available in iTunes and the Google Play Store but some are plagued by ads. For android, I really like QR Code Reader by Scan which scans quickly and doesn’t have any ads.

Socrative SAQs | Formative assessments


Lately, I’ve been using Socrative for formative assessments. While Kahoot is engaging and brings gamification into the classroom, it’s sometimes good to run a quiet student-paced assessment which Socrative enables you to do. The other advantage that Socrative has over Kahoot is that it offers multiple question types within the same test and it’s got multiple choice questions (MCQs), true or false and short answer questions (SAQs).

I like interspersing brief Socrative based interactions through lessons. Students get instant feedback and I can track their progress – and everything is happening on their own devices (using the Socrative Student App). It’s also a useful affordance to have the ability to capture longer responses from the students using the SAQ feature and when coupled with automated assessment, it’s potentially a very powerful tool

I’m going to be focusing on my experiences with using SAQs in this post.

Socrative question type.png

What really excited me about the SAQ feature was that you could automate grading by feeding in a targeted response. This works well with:

  • Form based gap-fill for grammar items
  • Missing word exercises for vocabulary items such as collocations.

You can add as many correct answers as you’d like but this is where there’s a catch. The responses are case sensitive which you could perhaps proactively address by supplying different permutations like I’ve done in this example. However, if students leave a space before or after the word or have a typo, then they’ll get marked incorrect by the system. These kind of errors are unavoidable when students are typing responses on their mobiles.

Socrative short answer.png

I haven’t really faced an issue with automated validation for gap fills but with exercise types that require students to type an entire sentence, it’s been really challenging. For instance, at a recent Business English lesson where we explored ways of reducing wordiness in emails, students were required to reword a sentence. I had two alternatives for the correct answers ‘We want to successfully implement this initiative’ with/without terminal punctuation. We’d just looked at masked verbs and how to uncover them as a way of reducing wordiness.

Socrative challenges

Here are the responses I got from the students:

Socrative responses.png

One of the students wrote “we want to successfully implement this initiative” but because the first letter wasn’t capitalised, she got it wrong. The next closest to my targeted response was “we want to implement this initiative successfully” but because I didn’t have it my list, she got it wrong! In a subsequent question, the rubric was really explicit but nevertheless, most of the students got it wrong on the system although their response was possibly correct.

There’s no easy solution to this. Plugging in every single permutation of an answer (including with and without punctuation & capitalisation) is mind-numbing. I could eliminate the correct response option (Socrative lets you do that) and have that question graded manually but that’s something I wanted to avoid and was in fact one of my principal reasons for using Socrative.

Until I figure this out, I’ll have to convert these exercises into MCQs which of course makes them a lot less challenging. The other option is to give feedback in a whole class discussion as I did when I discovered that the whole test was going awry.