7 creative grammar activities | IATEFL webinar summary

Last week’s IATEFL webinar saw the legendary Charles Hadfield sharing some creative grammar activities. He did say he would share seven although my notes seem to indicate it was only six. I wrote to him but it seems he couldn’t find the mystery seventh activity either.
Activity 1: Platform 1
What?  Collaborative pattern poem describing people.

Language focus: Present continuous, describing people

Procedure: Use a picture prompt of a train station platform with people on it (Check Flickr for images). Ask Ss to use the following pattern to create a poem. You may need to demo an example.

Poem pattern

Line 1: Where are they? (is s/he)

Line 2: A (adjective) (woman/man) with (clothes or physical features)

Line 3: What are they (is s/he) doing?

Line 4: … and thinking of?


Sitting on the bench

a sad woman with a long nose

staring into space

and thinking of wasted time

Charles Hadfield webinar 1 Image attribution: Platform 4 by Brett Davies | Flikr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Activity 2. Preposition painting

What? A pattern for describing a picture

Language focus: prepositions

Procedure: Show Ss the picture and ask them to identify the different things in it. Then give them a decision tree like this one and have them craft a description of the picture.  They should create 5 lines plus an extra one starting with “lies a” which they don’t write but have their peers guess.


In                          table

On                        chairs

Near           a         sofa

Beside                   bookshelf

Under         the      fireplace                 lies a …

Next to                   tree



beach                     is a



moon etc.


On the bench

next to a tree

beside a lake

beneath the mountains

under a sunset sky

lies a …

Charles Hadfield Webinar 2 Image attribution: Peaceful mind by Peter Thoeny | Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Activity 3. Maternal Advice

What? Advice from a mother animal to its baby.

Language focus: imperatives, infinitives & gerunds; remember, try to take care, don’t forget, be careful + full infinitive, avoid beware of, forget about, refrain from, resist + ing

Procedure: Do you recognize this passage? Listen carefully. Who is talking? To whom? Listen and then compare ideas with a partner.

“When in doubt, any kind of doubt, Wash!” That is Rule No. I,’ said Jennie … `If you have committed any kind of an error and anyone scolds you—wash,’ she was saying. `If you slip and fall off something and somebody laughs at you—wash. If you are getting the worst of an argument and want to break off hostilities until you have composed yourself, start washing … That’s our first rule of social deportment, and you must also observe it.

`Whatever the situation, whatever difficulty you may be in you can’t go wrong if you wash. If you come into a room full of people you do not know, and who are confusing to you, sit right down in the midst of them and start washing. They’ll end up by quieting down and watching you. Some noise frightens you into a jump, and somebody you know saw you were frightened—begin washing immediately … `If somebody calls you and you don’t care to come and still you don’t wish to make it a direct insult— wash. If you’ve started off to go somewhere and suddenly can’t remember where it was you wanted to go, sit right down and begin brushing up a little. It will come back to you. Something hurt you? Wash it. Tired of playing with someone who has been kind enough to take time and trouble and you want to break off without hurting his or her feelings—start washing …

Any time, anyhow, in any manner, for whatever purpose, wherever you are, whenever and why ever that you want to clear the air, or get a moment’s respite or think things over—WASH! `And,’ concluded Jennie, drawing a long breath, `of course you also wash to get clean and to keep clean.’ `Goodness!’ said Peter, quite worried, `I don’t see how I could possibly remember them all.’ `You don’t have to remember any of it, actually,’ Jennie explained. All that you have to remember is Rule 1: “When in doubt—WASH!” ‘

Jennie by Paul Gallico

Elicit that Jennie is a cat giving advice to Peter, a kitten. How many animals can you think of? Ask Ss to brainstorm. Then, ask Ss to choose one of the animals they brainstormed and write maternal advice from a mama animal to its baby.

Activity 4. Overheard in a cafe

What? Reporting on imaginary conversations.

Language focus: Reported speech, said, replied, denied, asked

Procedure: Show pics of people and ask Ss to select two and think of the conversation they might have. Ss then uses reported speech to describe the conversation the two people might have. Charlie had some paintings in this mix including Van Gogh’s self-portrait and some quirky ones such as a dog and a cat looking at each other.

Activity 5: The house that Jack built

What? Build progressively longer sentences.

Language focus: Relative clauses

Procedure: Show the Ss the following sentence pattern.

This is the house that Jack built. This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built This is the rat, that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

webinar grammar Then ask Ss to construct their own from this photo. So their sentence would beging with “This is the photo that Jack took”. You may also want to to supply  words:

Man fish girl boat wind wave whale rod camera rock beach shark cook friend chips cat

Image attribution: Bass fishing by Eileen Jones | Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Activity 6: How it’s done

What: Instructions for various topics

Language focus: Imperatives and sequencing words

Procedure: Run Ss through an example of how something is done.


How to make a cup of tea

Firstly, boil some water in a kettle

When it’s hot, pour a little in a teapot to warm it

Then throw out the water and put in two spoonfuls of tea leaves

Bring the water back to boil

Pour the boiling water on tea leaves in the pot

Leave to stand for two minutes

Serve in two cups

Ask Ss to use this template to write instructions for one of the following:

  • Eating spaghetti
  • Falling in love
  • Getting promotion
  • Bathing a dog
  • Going to a wedding
  • Looking after a two year old
  • Taking an exam
  • Having a relaxing evening

Charlie recommended using these activities in conjunction with the following:

  • Sharing session: Choose the best piece you wrote during the lesson and share it with others in a small group.
  • Student control: After doing a couple of these activities, hand over control to the Ss. Give them a particular grammar concept and ask them to come up with their own creative exercise around it.
  • Student ideas: Dialogues, sketches, poems, nonsense sentences, sabotaging the coursebook (playing around with sentences from the coursebook)


He had many other references in his list which had to do with the importance of creativity. Here’s a truncated list of language teaching references:

  • Nematis, A. 2009. Memory Vocabulary Learning Strategies and Long Term Retention. International Journal of Vocational and Technical Education 1 (2), pp. 14-24
  • Oxford, R. 1990. Language Learning Strategies. Newbury House
  • Schmitt, N. 2000. Vocabulary in Language Teaching. CUP

Powerful tools for teaching and learning: Web 2.0 tools | Week 3

This week’s focus was on creativity tasks and tools. The course facilitators spoke about how creativity is an important 21st century skill and that research suggests that there are long term positive benefits of fostering creativity such as the fact that creative people are more likely to get promoted, be satisfied with their jobs, be in better physical health and be more resilient.


As usual, the course recommends that Ts understand the nature of the task to select an effective tool and they offered a creativity continuum to do this.

word <-> visual <-> visual + word + sound

  • Word: Being creative with words such as using Visuwords to graphically show the relationship of a word to other words. Wordle create word clouds and Tagxedo allows you to create word images in different shapes. These tools are useful when you want your learners to be creatively engaged with words.
  • Visual: Students look at given pictures or collect pictures in bookr and use these as prompts to write stories which finally converted into a digital book. Sketchpad allows users to create sketches and drawings. Graffiti Creator lets Ss create text that looks like graffiti.
  • Visual + word + sound: Ss can use WeVideo to select pictures, text, video and audio clips to create a digital story. Alice allows users to learn computer programming in a 3D environment. StoryJumper lets Ss create stories in a comic-book style/format.

Using creativity tools to learn programming

Hour of Code is celebrated in classrooms every year to get Ss to see the creative side of computer programming but most Ss are usually not interested. Ss feel disengaged because they can’t visualize and hear the code which just remains lines of boring text of them. Scratch allows Ss to understand the basic concepts of programming by using ‘code building blocks’. As Ss select new pieces of code, there are changes to the object that they are programming. A similar tool is Squeakland which can be used for creative and critical thinking skills for programming through visuals, sounds and words.

  • Realtime Board: A shared whiteboard where you add can ideas, images and videos. Manage group projects and creative contributions – as an alternative to post-its.
  • Simple booklet: Ss select a layout template and add media to create an online booklet. It could be used for student-centred instructional strategy as an alternative to rote-learning and promote collaborative and deep learning. For example, a history class that’s learning about the US constitution.
  • Magisto: It turns video clips and photos into edited movies quickly. Review concepts and terms by getting Ss to create a music video where lyrics draw on study material.
  • Evernote: A tool for taking and organizing notes including stuff from the web. Here’s an example.
  • Thinglink: Creative interactive images – designed for classroom use so – Ss login IDs can be nested under the teacher. Here’s an example.
  • WeVideo: A cloud-based video editing tool. Ss can upload media from their computers or from cloud storage and edit these in a number of modes. Here’s an example.

The tools for exploration this week include:

My picks are Tagul which creates really nifty word clouds and Playir which seems to have some engaging features.

This week’s reading

Here’s one more video based on Chickering & Gamson’s principles specifically encouraging active learning. The video’s creators list a series of responses from educators: rewards & peer pressure, practical problems, assessments, academic rigour and feedback, games and fun, pacing Ss with quizzes, respect, building community through group discussions and posing challenging questions. They summarized these responses an androgogical approach to engaging Ss and relating content to real lives.

Finally, here’s a video about a primary school teacher who used free cloud-based apps to get Ss to work on creative digital projects for an authentic audience.

Image attribution: Flickr | Creativity is Not Device Dependent by eliztesch | CC by 2.0

The ideal wallet | A design thinking activity

Last week, I attended a really engaging design thinking workshop. The second half was structured around a single activity broken into many stages. I’m going to reproduce the activity as I experienced it. As you read through the post, I think it will become apparent to you how parts of the activity could be used in the ELT or Business English classroom.



About 2 hours. Some steps (such as 3) could be crunched while other steps (like 8) could be made longer. I’ve retained the original timings.


Sheets for the making notes, doodling and ideating (pre-printed A3 ones like those in these images seemed to facilitate creativity for some odd reason), good quality pencils, erasers, an on-screen countdown timer and stuff for making the wallet (such as play-dough, cardboard, rubber bands, glue, cello-tape, velcro, coloured paper, honestly you can just give them a whole lot of junk and stuff that will enable them to combine it)

ideal wallet 1

Lead-in (5 min) 

Give Ss 5 min to design their ideal wallet – providing them a large drawing space to sketch their idea or ideas.  Call time after 5 min and have them share in pairs or small groups before asking for volunteers to present their ideas to the rest of the group. Focus on the ‘why’ they might want their wallet to look a certain way.

Empathise: Design something useful and meaningful for your partner. Start by gaining empathy.

Step 1: Interview (14 min – 2 sessions of 7 min each)

Put Ss in pairs and announce the objective – design a wallet or equivalent that is useful and meaningful for their partners.

Ss have 7 min each to interview their partner to find out what they might want in their ideal wallet. Encourage them to pull out their wallets and show their partners. They should only stop asking questions when the countdown timer goes off. Then, they switch roles and repeat the interview.

Step 2: Dig deeper (10 min –  2 sessions of 5 min each)

Ask Ss to interview to conduct a second interview. They should ask their partner questions that they didn’t think of the first time and go beyond the obvious, uncovering needs and desires.

Reframe the problem

Step 3: Capture findings (10 min)

Have Ss capture their findings from the two rounds of interviews. Ask them to segregate this into two sections:

needs: things they are trying to do (use verbs)

insights: new learnings about your partner’s feelings/world-view to leverage in your design (make inferences from what you heard)

Step 4: Define problem statement (10 min) 

Ask Ss to fill the following format:

_________________ (Name) needs a way to ______________________________________ (user’s need).

Unexpectedly, in his/her world, _________________________________________ (insight)

Ideate : generate alternatives to test.

ideal wallet 2

Step 5: Sketch 3-5 radical ways to meet your user’s need (15 min) 

Ask Ss to note their problem statement and provide 5 frames to fill with ideas by drawing their design.

Step 6: Share your solutions & capture feedback (20 min – 2 sessions of 10 min each) 

Ask Ss to share their ideas with their partner and capture the feedback without questioning it or going into explanation mode.

Iterate based on feedback

Ideal wallet 3

Step 7: Reflect & generate a new solution (7 min)

Ask Ss to sketch their big idea – the one that they determined would be best for their parter in step 6. Give them a large worksheet in which they draw this idea.

Build and test

Step 8: Build your solution (20 min)

Ask Ss to use the materials you’ve provided to create a prototype their partner can interact with.

Step 9: Share your solution and get feedback (14 min – 2 sessions of 7 min each) 

Have Ss share their prototype with their partner and document feedback. They should record feedback under 4 subtitles:

  • + What worked
  • – What could be improved
  • ? Questions
  • ! Ideas

After step 9, encourage a whole-class show and tell with the prototypes. Insist the Ss link their prototype’s features backs to the needs and insights they uncovered about their partners.

Dope on Design thinking

The facilitator opened with the lead-in and then spent two or three hours discussing the design thinking process, sharing examples, case studies and videos for each of the steps, before getting into step 1. The design thinking process he used is the one created by Stanford’s D-school:

Empathise >> Define >> Ideate >> Prototype >> Test

The steps outlined in the activity closely follow this process. Here are some more resources on this design thinking sequence:

  • A 90 minute virtual crash-course on the design thinking process from the D-school.
  • Information on the D-school’s methods including interviewing for empathy in the form of downloadable PDFs.
  • Examples of things they’ve designed.
  • Recommended reading list (I’ve just started Creative Confidence which is published by the D-school)

Some time ago, Stanford ran a MOOC titled Design Thinking Action Lab on NovoEd – although I only audited the course, I know people who’ve completed it and found it really insightful. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like they’re going to run it again any time soon.

You may, of course, use the activity as an intensive speaking skills task (since it lends itself well to a communicative classroom) without discussing design thinking at all but it’s a fascinating topic and could become the context for an entire week of lessons.

Credit for this activity, the activity sheets and the interpretation of the design thinking process goes to Sudhir Bhatia of bRnd Studio. 

10 Interactive storytelling activities


I recently watched a webinar over at the Training Magazine Network by the celebrated learning game guru, Thiagi and his associate Tracy Tagliati on interactive storytelling in which they offered techniques for transforming the conventional approach of the facilitator narrating a story and participants listening passively to one where the facilitator sets up activities within which Ss “actively create, share, analyse, debrief, modify and roleplay stories.  Many of these ideas will be familiar to those of us in ELT but nevertheless it’s potentially useful to see them all consolidated in one place.

1. Co-constructed stories 

Ask Ss to pair up and stand facing each other. Each S contributes a few words that go towards building a c0-constructed story. Ss take turns to extend the story. Turn-taking could happen sequentially or randomly. The story could be written instead of spoken and Ss could pass a piece of paper back and forth. Ss could also be challenged to create the longest sentence through the shared story. Thiagi and Tracy derived some interesting learning from this activity. It could be used to draw Ss’ attention on how both people in each pair completely focused on each other and worked towards a common goal so they didn’t multitask or engage in one upmanship and how this may have helped achieved a better outcome. They also pointed out that the activity could be used to debrief more substantive content. For example, you teach your Ss the seven principles of customer satisfaction and then conduct the activity asking them to incorporate the seven principles into their co-constructed story.

2. Shared stories 

Apparently this activity is also called story exchange and based on an idea borrowed from Appreciative Inquiry. Ask Ss to take a couple of minutes to write the outline of a story they want to share. Now ask them to stand and pair off with someone from another part of the room. Ss should listen enthusiastically to their partner’s story and then narrate their own. Ss then find new partners and repeat the procedure. After exchanging stories with half a dozen other Ss, form groups and ask Ss in their groups to find common elements in storytelling from all the people they heard for example what made it a positive experience.

3. Unfinished story 

Ss listen to 80% of a story told by the facilitator (or another S) and then complete the story by themselves. Upon coming up with a version for completing the story, they could work in groups and come up with more alternate endings. This activity could be used to explore assumptions, stereotypes and perceptions and could also be used to challenge Ss to be creative. In fact, one of my favourite activities in the same vein also comes from Thiagi. It’s called The Sentry . You give Ss copies of this science fiction short story without the last line and ask them to try and complete it. After they share their responses, have them read the original line for a powerful ‘aha’ moment.

4. Zoom stories 

In this technique, borrowed from improv, pair off Ss. One S narrates a story while her partner, from time to time, says ‘zoom in’ or ‘zoom out’. Zoom in means the storyteller should add more details and zoom out means that she should reduce the level of detail. I really liked this activity – I see a lot of potential for application in the business classroom where professionals are often required to gauge audience and context, and adjust their level of detail in order to ensure that they convey their message effectively in meetings and presentations.

5. Roleplayed stories 

T starts recounting a narrative and stops when she gets to a critical juncture. At this point, she asks Ss to assume the roles of different characters. Ss roleplay the scenario until T stops them and introduces a new twist and then repeats the roleplay bit. Their example was that there’s been some sort of nuclear holocaust and the earth is completely irradiated. The Ss seem to be the only survivors, having found refuge in a bomb shelter. Ask them to create a plan for restarting civilization in three month’s time when the radiation clears and they’ll be able to go out into the world. Now have them role play characters in this narrative. Then introduce a twist; one of your friends is just outside the door. She’s used the intercom to tell you that she’s in a bad state and needs medical help. If you open the door to let her in, there’s a possibility that the shelter may get contaminated by radiation. Debate the issue and obtain a two-thirds majority to open the door and save her life. Ss roleplay the scenario again.

6. Analysed stories 

This is essentially the case study approach. T reads out a fairly short scenario or provides copies to Ss to read. Ss individually analyse the story before analysing it collectively in a small group and then analysing it in a larger group or as a class. Tracy had an interesting cross-cultural example for this technique. She talked about an American trainer who is sent on a secondment to an organization in South India where she trains the local trainers on interactive learning techniques which they lap up enthusiastically. Later, in a meeting, the director of the company tells the training team that trainers should be respected and that humility is most important on the part of those who attend training programs. The American trainer interrupts, openly challenging the director’s views suggesting that recent research in cognitive science demonstrates that questioning the trainer is a sign of deeper engagement with the knowledge being taught. The director however ignores her and the training team vocally support his position. When the American trainer confronts her team about what happened, they agree with her views. Some time later, her company abruptly recalls her to the US. This incident could fuel an interesting discussion about differences in cultural orientations.

7. Shrunken stories

These are really concise stories which are either read out by the T or read by the Ss individually. They can be of several types such as short-short stories, 99 word stories (Brian Remer who I’ve been subscribing to for yonks is particularly famous for these), six word stories (like Hemingway’s famous “For sale, baby shoes, never worn”), hint stories and espresso stories. Provide examples and ask Ss to write their own using the same structure and have them share it in groups.

8. Debriefed stories 

The shrunken story is immediately followed by a discussion where Ss reflect on the story and discuss their perspectives with peers.

9. Summarized stories 

Recall a famous novel or plot and condense it into a one minute summary. Alternatively, read a case study, research report or business proposal and narrate it in one minute or less. This could be really useful for business students.

10. Prompted stories 

Specify a theme or topic and provide a prompt such as pictures, comics, titles, first lines and opening paragraphs and ask Ss to incorporate it into a story that addresses the theme.

You can access the recording and associated handouts from here. However, you’ll need to sign up for Training Magazine Network. Kudos to T&T for sharing these great ideas and encouraging people to “creatively plagiarize” these activities.