‘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 to 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.

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.

Shooting vocal arrows | Energizer


TV adaptations of Indian epic mythology, particularly of the Mahabharata, usually involve warriors shooting utterly impractical arrows at each other from ornate bows that are surely the soldier equivalent of a stiletto. Impractical or not, they inspired me to design this energizer which I often use in business and teacher training and that participants find ridiculously engaging.


  • Encourage participants to project their voices more effectively
  • Energize sleepy participants


  • None

Pre-activity prep 

  • This is a really noisy activity. Ensure that the room is soundproof or there aren’t any neighbors to disturb.


  • Divide the participants into two groups and ask them to line up on opposites sides of the room, facing the other group. Make sure there’s a gap of at least 4 metres or more between the two groups.
  • Ask each participant to wave to his or her partner on the other side to identify them.
  • Ask group one to get into warrior position (bow and arrows ready). You can use some culturally relevant banter to set this up. I usually tell my lot that they’re warriors from the Mahabharata on the great battlefield of Kurukshetra, about to slay their opponents with their powerful arrows.
  • Introduce the idea of the vocal arrow. Pull your imaginary bow as if you’re about to release an arrow. When you let go, project your voice on a single word like ‘no’ so that it arcs in terms of energy and volume (noooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo) across the room to hit someone on the other side.
  • Demonstrate to participants what might happen if you don’t put enough energy into your arrow (NOOOoooo) when the vocal arrow falls short of its target.
  • Ask group one to shoot their arrows at the count of three. Then nominate participants at random to shoot their arrows one by one at their opponents. Ask the opponents if they felt the arrow hit them. If they say no, ask the participants to try again.
  • Get group two to repeat this procedure. Give them a different monosyllabic word like mom.
  • At this point, I usually end the activity but if you have time to kill, you could give them longer words to shoot at each other.

Debrief & action planning 

  • Ask participants to go back to their seats and discuss in pairs how effectively they were able to project their voices and why this might be important in the context of their work (teacher training or presentations at their organization, or public speaking).
  • Elicit suggestions for projecting the voice with greater impact (breathing, posture, opening your mouth, voice clarity etc.)

Storytelling in the classroom | Webinar summary

Jamie KeddieThis is a summary for a webinar that took place a couple of weeks ago that I didn’t find time to write up but it deserves to be written up so I’m squeezing out some time for it now. The webinar was hosted by IATEFL and the speaker was the ever-charming and innovative Jamie Keddie.

Jamie asked attendees if they’ve ever used these seven magic words in their classrooms

I want to tell you a story

Well most of us have probably used these words and don’t feel very enthused by them because our Ss are generally not very excited about listening to stories.  Jamie explained that we often see stories as monologues and associate them exclusively with young learners. However stories need not necessarily be about the “there and then” but could be about the “here and now”.  So, the webinar was specifically about the mechanics of dialogic storytelling.

Jamie told us that his own favourite genre of stories were personal anecdotes and he demonstrated his approach to dialogic storytelling through an example. He showed us the following text on a slide and read it out to us:

When I was at school, we used to think it was hilarious to leave notes on our T’s desk. We would wait for the T to notice the piece of paper, pick it up, examine it, unfold it and read it. We would then wait in anticipation of a reaction. The best note we ever left was this: there is a piece of cheese on the classroom ceiling. Of course the reaction that we expected was for the teacher to look up at the ceiling and try to see the fictitious piece of cheese. At that moment, everyone would have to do their best not to laugh. Laughing would demonstrate that you were involved in the joke.  I don’t remember how many teachers we played the joke on. But I remember very well the day we left the note on the desk of Mr. Francis, our cool history teacher. The lesson was almost over and we were starting to think that Frankie was not going to see the note. But then he did. He hesitated for a moment and then, very slowly, opened it. There was a silence. His eyes stayed fixed on the paper. Then he stood up, walked over to the corner of the room and dropped the note in the bin. He looked at us and said, as calmly as possible, “Of there is – I put it there.” We all looked up.

Jamie pointed out that what Ts are effectively working with are not the words on a piece of paper but 106 internal narratives i.e., one story on paper but 106 stories forming in the minds of those who were attending the webinar. As we are working with internal narrative, what can we do better exploit it?

He invited us to participate in a thought task. He asked everyone to imagine that they were going to use this story with their Ss but pretend it was their own. He asked us think about how long we’d take to get through it. Answers varied but Jamie suggested that he would probably take about 15 minutes because he would turn the story from a monologue into a dialogue – a whole class communicative event.

I want to tell you a story but first let me ask you a question. The question is this. Have you ever played a practical joke on a teacher or has a teacher ever played a practical joke on you?

Jamie suggested that this type of commentary is important because you are signalling that the narrative is about to start and there’s a beginning, middle and end. If I reflect on the stories that I have narrated in the classroom, I usually try to cut back on commentary to keep TTT low. He stated that it would be critical to also consider the language in the story that you want to draw attention to or teach, as well as be prepared for language from Ss that you want to reformulate or correct. As you narrate the story, you can do a number of things to make it a dialogic experience which is interactive and useful for teaching language:

  • Ask Ss about their own experiences.
  • Correct their language.
  • Teach the Ss phrases like practical jokes, to keep a straight face and hesitate (although these may not be explicitly present in the story).
  • Ask them guess when the story took place and speculate what was written on the note and guess how Mr. Francis might have reacted based on their experiences with teachers like him.
  • Set up an environment such that Ss want to ask questions.

He underscored the importance of preparation, rehearsal and identification of  language in the story text that may cause problems.

Jamie’s second example was really brilliant and I think it quite effectively demonstrates how powerful this technique is. I’m going to try to recount it the way he ran this dialogic storytelling activity. At the end of each utterance, he elicited responses which then informed the next set of questions.

The story could be called the box or a miniature model replica. What do you want to call it?

What’s a miniature model replica?

Who makes miniature model replicas?

This story takes place in a room. What kind of room does this story take place?

It’s a room with very little light. The walls have nothing on them.

Bare. What else can be bare?

A prison cell with very little light and bare walls. What else would you expect to see in a prison cell?

Did you used to have bunk beds when you were children?

My sister and I used to sleep in a bunk bed when we were kids. I used to sleep in the top bunk and my sister in the bottom bunk because she was scared of falling out. What’s your bunk bed story?

What else is in this prison cell?

A bucket. What would the bucket be used for?

This prison cell has a bucket in the corner, a window with bars and a bunk bed.

This story starts with a man named Alexander. He is alone in the prison cell.

What do you think he did? Why is he there?

What is he doing?

Right now, he is sitting at a desk, reading.

And on the desk there is one of these (shows a matchbox and rattles it).

What’s the difference between a matchbox and box of matches?

And strangely the matchbox is moving.

Why is it moving?

Alexander puts his finger on the matchbox, why does he do that?

To stop it moving OR to stop it from moving?

He picks the matchbox up and opens a drawer and puts the matchbox inside and closes the drawer.

Behind Alexander is the prison door and the prison door is unlocked. Not the state of being unlocked but the action, it’s being opened

And Adam is pushed in or thrown in and the prison door is closed.

Who is Adam?

What is the relationship between Alexander and Adam?

So you think they’re brothers, that’s interesting, how have two brothers come to be in the same cell?

Could Adam be a policeman?

In this story, he’s Alexander’s new cell mate

There they are, Alexander and Adam, looking at each other for the very first time.

They greet each other. What do they say?

They say hello to each other. Alexander says hello, Adam says hello.

Adam is quite surprised by Alexander’s next action. What do you think Alexander does?

Alexander turns around so that he has his back to Adam and he starts reading his book again.

So Alexander has his back to Adam reading his book, he’s more interested in his book than in his new cell mate so Adam is left in silence.

How would you feel if you were Adam? What would you do next?

Adam looks around the cell room? What are the things he sees? (this becomes a revision of the ideas gleaned from each other)

He sees all these things and what does Adam do?

He walks over to the bunk bed and sits on the bottom bunk and notices something.

He notices the bed is sagging and he notices something beside him

He notices a red box.

And he puts his hand on the red box and that immediately gets Alexander’s attention who turns around and says … What does he say?

He says “no lo abras”. How do you say that in English?  Don’t open it. To which Adam says “Porque no” “why not” to which Alexander says “Porque puede arrepentirse”. Because you will regret, it is that the modal auxiliary I am looking for? No, because you might regret it.

So what does adam do? Does he open the box?

He opens the box. What does he see? Well, what could have been another title for the story?

He sees a model miniature replica of the cell – all the objects. And he sees two figures, one sitting at the desk and another whose legs are sticking out from under the top bunk.

You want to know what happens next but I’m not going to tell you. You have to retell the story from start to end and narrate how it ends.

Here’s the really interesting bit. Jamie got this entire story from a YouTube video and refers to this technique as videotelling. This is the subject a new book he’s written called Videotelling.

Some of his tips while using a videotelling activity include:

  • Ask open questions (What’s your bunk bed story?)
  • Don’t be precious about the answers you want to elicit. If you don’t get the targeted response, cell mate, use it as an opportunity to elicit more language.
  • Don’t be teachery. If the T gets an answer she doesn’t like or want, she might say “yes” in a very peculiar tone and imply through paralinguistic means that this is the wrong answer. For example, if the Ss, say Alexander and Adam brothers, ask “Could you explain how two brothers come to be in the same cell?”
  • Give Ss some space to elaborate and justify their answers. Be open to Ss’ ideas.

While doing the extension activity for this exercise, you don’t need to necessarily have Ss write their stories down. Instead, you could have them create video selfies where they speak in front of a camera using all the language you gave them as well as the story text and you challenge them to complete the story.

I’m really excited about trying out videotelling with my Ss and looking forward to Jamie’s new book.


Finally, here’s a post from last year on interactive storytelling activities.

The little people | An art inquiry creative thinking activity


This activity is inspired by an idea shared by Edmund Dudley in a webinar on creative thinking. There’s an English artist named Slinkachu who creates surreal imagery of little figurines in outdoor scenes, a project that he aptly calls The little people. I felt some of his art could be used as interesting prompts for encouraging creative thinking and speaking practice. I won’t get to try it out till April so if you give it a go before then, I’d love to hear from you.



You’ll need colour printouts of Slinkachu’s little people either from the ones that I’ve selected or from a larger collection of his work. You’ll also need slightly vague descriptions of each of the artworks like the following with language graded to your Ss’ level:

There are two people in this picture, a woman and a boy. They could be mother and son. The mother is wearing a red blouse and a yellow skirt. The son is wearing a white t-shirt and beige shorts. They are walking along a road, which is in pretty bad shape. The road seems to be passing through a poor neighbourhood, perhaps a shanty town. The mother is holding the boy’s hand. With her other hand, she is balancing a large number of objects on her head. In fact, there are nine objects stacked one on top of each other. Some of the objects are circular, some are oblong and others are capsule-shaped. The objects are in different colours, white, blue, yellow and orange. A couple of the objects are evenly divided into two colours: blue and white, red and white. 

Copy the descriptions onto slips of paper (make multiple copies if you have a large number of Ss).  Get a hold of two types of envelope which either differ in shape or colour (you’ll need four of each). Put each of the artworks into one type and the descriptions into the other (So you’ll have four sets with 2 envelopes each). Ss will also need A4 sheets to draw on and crayons or colouring pencils. An on-screen timer.


  • Divide Ss into four groups and organize them on four tables or in four corners of the room.
  • Distribute one set to each group and instruct them not to open them until you tell them to.
  • Use the on-screen timer to keep Ss on track.
  • Ask Ss to open the envelope that contains the descriptions and individually draw the scene that’s being described (3 min)
  • Get Ss to compare their drawings with others in their group (2 min) and notice the differences.
  • Have Ss open the other envelope and compare their drawings to Slinkachu’s original artwork (2 min).
  • Have them discuss what the artist was trying to say through the artwork and how he expected his audience to react. Ask Ss to also share their own thoughts on the artwork and whether they believe it’s a true reflection of what’s going on in the world (3 min).
  • Now, ask Ss to to put all the descriptions and pictures back into the envelopes while giving their drawings to you.
  • Get them to move clockwise so they’re in a different corner of the room. Repeat this procedure so Ss get an opportunity to think about and discuss another artwork. Depending on how much time you have, you might want to get them to move again so they get to experience all four artworks. If time’s an issue, run it just once although I like the idea of having Ss repeat the activity and perhaps work on some automaticity.
  • Wrap up the activity by getting Ss to share their thoughts on all four artworks and segue into error correction if required.

I’ve been trying incorporate art into my lessons ever since I took two MOOCs from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). You can read up about some of the activities I gleaned from the second MoMA MOOC here.

The Melody of English | IATEFL PronSIG webinar summary

The full title of this webinar – The Melody of English: Research and Resources for Teaching the Pragmatic Functions of Intonation – is a real mouthful and it was the very first PronSIG event that I’ve ever experienced.  The speakers were Marnie Reed and Tamara Jones, both of whom seem to have written methodology books in this area.


Why teach the pragmatic functions of intonation? 

Marnie spent the first half of the webinar establishing the need for increasing learners’ sensitivity to pitch movements that lead to some sort of implicature – the speaker implies something through his or her intonation. She suggested that the way intonation is treated in language courses leads to it looking decorative and Ss come away feeling it has no particular meaning. She cited an example of a language lab that she observed where Ss practised intonation with decontextualised sentences and repeated it over and over until their intonation became increasingly target-like, in order to please the teacher. When Marnie asked these Ss whether they would use this native-live intonation in their everyday speech, they apparently suggested that only women speak like this and that it sounds silly and exaggerated.

Marnie went on to explain that her intention was not to force a speech pattern onto the learners and they had the right to reject it if they felt it was irrelevant to them. Her concern was about their ability to decode real world meaning and speaker intent because the Ss were not sensitive to the fact that we use intonation to provide extra meaning (the example she used repeatedly was the teacher didn’t *grade* the papers vs. the *teacher* didn’t grade the papers where the shift in the tonic word reveals more information than the words themselves state).  Marnie felt that the Ss’ beliefs about intonation were going to underpin their receptivity to it. In this case, Ss felt it was decorative, leading to gaps in their metacognition. She also suggested that teachers may also face these same gaps and NESTs are at greater risk because they use intonation unconsciously and are perhaps not motivated to analyse the theoretical basis for it and may not be equipped with dealing with it in the classroom.

What is intonation? 

Systematic and linguistically meaningful use of pitch movement at the phrase level or at the super-segmental level. Pickering (2012)

Marnie pointed out that English intonation is a bit of an outlier and we tend to use a wide pitch contour for everyday utterances and that if we’d  put languages and how they use intonation on a continuum, English would be at an extreme end. German, Turkish and Arabic would also apparently be in the vicinity but English tends to fall at the very extreme end in terms of its use of pitch movement for normal discourse and extra use of it to convey speaker intent where we are making an implication.

Unlike many other languages where grammatical inflection, word order or lexis is used to signal contrast or important information, English does this largely through phonology. Rogerson Revell (2012)

Problems with teaching intonation

Ts spend a lot of time on the attitude or affective areas of intonation such as being sarcastic and showing anger. I think Marnie was referring to that frequently used activity which involves decontextualised sentences being read out in conjunction with an emotion like anger. She suggested that we may working at a surface level producing or imitating intonation without compelling Ss to consider why the pitch range is so exaggerated compared to their L1 and what it might be trying to convey.

What would success look like?

Marnie seemed to describe two sides to this. The first was the ability to grasp implicature and be able to articulate it (in the sense of identify and respond to it). The second was the ability to predict the topic of the next sentence. She shared an example of this which I couldn’t quite hear but the gist of it was that the proficient English speaker is primed to know what to expect when he or she hears non-standard intonation which violates the norms. This might be an important skill in academic lectures where Ss are just following along without knowing what’s coming up.

Resources for teaching the pragmatic functions of intonation

Tamara handled this section of the webinar.  She focused on three situations where we’d expect to hear exaggerated intonation:

  1. Speaker attitude e.g., A: How are you today? B: *great* (with a sort of slow falling pitch movement)
  2. Contrasting information e.g., The *teacher* didn’t grade the papers vs. the teacher *didn’t* grade the papers
  3. Strong agreement e.g. She *does* have a good point.

I’m not sure why Tamara claimed that the utterance in number 3 is also an example of breaking a grammar rule by throwing in an auxiliary verb. Using do/does to add emphasis is generally standard usage.

There are no arguments for teaching intonation in terms of attitude, because the rules for use are too obscure, too amorphous, and too easily refutable.  Brazil et al (1980)

I recall Mssr Brazil being oft quoted in my Delta input lessons as evidence that intonation is a murky area of phonology that’s best left untaught. I could never agree with that perspective and I was happy to hear that Marnie and Tamara concurred. Tamara shared the following activities for focusing on the pragmatic functions of intonation:

1. Noticing: Ask Ss to take a passage and ask several proficient speakers to read it outside class time. Ask them to notice what happens to certain words or phrases and report back. Ss then notice that the proficient speakers all read these words or phrases in the same way or in Tamara’s words, they do something weird to it. Tamara suggested that this noticing is an important part of selling the idea to them – that the pitch change exists in reality and not just in the minds of their teachers.

2. Awareness-raising: Once Ss have noticed the pitch change, use awareness-raising activities to connect intonation to meaning such as:

Let’s conTINue our disCUSion of polLUtion

YESterday we deFINED polLUtion.

1. What will I probably say next?

a. Today we’ll talk about the IMpact of polLUtion

b. ToDAY we’ll deFINE acid RAIN

3. Assumptions understood: Use short dialogues which challenge Ss to interpret meaning or implicature such as this one:

A: Would you like to go skiing this weekend?

B: So you can ski?

What had the man assumed?

(a) A was a good skier.

(b) A was going skiing this weekend.

(c) A didn’t know how to ski.

(d) A did not intend to go skiing.

4. Matching activity: Ss look at a sentence such as “I took the 10:20 evening training from LA to San Francisco” and use the concept of shifting prominence to match it with a range of implicatures such as

a. Not John.

b. I didn’t drive it.

c. Not the 12.20 etc.

5. Quality choral repetition: Along with drills, get Ss to use paralinguistic cues to ‘feel’ the pitch movement in utterances such as “What’s the MATter?” and “You must be JOKing”.

  • Clap: Clap strongly and loudly on the stressed syllable. Clap quickly and quietly on the unstressed.
  • Eyes: Open your eyes wide. Relax them on the unstressed.
  • Eyebrows: Raise them. Relax them.
  • Get up: Stand up. Sit down.
  • Walk: Take a long step. Take a short step.
  • Dance: Take a long step. Take a quick step.
  • Shrug your shoulders: Raise them. Relax them.
  • Snap your fingers: Snap.

Tamara also suggested using rubber bands with words that have exaggerated intonation. I would caution against doing this. I’ve used rubber bands before and find that Ss end up altering the quality and the length of the vowel, reducing rather than enhancing comprehensibility.

6. Card matches: Similar to number four except that the words which have prominence are indicated in the text. These utterances and their implicatures are presented on individual cards.  Ss read and match the cards.

I want to learn to ski on my holiday

I want to learn to SKI on my holiday

I want to learn to ski on my HOLIDAY.

I WANT to learn to ski on my holiday.

My husband already knows how to ski.

I don’t have to learn to ski, but I am interested in doing it.

I am too busy with work to learn right now.

I am not interested in learning to swim or to surf

7. Marking the dialogue: Play short clips such as these ones from Seinfeld and Friends, provide a transcript and ask Ss to mark up words where they hear an exaggerated intonation.

8. Correct me if I’m wrong: Ss complete some sentences about themselves (My name’s … My first language is … My favourite food’s … etc.) and then exchange it with a partner who reads it out wrong “Your favourite colour is black” and then gets corrected “No, my favourite colour is WHITE.” (in the same vein as Mark Hancock’s Contradict me from Pronunciation Games, CUP)

9. What comes before? Provide statements such as “I’m afraid I see some DISadvantages” and Ss work out the preceding statement – “This plan has a lot of advantages.” And then Ss select a dialogue and present it to the class.

Are you sure? Maybe we need TWO new PCs.

I went to the lab on Saturday AND Sunday.

I agree. That IS an unrealistic deadline.

Frank, could YOU do the presentation?

No, the exam is on the FIFTH.

When I reflect on the way I’ve taught intonation, I’ve generally focused on getting Ss to work towards practising intonation that’s definitely not native-like but is easier on the ear either by not sounding too flat or too singsong. I never plan to teach the pragmatic side of intonation and if it happens, it’s usually in emerging language focus. The fact that Ss might be missing out on key aspects of real world communicative competence because of their inability to pick up something proficient English speakers subconsciously process all the time is truly food for thought. I particularly liked the example Tamara shared towards the end when she said that sometimes when she tries to highlight an error to Ss through intonation such as “Louis GO to the bank?”, her Ss use paralinguistic clues to perceive that their teacher is unhappy but miss out on the pitch movement on GO and instead focus on correcting the preposition or some other part of the utterance.

While the studies that were cited and the rationale around teaching the pragmatic functions were really interesting, I felt the activities that were shared were a bit of a damp squib. Most of these (save No.9) are ones that my peers and I have been using variations of for years. Linda Grant’s Well Said, a book that both these ladies seem very partial too was supplementary material for a course I taught with my former employer. Ss could get access to their own copies and they universally disliked doing exercises from it because they found it dry and disengaging.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful for this nice long list of references:

  • Gilbert, J. (2014). Myth 4: Intonation is hard to teach. in L. Grant (Ed.) Pronunciation Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  • Levis, J. (1999). Intonation in theory and practice. Revisited. TESOL Quarterly 33(1), p.37-64.
  • Paunovic, T. & Savic, M (2008). Discourse Intonation – Making it work in S. Komar & U. Mozetic (Eds.). As you write it: Issues in literature, language, and translation in the context of Europe in the 21st century, V (1-2), 57-75.
  • Pickering, L. (2012). Intonation. in K. Malmkjaer (Ed.) The Routledge Linguistics Encyclopedia (3rd edition), pp. 280-286.
  • Vandergrift, L. & Goh, C. (2012). Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in action. NY: Routledge, P.22.
  • Wells, J.C. (2006). English Intonation: An Introduction. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Wichmann, A. (2005). The role of intonation in the expression of attitudinal meaning. English Language and Linguistics, 9(2), pp. 229-253.

And I think Olya from ELT Stories suggested Paul Tench  (1996, 2001) for functions for teaching intonation.

Image attribution: Flickr | Pronunciation by Steve Bowbrick | 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.