English Workshop

We’ve probably all got a different idea of what an English Workshop class entails. There is no definitive procedure, and nor should there be. So I will simply add my ideas to the mix.

The first ingredient for my English Workshop classroom is the layout of the desks/tables. I form islands of desks scattered around the room. My default setting is 5 islands, my students number about 15 to 30, and this is about right for me.

The students gravitate to any of the islands when they enter the classroom, and it normally ends up with 4/5 friends sitting together around each island. This is fine. If there is a unworkable imbalance I step in and alter things a little. If one of the islands is empty, but everything is otherwise looking good, no problem.

On each island is an activity. The activity is designed to take about 15 minutes (I have 90 minute lessons). After the time has elapsed the students move in rotation to the next island and complete the next activity. This is repeated until the students have finished the rotation, and completed all the activities. The remaining time is used for feedback, marking and anything else arising from the class.

That is the bare bones, a little more detail below.

  • Each class has a  (loose) theme, eg sports, Australia, mountains.
  • I always include a reading island, where students can read graded readers of their choice at their pace. This island is the one in the corner, a quiet space, a little apart from the others.
  • I always include a conversation island. This is where I’m mainly stationed.
  • There is often a listening island. My preferred listening task utilizes songs, usually with the symbolsong procedure. This island is on the opposite side of the classroom to the reading island. The students have full control over the CD player. Does the repeated playing of the same song annoy the students? Not really. Just choose a really good, catchy, classic song.
  • Other activities could be a vocabulary task, a grammar exercise, a puzzle, a quiz, or virtually anything. If you have the facility for an online English app, then this would also do nicely.
  • It’s not easy to organise every activity into the same  length, in fact it’s virtually impossible. It gets easier with practice, and is not really a huge problem, but if students can’t finish their exercise in the allotted time, they could always try to finish it off later while they are on another island, multi-tasking, why not?
  • As mentioned I’m based on the conversation island, but this kind of set-up requires a fair bit of monitoring and facilitating, so I generally spend the first 5 minutes of each rotation wandering around the islands, checking and helping, before getting back to the conversation island.
  • The students are a bit lost at first, but they soon pick up the system, and it seems to go like clockwork after about three classes.
  • Do the students get a bit bored of the same procedure every class? Do they get bored with the lectures that they receive umpteen times a week? For them it is only once a week. Of course not every student is ecstatic, but generally speaking there is a nice, refreshing air in the classroom.
  • My classes are 90 minutes each, but for different lengths of class the islands and activity lengths should be adjusted accordingly.

As I hope you can gather, the whole atmosphere of the classroom is much more friendly and relaxed than the conventional ‘teacher in front of rows of students’ layout.

One huge advantage is that the students are much more able to study at their own pace, and not worry so much about making any mistakes. We are always concerned that no student should be left behind, but perhaps we should also concern ourselves more with higher level students not reaching their full potential. In its own little way this workshop procedure allows higher level students to flourish, and not be held back in frustration while I am dealing with slower students.

And to top it all I spend a great deal more time using real language to talk and laugh with all the students. An English Workshop should surely be a component of any English program.


As is often the case, a fancy name for a straightforward technique.

There are six sides to a cube, and cubing refers to the technique of using the six common ‘Wh’ question words: why, what, when, who, where and how.

So how can cubing be utilized? A good example is when brainstorming. Let’s imagine a student is tasked with speaking about, or writing about the last movie they saw. They ask themselves the six ‘Wh’ questions. The obvious question is What movie? And What is the plot? Followed by Where did I see it? When did I see it? Who did I go with? Or Who are the stars? Why did I choose this movie? How was it?

The student would not need to construct the questions, just the ‘Wh’ prompts would suffice. A spidergram approach would almost certainly help.

In this way the student can generate a fair amount of useful information, which may well trigger off further thoughts, and set the task well under way.

Not all six ‘Wh’ questions will work in every situation. And there are other ‘Wh’ questions, specifically which, whom and whose, but these are a little less useful, though there is no reason they cannot be included if appropriate.

So cubing is not a magic roll of the dice, it is simply used to help generate ideas and get the thought processes started.

Symbolsongs, an Overview

Why use songs in the classroom?

While there is no conclusive evidence of songs helping language learning I think most teachers would agree they probably do.

Indeed research shows Broca’s area of the brain is concerned with both language and music, and a symbiotic, and even syntactic, relationship has been suggested between language and songs.

Here is recent research which suggests that language may even be a form of music.

The use of authentic language in the classroom is a concept fraught with perplexities. For example, no-one can seem to agree the definition of authentic language. And whether authentic language is actually of any value in the classroom can also be argued. However it would seem logical to suggest authentic language be used from time to time. And what better source of authentic language than a song?

And there are other good reasons for using songs. Songs are fun. Songs add an extra dimension to the lesson, something of beauty, culture and emotion. Songs really hit the heart of society. Classic songs are embedded in the fabric of culture, and familiarity with these songs will enable students to further integrate into the English-speaking world. And on top of all this, the rhythm of songs surely helps the  rhythm of spoken English.

What kind of songs should be used?

There are songs and there are songs. Careful selection is needed, but it just a matter of common sense.

For example, for children simple, wholesome songs are obviously best. Lyrics should be clear (not drowned by a thumping beat), and topics such as love, beds, death, sorrow and cruelty should be avoided.

This cuts out a huge body of songs, but millions still remain. I start with ‘Hello, Goodbye‘, by The Beatles, for about 10 year-olds, followed by ‘Sing‘ by The Carpenters, and continue in this vein. Naturally, more mature students can handle more mature songs.

I prefer to use well-known, classic songs which students may well encounter in their daily life eg in a mall, on commercials, in movies. I feel an obscure song, even though it may be a really nice song, is far less useful.

What is a symbolsong?

I doubt if I am the first to use semiotics in song lyrics, representing some of the words with symbols, shorthand, and whatever comes to mind, and for this I have coined the term symbolsong.

How can they be used in the classroom?

This technique is an alternative to the gap-fill activity that often accompanies a song. At first the students have no idea what the symbols mean, but slowly you will hear gasps of delight as some students start to guess the words.

The students are firstly given a handout of the symbol sheet which represents the song and, after trying to decipher as much as they can, they then listen to the song and compare with their ideas. The full lyrics can be shown to the students before they listen a second time.

Why use symbolsongs?

The sturdy gap-fill activity that is often used with song lyrics is tried and tested and works well.

A symbolsong is simply another technique to utilize songs in the classroom. Some songs seem to lend themselves better to gap-fill and others better to symbolsong, and some to both.

Don’t symbolsongs take too long to prepare? Perhaps, but they can be used over and over.

Do the students get tired of symbolsongs? Not in my experience.

What about copyright issues?

I am not sure of all the implications here, but I believe if you use the songs and lyrics solely for educational purposes within the classroom, then I doubt whether anyone will come knocking at your door. You never know but somewhere down the line a student may even be inclined to purchase something by the artist or perhaps sing the song in a karaoke lounge (for which royalties are paid). In fact it could be said you are promoting the song and artist; would a record company object?

Songs rarely fit in with the other parts of my lesson.

Since a song is not written with a certain language item in mind the chance of it dovetailing perfectly with the particular linguistic aim of your lesson is remote. So why not treat a song as an independent part of the lesson, a stand-alone activity. Or better still, use the song as a springboard to the next part of the class eg reading and discussion of the life of Karen Carpenter.

In conclusion, the power of music is strong and memorable. Ignoring songs in the language classroom would seem to be an enormous missed opportunity. The bottom line is that symbolsongs work.

Information Gap, an Overview

What is an information gap activity?

It is a speaking task, usually for a pair of students in which each student has part of the required information. They share this information to complete the task.

What are the advantages of information gap activities?

They change the mood in the classroom, the class becomes more student-centered, enabling the teacher to change role from instructor to monitor/facilitator.

Student talking time can be increased.

Pairwork gives students time to think, collaborate and reflect on the task in hand, in relative ease.

Teachers can tailor-make the content of the activity to provide suitable practice of the language items being taught.

Any disadvantages?

There may be a mismatch in the level of the students in a pair.

Some lazy students simply copy the required information from their partner.

Every pair completes the task at a different speed.

But overall I feel one can live with these possible drawbacks, and most teachers would surely agree the advantages far outweigh any disadvantages.

Duo / Trio / Quartet ?

The conventional tried and trusted information gap is designed for a pair of students, which I term ‘Duo’. But in some ways I prefer the ‘Trio’, where the information is spread between 3 students.

In a Trio the dynamic of the task changes drastically. With pairs A knows B has the relevant information, and B knows it too. However in a Trio A doesn’t know whether B or C has the information, and B and C may not be sure either. This element of doubt really spices up the activity.

And why not a Quartet too? I find that these also work well. But 4 students is probably the limit. An information gap for 5 students starts to get a little too unwieldy, and is very tricky to design, plus the individual student talking time may decrease too much.

How can the information be presented?

Charts, illustrations, text, bullet points, even listening or video can all create fantastic information gaps.

This is where the skill of the materials designer comes to the fore, selecting the best method for the language items and the students.

What about instructions?

I follow the KISS mantra, keep it simple stupid.

Most students are not thick and many will know what to do without any rubric, so I like to keep the instructions to a minimum, something like: ‘Answer these questions with B‘.

In conclusion.

Information gap activities have long been a vital tool in the language teacher’s toolbox, and rightly so.

Drilling in the ELT classroom, an overview

To drill or not to drill? That is not a question for some teachers; it simply doesn’t cross their minds. I am pro-drilling and I feel there is more to drilling than first meets the eye. Let’s look at the issues.

What are the aims of drilling?

Primarily pronunciation. This is fairly self-evident and will be covered in more detail later.

Partial vocabulary memorization. The repetitive nature of drilling is enough for vocabulary to enter the short-term memory, but not the long-term memory, unless the same things are repeatedly repeated, unfeasible for most.

However if the drilling stage is incorporated into a battery of memorization tools, for example if the lexical item is also used in, say, a text, a written exercise, and speaking practice, the cumulative effect will be quite strong. In this context drilling could have some real value.

Facial muscle movement. Drilling provides students with the opportunity to exercise their oral facial muscles, vocal cords and tongue, often in an unfamiliar way. It is a real chance to have a go at those awkward words, and to pick up that rhythmic intonation, characteristic of English, with all those stressed and unstressed syllables.

Student noise. The noise can be quite deafening at times, and one great advantage is that even the most reticent students get a chance to put the vocal cords to action. Many students may have been largely silent and passive during the class, and the mere production of some kind of sound is enough to give a sense of participation and raise the feel-good factor.

Togetherness. The class feels in it together, all pulling in the same direction, a very positive classroom element.

Teacher respect. I’m not sure about this one but having drilled thousands of times I have formed the strong opinion that students appreciate the teacher’s efforts in the drilling stage. There are probably many other instances where the teacher works harder, but in the drilling stage with the teacher acting as a model, giving a part of themselves, it is possibly as exposed as it gets. I feel the students recognize and respond to this, and it helps engender a certain respect for the teacher among students as if to say, ‘the teacher’s on our side!’

Of course there is a double-edged sword here. Too much teacher-centered instruction can appear overly dictatorial; as always balance is the keyword.

My students don’t need drilling. Don’t do it.

Drilling takes too much effort. Unless you are an experienced teacher at the top of their game it is mighty difficult to suddenly decide halfway through a lesson that a bit of drilling would be a good idea. The teacher is a model and with this role comes the pressure of modeling. Pronunciation needs to be right; you can’t alter your pronunciation on the second  or third repetition. If you get it wrong first time you can smile and repair, but too many mistakes and the students may feel you are not up to the job. An inexperienced teacher may well need to invest a lot of thought in preparation. Drilling is a teaching skill, like new language presentation, or writing exams, or blackboard layout, and improves with practice.

Drilling is boring. Granted, for the teacher, but many students may well feel differently.

I’m forcing my accent upon the students. Some teachers may feel uncomfortable forcing the class to mimic their own form of English accent, perhaps even citing linguistic imperialism. This is a totally understandable reluctance, but consider the student who requests help with a forthcoming speech contest. What do you do? Model the speech. Many times. And what about pronunciation correction, what do you do? Model the correction. Drilling in all bar name.

Teachers may rather use a CD/mp3 as the model, which is fine, though a little awkward, and you could even be accused of forcing the students to mimic the accent from the recording. At the end of the day there is nothing like a live voice from a live person.

Now let’s look at drilling in a little more detail; maybe there is more to it than first thought.

Types of Drilling

Choral – the conventional style, with the whole class repeating in unison.

Individual – self-explanatory. This needs more caution since each student isn’t able to blend in with the others, and becomes rather exposed. It is also more time-consuming. However I feel that individual drilling in the right circumstances can have a dynamic all of its own.

A few variations:

  • Random choice of next student
  • Go back and ask some students again
  • Ask some students two or three times in succession
  • Get into a quickfire rhythm
  • Increase the speed

By the way nominate each student with an open-hand gesture, not pointing or calling their name.

And give feedback with your expression and general body language, can be fun.

Inevitably some students will hesitate, choke, stumble or burst out laughing; it’s all part of the tapestry of this quickfire activity. When everything goes well there is an edge to the classroom atmosphere, and a more gentle, quiet activity is recommended to follow. Boring old drilling can be quite exciting at times.

Frontchaining – longer phrases or sentences are a bit of a mouthful so they are usually chunked and built up, for example:

‘Have you’ – (students repeat)

‘Have you ever been’ – (students repeat)

Have you ever been to New York? – (students repeat)

Backchaining – the same technique in reverse:

‘to New York?

‘ever been to New York?’

‘Have you ever been to New York?’

For some inexplicable reason it is widely thought the teachers’ model is more accurate when backchaining. My experience agrees with this. Not only the rhythm and intonation, but the word stresses and schwas seem more natural and consistent.

Adding spice to drilling

When dealing with longer phrases the chance for substitution immediately becomes apparent. Using the previous example one could easily substitute ‘Chicago’ for ‘New York’, or ‘Paris’ or wherever. In this way just a simple substitution can start to widen the scope of the drilling stage.

What about individual words? Here another opportunity arises. Let’s take a simple example, ‘cat’. The teacher models ‘cat’, and the student repeats. Then ‘dog’ etc. Solid, basic drilling.

Now let’s add a tiny bit of context: ‘the cat’. Students also need to deal with the definite article, one of the most widely-used words in English, and not the easiest to pronounce. Or how about ‘a cat’, and ‘some cats’. Adding the indefinite article indicates the noun is countable, and we confirm this with the plural /s/ which is one of the three common plural endings, ‘Dogs’ with /z/ is one of the others. Drilling opens up a whole new avenue of possibilities.

With verbs we may decide not to stop with the basic form, and to include the past form and past participle, for example ‘take’, plus ‘took’ and ‘taken’, helping to reinforce the three main verb forms. Or we may wish to add collocations, ‘take a photo’, ‘take a bath’, ‘take a walk’. The possibilities are endless.

Obviously we can tailor-make the drilling to the surrounding classroom ecology. Drilling thus becomes not only pronunciation practice but knits into the whole fabric of the lesson and the course.

When to use drilling in a lesson? Conventional wisdom has it that drilling be used after meaning is established. Not every student will understand everything, but I feel the point is largely valid, so general understanding should come before drilling. And drilling is clearly a very controlled exercise so should come before more fluency-based activities. And it should blend with the ebb and flow of a lesson. So it’s a judgment call for each teacher, but nearer the start of the lesson than the end is my best answer.


If drilling really isn’t for you, then fair enough, it’s not critical, though I do feel you are missing a trick.

Many years ago my DipTefla tutor told me, ‘You can never do too much drilling.’ That’s not strictly true. I’ve done too much on several occasions, but the thrust of her point is as valid now as it was then.

World Cup Winners puzzle, after 2014 final

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil has just ended. To celebrate, a simple puzzle relating to the eight winners of this prestigious world sporting event.

There is no rubric, I just hand it out to the students and let them get on with it; they soon figure out what to do.

For elementary / pre-intermediate students, about 15 minutes.

World Cup Winners puzzle updated: click here for free downloadable pdf sheets, including answer key.

Please find a snapshot of this puzzle below.

World Cup Winners puzzle updated


Free downloadable English teaching material, resources for the EFL/ESL classroom, from Yes Press