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Making Vocabulary Activities that Stand Out | Nick Michelioudakis

I have always felt that we teachers we are a bit like cooks – thinking about what we are going to serve our children the next day, worrying about how varied their diet is, the ingredients etc. Increasingly, however, I feel there is a problem with the way we approach our task: do we worry far too much about the nutritional value of our meals? The result is that our dishes are bland and our students go ‘Oh, not that again’. And what is our response? ‘But it’s good for you’.

In this short article, I would like to argue that if we have a sound knowledge of spices (psychological principles) we can select activities which are both nutritious and tasty – by which I mean useful and fun.

Activity 1: ‘Colour in the Passage’ Look at this activity. What could be wrong with it? The teacher has been teaching her class about adjectives (see the first paragraph) and now she has given them a consolidation activity where they have to fill in the gaps (see the second one).

‘One sunny day, my little puppy jumped onto our red couch and played with his fun new toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so lively and excited, so full of life. Soon, my playful puppy yawned. He was an exhausted puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his soft, round bed. Soon my sleepy puppy was snoring away’.

‘One ……… day, my ……… puppy jumped onto our ……… couch and played with his ……… new toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so ……… and ………, so full of life. Soon, my ……… puppy yawned. He was an ……… puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his ………, ……… bed. Soon my ……… puppy was snoring away’.

[ playful / sleepy / sunny / excited / round / fun / little / soft / exhausted / lively / red ]

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the activity is bad, but it’s just not interesting enough. You get all your vitamins, but you can just picture the expression on the students’ faces.

Now, what if we were to tweak it a little? What if we were to give students the paragraph without the adjectives OR the gaps and we asked them to add some colour to it (‘What is the puppy like?’ / ‘What is the bed like?’ / ‘How was the puppy feeling?’).

‘One day, my puppy jumped onto our couch and played with his toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so full of life. Soon, my puppy yawned. He was a puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his bed. Soon my puppy was snoring away’.

Students might then come up with something like this:

‘One day, my lovely puppy jumped onto our long, comfortable couch and played with his new, stuffed toy. I liked to watch him play – he looked so excited and care-free, so happy and full of life. Soon, my cute puppy yawned. He was a young puppy – he tired easily. I picked him up and laid him on his cosy, warm bed. Soon my adorable little puppy was snoring away’.

Principle 1: The IKEA Effect. Why is the latter activity better than the previous one? The answer is that students are free to imagine the scene for themselves and to add something of themselves to the task. They are free to invest. Psychologists have discovered that when we work on something ourselves we endow it with special value; that’s why we so often think the salad we make is so much better than the fancy risotto someone else has prepared (though of course others may well disagree). Activities where students can contribute something or better still, make something themselves are likely to be better than ones where they simply manipulate language. The moral: get students to create things.

Activity 2 – ‘AQBL’:  Let us say that (for some reason best known to yourself) you have been teaching your students vocabulary related to cars, car engines, and car characteristics in general. To practice the vocabulary, you do a drill where students in pairs practice asking each other questions. You give them the second table, so they have to come up with the vocabulary themselves when constructing the questions.

Top Speed 230 km/h
Acceleration 7 sec (0-100)
Fuel Capacity 68 litres
Consumption 9 litres/100 km
Engine Output 180 HP
Boot Capacity 640 litres
Reliability Rating 7 / 10
Performance Rating 9 / 10
  …… km/h
   …… sec (0-100)
  …… litres
  …… litres/100 km
  …… HP
  …… litres
  ……  / 10
  ……  / 10

So the interaction might go like this (S1: Prospective Buyer / S2: Car Salesman):

S1: What is this car’s top speed?

S2: It’s 230 km/h.

S1: And what about its acceleration?

S2: It goes from 0 to 100 km/h in 7 seconds.

S1: I see. How much petrol does the tank hold?

S2: Its fuel capacity is 68 litres.

S1: Does it have a powerful engine? ….etc.

By now you know what my objection is going to be… But what if we were to tweak the activity a little? The new activity is called ‘Answer the Question Before Last [AQBL]’. When S1 asks a question, S2 says nothing; when S1 asks the second question, S2 answers the first one (!) etc. etc. For example:

S1: What is this car’s top speed?

S2: (…says nothing)

S1: And what about its acceleration?

S2: It’s 230 km/h.

S1: I see. How much petrol does the tank hold?

S2: It goes from 0 to 100 km/h in 7 seconds.

S1: Does it have a powerful engine?

S2: Its fuel capacity is 68 litres…. etc.

Principle 2: Incongruity. I am prepared to bet money that students are going to like the second activity far more than the first one. The principle behind it is that of ‘Incongruity’. Psychologists have discovered that when things unfold the way we expect them to, our brain switches to autopilot; we almost fall asleep, a bit like that puppy in the previous activity, and consequently, we learn very little. However, if something unexpected happens, then our brain goes ‘Ooops! What was this?’ and then we are wide awake, we pay attention and we remember things (no wonder advertisers love this idea!). To get your students to pay attention, break the script – get them to do something unexpected!

Five New Recipes for your Vocabulary Cookbook: So this is the idea behind my upcoming webinar. I hope to demonstrate five activities which both help our students learn vocabulary better and which stand out in some way. Each task will help illustrate a principle of Psychology which I believe is worth bearing in mind when cooking our Lesson Plans.

Here is an extra insight: How can you tell if your idea has worked? Well, how do you know if your dishes taste great? If the diners are licking their fingers, you know your food is good. Similarly, you know an activity is good if, when it is over, the students want to keep going.


Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has travelled and given seminars and workshops in many countries all over the world.

He has written extensively on Methodology, though he is better known for his ‘Psychology and ELT’ articles in which he draws on insights from such disciplines as Marketing, Management and Social Psychology and which have appeared in numerous newsletters and magazines.

His areas of interest include Student Motivation, Learner Independence, Teaching one-to-one, and Humour.


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World Oceans Day | Teaching Resources

World Oceans Day teaching resources

World Oceans Day, June 8th, is a time when people all around the world do something to show their appreciation for the world’s oceans.

We are all connected to the oceans in some way.

Did you know:

  • Oceans cover over 70% of the earth’s surface
  • Ocean plants and organisms create most of the oxygen we breathe
  • Oceans absorb carbon dioxide, helping to regulate our climate
  • Many of our medicines come from the oceans

Our oceans bring countless benefits to our lives, and now you can bring those benefits to your classroom!

Our freely available lesson plans give you the tools to celebrate World Oceans Day with your students. These lesson activities encourage students to develop their vocabulary, to collaborate, and to speak about current issues.  

Adult learner button
Teenage learner button
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These resources are available via the Oxford Teacher’s Club.

Not a member? Registering is quick and easy to do, and it gives you access to a wealth of teaching resources.


Found these resources useful? How did they work for you? Share your experiences with our teaching community by leaving a comment below, or by tweeting us using the handle @oupeltglobal!


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What does Assessment for Learning look like in the classroom?

What does Assessment for Learning look like in the classroom?

Assessment for learning (AfL) is a catchphrase with which many teachers may be familiar and yet may not feel confident that they know what it means in terms of classroom practice. Here I outline the basic ideas behind it and the kinds of classroom practices AfL may involve.

At heart, it’s what good teachers do every day:

  • they gather information about where learners are in their learning, what they know and don’t know;
  • they help their students understand what, and why, they are learning and what successful performance will look like;
  • they give feedback which helps learners ‘close the gap’ between where they are in their learning and where they need to get to;
  • they encourage learners to become more self-regulating and reflective.

The evidence is that, done well, these practices are among the most effective ways of improving learning and outcomes.

Assessment in this process is essentially informal, the information teachers gather comes in many forms, for example, through classroom dialogue, following up on unexpected answers, or recognising from puzzled looks that the students have not understood. Tests play a part, but only if they are used to feed directly into the teaching and learning process.

What would we expect to see in an AfL classroom?

Diagnostics. There would beevidence of teaching and learning that is active, with students involved in dialogue with their teachers and classmates. This goes beyond simple recall questions and will include seeking out students’ views (‘what do you think….) and giving them time to think about their answers – often with a classmate (‘pair and share’).

Clarity about learning intentions. This requires teachers to be clear about what is to be learned, how the lesson activities will encourage it, and where it fits in the learning progression. They then seek to make this clear to their students by linking it to what they have learned already and showing why it’s important. Expert teachers will use imaginative ways of introducing the learning intentions (‘why do you think we’re doing this?’) rather than routinely writing out the learning objectives.

Teachers will also clarify what a successful performance will look like, so that the learners can see the standard they need to achieve. Teachers may do this by negotiating with the class about what the learners think a good performance might involve (for example: ‘what would you look for in a good oral presentation?’). Another approach may be to exemplify the standard by using examples of work (best as anonymous work from other students). A teacher may give the class two pieces of work, she may then give the class the criteria for assessing the work (no more than two or three key criteria) and ask them, in groups, to make a judgement about their relative quality. This also provides a vital step in being able to evaluate the quality of their own work and become more self-regulated learners.

Giving effective feedback. Providing feedback that moves learning forward is a key, and complex, teaching skill. We know from research that feedback is hard to get right. Good feedback ‘closes the gap’ between a learner’s current performance and the standard that is to be achieved. Some of the key features in quality feedback are:

  1. It recognises what has been done well and then gives specific advice on what step the learner can take next. General comments such as ‘try harder’, ‘improve your handwriting’, or 7/10, do not provide the detail needed.
  2. It is clear and well-timed. The teacher gives feedback in language the learner understands and it is given when it is most useful.
  3. It relates to the success criteria and focuses on the key next steps. We may sometimes give too much feedback if we start to comment on presentational features (e.g. spelling) when these were not part of the learning intention.
  4. It involves action and is achievable.

In all this, the aim of assessment for learning is to encourage our students to increasingly think for themselves, and have the ability and desire to regulate their own learning.

Gordon Stobart is an assessment expert that has contributed to the latest Position Paper for Oxford University Press, ‘Assessment for Learning’. Download the paper today to learn about effective feedback, close the gap between where your learners are and where they need to be, and get access to exclusive professional development events!

Button to download the Assessment for Learning Position Paper.

Gordon Stobart is Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University College London, and an honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford. Having worked as a secondary school teacher and an educational psychologist, he spent twenty years as a senior policy researcher. He was a founder member of the Assessment Reform Group, which has promoted assessment for learning internationally. Gordon is the lead author of our Assessment for Learning Position Paper.


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Strategies for EMI/CLIL Success for Primary Learners | Q&A

Thank you to everyone who attended the webinar ‘Strategies for EMI/CLIL Success for Primary Learners’! During the webinar I had defined EMI and CLIL while addressing a few strategies applying the CLIL approach focusing on primary learners.

EMI – English as a Medium of Instruction

Information communicated to the learner (English being their non-native language) in the classroom is in English. This includes subject content, student materials and resources (textbooks and or coursebooks), and lecture instructions.

CLIL – Content and Language Integrated Learning

CLIL refers to, situations where subjects, or parts of subjects, are taught through a foreign language with dual-focused aims, namely the learning of content and the simultaneous learning of a foreign language.
[D. Marsh, 1994]

Strategy Focus for Primary Learners with CLIL – Use of Visuals and its Benefits

Visual aids are tools and instruments teachers will use to encourage student learning by making the process easier, simpler, and more interesting for the learner. Visual aids usage supports information acquisition by allowing learners to digest and comprehend knowledge more easily.

  • Examples of visual aids, but not limited to, are: Pictures, models, charts, maps, videos, slides, diagrams, flashcards, and classroom props.

Thank you all for your interesting questions! Here I will do my best to respond to a couple of those I could not answer during the webinar.

What challenges do students in EMI [classes] face?

A student’s stage in education, (i.e. Primary, secondary, etc.) would result in different challenges. Overall, there are usually two main factors to consider in an EMI learning environment; first the student’s native tongue is not English, and second, the acquisition of the subject content being taught. Since the learner is dealing with new and fresh information in a relative new subject, those challenges being difficult on their own, a strong command of English would be a prerequisite.

That being understood, without the language ability, challenges could include difficulties comprehending subject concepts or themes, struggles communicating with the teacher or classroom peers, even troubles using materials such as their textbooks, workbooks, or class resources.

I am not stating that a student must be 100% fluent in English for EMI to be successful, but since EMI classrooms do not focus solely on English language learning, an appropriate level of English is needed to help learners reach their goals.

Does CLIL overlap with the PPP approach?

I believe that CLIL and the PPP method can overlap. Just to clarify the PPP methodology, this style of English teaching follows the 3Ps – presentation, practice, production. This method deals with a set process of how to deliver content to a L2 student, then provides support for language usage and application. Though CLIL does not encompass or represent all learning styles, it does provide a more flexible set of principles and guidelines. To paraphrase our previous definition, CLIL is established as a learning environment that satisfies the two goals of learning content and learning a foreign language equally. I like to think of the PPP method as a language delivery system. If an English teacher is teaching her L2 students science and writing skills, the PPP method can be used just as effectively as with a teacher teaching L1 grammar to an L1 classroom.

Many of the questions that were included were in regards to characteristics of a CLIL classroom/lesson. For that, I would like to recommend a short article for additional information.

The British Council has an article by Steve Darn that addresses CLIL’s framework and expectation in the classroom with supplemental resources: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/clil-a-lesson-framework. I also would like to recommend some other resources that I have found very helpful as well for CLIL and EMI in the classroom:

  • Ball, P., Kelly, K., Clegg, J. (2015). Putting CLIL into Practice. Great Clarendon Street, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Deller, S., Price, C. (2007). Teaching Other Subjects Through English. Great Clarendon Street, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Missed my webinar? click the link below to watch the recording!

Watch the recording

Interested in EMI and CLIL? Get practical recommendations from our experts with our position paper. Click here to download.


Joon Lee has been involved in the EFL and ESL educational community at the positions of Academic Director, Content and Curriculum Developer, and Academic Advisor. He has been fortunate to pursue his interests in developmental learning from both in and out of the classroom. At OUP he is part of the Asia Educational Services team and shares his experiences providing teacher training and professional development workshops. He holds great respect for educators and administrators who show passion towards nurturing a learner’s path to success.


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Learn English with Virtual Environments | Hidekazu Shoto

Students playing computer games to learn english

Communication with native English language speakers is one of the most effective ways to learn English, and using technology makes this possible. I teach English based on my “collaborative-communication model”, one that’s very effective for motivating my students. I use a wealth of technologies with my class such as Skype, Minecraft, and AI robots. I find them useful for not only teaching English, but for teaching 21st century skills as well!

Virtual environments

From my experience, virtual environments can be very effective language learning tools for students of English; they allow students young and old to experience new worlds, communicate, make friends, and build relationships. There are a wealth of tools out there that you can use, but I’m happy to say that I’ve had real success with my students using a combination of Skype and Minecraft (a game many students may already be familiar with). These digital environments offer students engaging opportunities to use English with native speakers and to use the language to achieve a common goal, such as constructing a digital building. Through these activities, students also develop their 21st Century Skills of communication, collaboration, imagination, and logical thinking. These four skills are necessary assets for learners that will help them to succeed in the modern world.

A typical lesson

Typically, students grouped together to make a team of four people, and they are given a task. I might ask the groups to construct a building, like the Kyoto World Heritage Site in Minecraft, before asking them to introduce it to students from overseas. To build something in Minecraft, students need to exercise their imagination, and think logically about the build and their resources. Each student is then given a role; Minecraft Leader, Programming Leader, English Leader, and Building Designer. Finally, they are given a deadline.

Most groups start off by discussing a plan, each student offering an opinion. These discussions continue throughout the duration of the build. Once completed, the group welcome overseas visitors to their digital environment, giving them a tour of their build and gathering their opinions on their work, all in English!

The simplicity and global appeal of Minecraft make it extraordinarily easy to introduce to the class. As a tool, it allowed me to break down subject barriers, combining English, 21st Century Skills, and programming. This is something I’m especially proud of achieving as from 2020 in Japan, the Ministry of Education plans to make ‘English’ and ‘Programming’ compulsory across all Primary schools. The techniques I’ve described combine these two educational programmes, which is great for teachers! And through the “collaborative-communication model”, students can improve their English proficiency in an engaging and motivating way. 


Hidekazu Shoto was born in Osaka, Japan, and is an English Teacher and Head of ICT at Ritsumeikan Primary School. After graduate school, he joined Ritsumeikan Academy as an English teacher, introducing ICT and technology into his English classes.

Hidekazu Shoto was a top 10 Finalist for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2019. Here’s why!