Tag Archives: writing

Getting to know you – a business English warmer or filler

Guess who!

This is a time of year when we find ourselves doing a lot of first lessons, either the first lesson ever with a new group or the first lesson after a long summer break. Facing this situation myself led me to come up with an activity which can take anywhere between 10 minutes and a hour and which is a great way of helping learners to get to know each other better, even if they´ve been together in the same English course for some time. It´s a very simple activity and it´s not a completely original idea of mine, but all the learners I´ve done this with have responded really well to it and it´s got them activating a lot of worthwhile language.

Learning aims:

  • Get learners talking
  • Get learners writing
  • Help learners get to know each other or get to know each other better
  • Enable you to do some correction and needs analysis work with learners based on their use of vocabulary and grammar
  • Stimulate discussion around the topics learners have written their sentences about

Ask the learners to take a piece of paper and write a short sentence about themselves on it. Tell them that after they´ve done this their pieces of paper will be mixed up together and the group will guess who wrote what. For this reason, it´s important that they don´t write something which could be true for all or several people in the group, e.g. I work at Company X, if they all work at Company X. They also shouldn´t write something about themselves which is already visible to everyone, e.g. I wear glasses or I have blue eyes.   It´s probably a good idea to give them some examples of what would be suitable things to write at this stage too. Here are some examples from one of my groups, reproduced with their permission:

Last week I went to the cinema and watched the film “Wer´s glaubt, wird selig” (a German film popular at the moment)

This sentence got the learners speculating about which one of them goes to the cinema on a regular basis and then led to the learner who wrote it explaining the plot of the film and talking about her reaction to it. We then moved on to discuss film preferences more generally.

I have never been in New York

This sentence led us into a discussion of who had travelled where and when the person who wrote it was revealed, he told us that he was, in fact, going to New York in December to do some Christmas shopping, which led to a discussion about whether you could actually save money by doing that and what sights the learner also wanted to see in New York. A point for discussion and correction here was: been in New York or been to New York?

My car has to be investigated at the end of October

This sentence got us into a discussion about cars, what type of car everyone had and what condition they are in. We also discussed whether investigated was the most appropriate word to use here and decided that it would be better to say: my car has to be serviced, instead.

When I was younger, I was a scout!

Some members of the group didn´t know the English word scout, so first of all we discussed what that meant and what being a scout involves. The learners then had a very animated discussion about how teenagers nowadays spend so much time online or playing video games and have forgotten how to have good honest fun and work in a team. Here we also discussed the punctuation the learner had used and talked about how this would be correct punctuation in German (the learner´s first language), not not in English.

Once the learners have each written their sentences, collect the papers in, mix them up and then read them aloud or let one of the group members read them aloud if you´re sure that they won´t be able to recognise each other´s handwriting, i.e. because they´ve just met for the first time in this lesson. The aim is then to guess who wrote what. Encourage the learners to ask each other questions to try to uncover who wrote what, without asking: did you write that? Once the person who wrote the sentence has been identified engage the learners in a discussion on the topic the sentence deals with, if they don´t automatically start having one anyway. If you feel comfortable, you could also write a short sentence about yourself and add it to those the learners have written, so they can also get to know you a little more. This can be a nice way to show your willingness to share information about yourself as you ask them to share information about themselves and, it seems, most learners are curious to know a little bit more about their teachers.



Filed under From the training room

They want to do emails: what do you do?

Like any Business English teacher worth their salt, I ask my learners at the start of the course what they would like to be able to do by the end of the course or by a certain point in the future, say 6 months from now. I also ask them again during the course in case anything has changed and to check that they´re happy with the programme we´re following. The topic that I think I receive the most requests for, whenever I ask my learners what they want,  is emails. Let´s do emails, sure…but how do we “do” emails is often the question that I´m left asking myself.

I´m a fan of the approach to teaching writing which says: let the learners actually write emails and reply to them in “real-time”, as they would in the real world. You can do this either on computers and have learners actually send emails to each other ( I would put them in pairs for this so that the two learners can support each other) or use pieces of paper that are exchanged back and forth if you don´t have access to two devices that you can use to send emails (don´t forget many learners have web-enabled smartphones which they could use if there´s internet access where you are). Learners enjoy the fact that such email exchanges simulate authentic written communication in English. While I was testing out this approach, I asked the learners to suggest topics for the exchange and nominated one person or pair to produce the initial mail. The learners liked the autonomy this gave them, but the topics they suggested were not the ones they most needed to be able to write emails about: the most frequently suggested was writing an email to the teacher to ask if they could change the time and day of the English lesson, for example. I realised that I was going to have to step in and give them some work-focused stimulus for their emails which would also get them to work on their weak points in English.


Last week, I created a series of five short emails for a course with five learners who work in different departments of a tobacco company in Germany. The course is mixed-level, but we are working at roughly an A2 level. I wrote five short emails and with each email I had a different participant in mind. I wrote emails on topics which I knew they actually received emails on at work. Each email, however, was laden with errors— the ones which they most often make. I threw some German false friends in there  too and some closes which were inappropriate to the context (we had been looking at appropriate salutations and closes in a previous lesson). Here is the method:

1. The learners read through all the emails and identify which email has been written for them.

2. Together the learners correct all of the emails, but the person who it was written for leads the error-correction and supports the group if they are unsure about any job-specific vocabulary used.

3. The learners each write a reply to “their” email. They exchange their emails with a partner, who proofreads it and gives their partner some feedback.

4. Finally, the learners can type up— with some modifications, if they wish — the email they have written and email it to the teacher to look at. The teacher then also provides the learner with some feedback. Any errors that persist could be used as inspiration for future “error emails”.

This activity was a big success with the group and the emails they wrote in the final stage were a lot better than those they had been writing before.

Here are the emails I wrote for my learners to reply to


Filed under Skills

WordPress as a resource for learning English

Here´s an idea for a filler or a warmer prior to a reading-based activity: it makes use of the popular blogging site WordPress that you already seem to have found your way to!

If you go to the homepage at http://www.wordpress.com, you will find previews of  selected WordPress blogs which consist of an image, a title and sometimes a sub-title.  The blogs featured encompass a wide range of subject matter from travel to the media, fashion, social issues and commentary on current affairs, so there is certain to be at least one or two posts that would be of interest to your participants. You can also find links to other posts on the same subject as that previewed.

I find that these previews provide an easily accessible entry point to the world of blogging in English. The learners aren´t immediately  confronted with long texts usually written for a native-speaker audience, but rather with compact, manageable “soundbites” of written English, which usually contain between two and fifteen words. Of course, reading one of these previews may pique a learner´s interest in the blog post and make them want to read it in full, which is great. Learners at a higher level, by which I mean B2 plus, will, naturally be better-equipped to deal with this material than those at lower levels. I would ask the learners to note down words, phrases or chunks of language which they find “interesting” (leaving them to decide for themselves what their definition of that word is) while they´re reading the blog posts and then share them with the rest of the group.

Returning to the previews themselves, how can we use them as a stimulus and aid to learning?

1. Prediction activities

– Guess the contents of the blog post based on the image, title and sub-title.

– Slowly reveal the three components to the learners: for example, first they see the image, then the title, then the sub-title and see if and how their predictions change. Alternatively, they have to predict what the next component will be, e.g. predict the title based on the image, predict the sub-title based on the title.

2. Matching activity

– Separate the images and text from the previews and then ask the learners to match images with texts. You could show the learners the original complete version first and then see how much they can remember or you can make the activity freer by asking them to match the images to the titles without having seen them beforehand. If you do it the second way ask them to justify their combinations by explaining the link(s) they see between them: it doesn´t really matter if their combinations aren´t not the same as the actual text/image combinations, but you could definitely show them the original afterwards.

3. Production activity

– The learners write a sentence which they think could be a possible first line of the blog post based on the preview. This gets the learners producing some language in response to the stimulus provided by the preview. Afterwards, they could compare their sentences with the real first lines of the blog posts.

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The missing link: Linking words

I have often found myself being asked by participants in upper-intermediate or advanced groups if we could cover how to use words like: however, although and nevertheless in future lessons. They had heard about these mysterious words, or maybe they had even read them in a text, but they didn´t know what to do with them and felt that they should. I´m not sure if learning something because you feel that you should is always a worthwhile thing to do, yet learning something new which will increase your range of expression can definitely make for a positive learning experience.

A member of one of my groups, who has been taking an English course in his company for over ten years- no one is exactly sure how long he´s been in training anymore- remarked with great surprise while completing this activity on linking words, that he had actually learnt something new. He hadn´t known that the word since could also be used to give a reason/ as a substitute for because and not only to link a point in the past to the present.

Challenging learners to see the English language in a new light or teaching them something they didn´t know when they thought they already knew it all, can feel like a breath of fresh air to them.

In terms of “usefulness”, linking words are more useful for learners who have frequent contact with native rather than non-native speakers of English. More specifically, they can help people who have to write reports, evaluations and other similar, extended texts in English or have to make presentations. In these situations, the use of linking words can increase the clarity of what they want to say and enable them to appear more sophisticated in their use of the English language, thus leaving a positive impression on their readership or audience.

For learners preparing for an exam, such as the Certificate in Advanced English (CAE), linking words are also a must and cannot be ignored.

I would suggest starting with a linking words quiz to establish what the participants know or don´t already know and then move on to a text-based activity where they can practise using the linking words themselves.

Click here to download the lesson plan.


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How to teach present simple v. present continuous without tears

Getting to grips with when to use the present simple and when to use the present continuous can be difficult for English learners- even for factory managers and marketing executives. Using the two tenses correctly can, moreover, prove particularly challenging  for speakers of languages where no differentiation between these forms exists, as is the case for the German-speaking participants I teach.

Over time, I´ve developed a strategy for teaching the two tenses and the differences between them which always seem to work. Here I´d like to share it with you. All you need is something to write on and some pens.

One of the keys to the success of this input and practice session is avoiding the use of the words present simplepresent continuous and any other “grammatical” language for as long as possible. Our participants are not CELTA trainees, they need to know how to use the language to talk about their work and their lives.

How to teach present simple versus present continuous without tears


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