Lesson plan: “You are a refugee”

Wherever you happen to teach there’s a chance that your class includes refugees and/or racists. The point of this lesson is to increase the level of understanding of the plight of the former and encourage the latter to be less so. Linguistically the lesson lends itself to concentrated practice of various conditional forms. In terms of vocabulary, the ‘text’ is quite lexically dense so I wouldn’t attempt it with anything lower than B2. As you will see, discovery and development of relevant vocabulary is written into the task as it will be repeated various times.

To set it up you will need access to a pc, ideally with an IWB/projector; it also requires that students make use of their own phones.


1. As students to write down the name of anyone they know who had to leave their home for a prolonged period, maybe because of war, political instability or a climate catastrophe. If they don’t know anyone personally ask them to think of any famous people who fall into that category, or even any films they’ve seen which depict such a situation. Ss discuss in small groups.

2. Share ideas, obviously sensitively if anyone in the class has had such an experience. In the process elicit, board and clarify key vocabulary: refugee, seek refuge, protection, asylum; escape, flee, run away.

3. Tell ss they’re going to imagine that they’re refugees. Ask them to guess which country they might be escaping from. Tell them they’re going to face a series of dilemmas and see if they’re successful at reaching safety. Point out that the scenario is based on the real experiences of millions of people.

4. Show them this page from  the BBC website and recapitulate the scenario. Point out the vocabulary that has already come up and highlight the words ‘traffickers’ and ‘deportation’. Clarify any misunderstandings.

5. Tell then you’re first going to do the task all together. Decide on the balance of the class if ‘you’ are male or female.

6. Show them the first dilemma: Egypt or Turkey. In pairs, students discuss for about two minutes, then vote as a whole class.

7. Take them through the dilemmas, clarifying vocabulary as you go. If you like, you could highlight the 1st/2nd conditional forms on the board.

8. See how ‘you’ end up. Gather reflections on the success/failure of their route.

9. In the same pairs, ss repeat the task on their phones. Monitor in case they need help with language.

10. After a couple of attempts, gather reflections on their experiences.

Homework: Students repeat their task at home and write the story of what happened in the past simple, first person, adding details as they go to make it more real.

Extension task: in a following lesson you could the videos on the same page to practise talking about unreal scenarios using 3rd and mixed conditionals, eg. ‘If they had paid the smuggler…’, ‘If he hadn’t decided to go to Libya’, etc.

هذا هو!

Business English lesson plan: Emmanuel Macron’s Neoliberal BINGO!!!


I kinda like Emmanuel Macron. He soundly defeated one of the world’s most unpleasant creatures in the debat last week and in Sunday’s election, and he’s also said some very laudable things about France’s shameful colonial past and its need to hold onto its liberal traditions. At the same time, he is, as many have pointed out (some of them dickheads, but what the hey) a bit of a (quelle horreur!!!) Neoliberal. Watching an interview with him this week (he is an excellent role model for non-‘native’ English speakers), I was struck by just how many neoliberal buzzwords he managed to fit in to a short interview: competition, compete, competitiveness, competitively, markets, markets, markets… it was a bit like watching a windup neoliberal doll. On that basis I’ve devised this game for use in ‘Business English classes’ (after all it’s basically just neoliberal ideology taught more slowly, your students coming up with wacky product ideas and reading articles on how smartphones will enable a new generation of innovative entrepreneurs to market their innovative innovations competitively and provide innovative global leadership blah blah innovative blah…). The interview in question is here and the BINGO! cards here (don’t worry – that link genuinely has nothing to do with Wikileaks/the Kremlin). If you don’t know how to play Bingo, er…jfgi.

P.s. You could complement the lesson (and counter the pro-neoliberal stance of Macron) by showing your students this.)

Et voilà!!!

Anti-fascist lesson plan

This is an anti-fascist lesson for the week leading up to the potential election of a fascist leader of a major European country. Although in some teaching contexts political content is discouraged, engaging with questions of power and society is one way of allowing your students to develop their rhetorical skills, and also a means of encouraging a sense of group unity and shared purpose at a time of increasing division and social atomization.

It’s possible that you have a fascist or two in your class. Let’s hope not. This lesson isn’t designed for them, but who cares. Maybe they can leave the classroom and go and troll Twitter instead. It aims to enable your normal students to engage politically on an international level through the medium of English. If you don’t feel comfortable with that, don’t do the lesson, but it’s worth bearing in mind that a) English is not just a language for conducting trade, presenting innovative product ideas, etc and also b) if fascists such as Le Pen triumph your livelihood as teacher of a globalising language will be under threat and a lot of your students (and your friends, your family and you) will end up exiled, in jail, dead, or guarding concentration camps for a living.

The lesson as designed is 75 minutes long and should work well for high Upper Int/B2.2 upwards. I did it on Tuesday with a B2-ish class of Political Science students and it worked wonderfully.

Lesson procedure

1. Write on the board ‘fascism’. Ask what it is. Elicit names of famous fascists but also ideas about how to define it. Offer no definitions of your own. (5 mins)

2. In pairs students write their own definition of fascism. (5 mins)

3. Now look at the one on Wikipedia. Do your students agree? How would they change it? (5 mins)

4. On their phones or together as a class, edit the definition on Wikipedia (NB. your/their definition(s) will be rejected almost immediately, but you don’t need to tell them that.) (10 mins)

5. In small groups students address the following

Questions for discussion:

Do you know any fascists personally?

What would you do if a friend of yours started talking about:

  • Voting for a fascist candidate?
  • Joining a fascist organisation?

Have friends on or off social media been talking about the French election?

What would you say to a French friend who was talking about voting Le Pen?

(10 mins including brief report back from each brief pair on what was briefly said – don’t let this bit drag on. Make it brief.)

6. Half the students read Article A, half Article B. They take notes on the MAIN points (stress this and jog them along if they get stuck on details – with less strong groups tell them to just read the first seven or eight paragraphs), check difficult vocab and compare with a partner who’s read the same article. (15 mins)

7. Students swap partners and share what they learnt, taking notes on other person’s article. (10 mins)

8. Share and clarify the meaning of vocab they learnt on the board. (5 mins)

9. Students imagine they have a French friend who has been posting pro-Le Pen stuff online. They write an email to their friend telling them what they think. Depending on their level you could instruct them to use a certain number of conditional sentences (‘if Le Pen wins’, etc). Be on hand to offer vocab and grammar suggestions, etc. They then share what they wrote with a partner, asking for constructive suggestions, etc (20 mins)

10. For homework students write a second draft and then email it to you for corrections, etc.

C’est tout. Nique les fachos!

Listening worksheet: David Foster Wallace’s commencement address (B2+)

Students can often surprise you with what they’ve read in English. I once taught a 14-year-old FCE candidate who’d enjoyed ‘Trainspotting’ by Irvine Welsh in the original ‘Embra’ dialect, and over the years I’ve met several dedicated fans of Nicholas Sparks and Paulo Coelho, one Margaret Atwood reader (yay!) and a particularly sulky and precocious Russian student who on the first day of the course simultaneously impressed and horrified me by proudly claiming to have read everything by Ayn ‘Medicare’ Rand. Choosing a particular long-form author to be your language teacher is, as Steven Krashen points out in this excellent essay (one which is also very good to use in class), a tremendous way to take your command of a language way beyond anything a coursebook can teach you.

David Foster Wallace is more of a challenge. Although I wouldn’t suggest ‘Infinite Jest’ to anyone with a CEF level of less than C9.9, his essays and short stories are so entertaining that the inherent language difficulties shouldn’t be insurmountable. If you happen to be teaching students with a very strong interest in issues of language usage his long essays ‘Tense Present: Democracy, English and the Wars Over Usage‘ and ‘Authority and American Usage‘ are worth pointing out to them.

But even for students who would never tackle his writing, this speech (audio here, full transcript here) is typically inspiring and engaging, particularly if you’re teaching university-age students. The format is one they should be familiar with – I start by showing them a google image search for ‘commencement address’, which brings up photos of Oprah Winfry, Barack Obama and Steve Jobs. His speech, which has been very widely shared and published and is known as ‘This is Water’, lasts 25 minutes, so it’s a very good idea to break it down into four sections – stop the recording after each four answers, allow the students to consult a partner and then share ideas. To extend the exercise/for homework you can get them to write, rehearse and perform their own five-minute commencement speeches, passing on the multifarious lessons that life has taught them, or, in the case of any Ayn Rand fans, telling the audience they’re all worthless subhuman filth :-P.

Listening worksheet

1. What is the point of the fish story?

2. What is the point of a Liberal Arts education supposed to be?

3. What, for DFW, is a more important thing to learn?

4. What does the eskimo story have to say about belief, according to DFW?

5. What do we need to bear in mind about a lot of the stuff we believe?

6. What is our ‘default setting’?

7. What is the most dangerous thing about a university education?

8. What does ‘learning how to think’ mean?

9. What is the point that DFW makes about suicides?

10. What is it that no one talks about in commencement speeches?

11. What is ‘the absolute voice of death’?

12. What is the point of the supermarket anecdote?

13. What is ‘the only thing that’s capital-T true’?

14. What is a great reason for choosing some sort of spiritual higher power to believe in?

15. Why will the world not discourage you from operating on your default settings?

16. What is ‘the really important kind of freedom’? 

Some thoughts on language, education and class


I spend my working life around people (students of English for Academic Purposes) who are insecure about their language use. That means I get to think and pontificate about issues of status, ownership and standard versus non-standard forms.

I can identify with the anxieties of my students, and not just as someone who has (in the past) enjoyed learning other languages. I’ve also long been self-conscious about my command over/of English. Like some of my students(,) I’m very sensitive about being corrected, tending to take corrections as a bit of a put-down rather than a chance to learn. The ego-insecurities I experience when expressing myself in other languages are clear manifestations of anxiety about my own status as an English-speaker.

Some of that anxiety is related to having a parent for whom English is a second language, and part is related to class. My background is not exactly humble but I was the first person in my family to go to university. Working in higher education feels like an achievement, but I’m vulnerable to a certain feeling of being out-of-place. Someone who came from a similar background was the critical theorist, academic and blogger Mark Fisher (aka k-punk), who wrote this in 2013 about the response of the ‘left’ to the comedian and actor Russell Brand’s famous interview with Jeremy Paxman about the need for revolution:

I’ve long been an admirer of Brand – one of the few big-name comedians on the current scene to come from a working class background…(His) forensic take-down of Paxman was intensely moving, miraculous; I couldn’t remember the last time a person from a working class background had been given the space to so consummately destroy a class ‘superior’ using intelligence and reason. (However) Brand was quickly judged and-or questioned by at least three ex-private school people on the left…It’s alarming how many ‘leftists’ seemed to fundamentally agree with the drift behind Paxman’s question: ‘What gives this working class person the authority to speak?’ It’s also alarming, actually distressing, that they seem to think that working class people should remain in poverty, obscurity and impotence lest they lose their ‘authenticity’. Someone passed me a post written about Brand on Facebook. The whole tone was horrifyingly high-handed, as if they were a schoolteacher marking a child’s work, or a psychiatrist assessing a patient. There’s also a shocking but revealing aside where the individual casually refers to Brand’s ‘patchy education [and] the often wince-inducing vocab slips characteristic of the auto-didact’ – which, this individual generously says, ‘I have no problem with at all’ – how very good of them! This isn’t some colonial bureaucrat writing about his attempts to teach some ‘natives’ the English language in the nineteenth century, or a Victorian schoolmaster at some private institution describing a scholarship boy, it’s a ‘leftist’ writing a few weeks ago.

Fisher himself wrote movingly about an episode when his own mother confided that she didn’t want to go into a Georgian teashop in a neighbouring town for High Tea because she was worried she would “do the wrong thing”:

We know this too, really, we felt it going on to University, feel it still, my sister and I, she with her anxiety around her middle-class friends whose parents are all teachers and doctors, me with my endless writing of novels I can’t bear to do anything with as it means engaging with them, having to make them like me, listen to their opinions of my work. But for us, half clambered out of our class as we are, we don’t find a Grange tea-room existentially threatening. She said it herself, my mum, and it immediately struck me, the disavowal, “some people get nervous in tea rooms, don’t they?

These are the wounds of class, ever-present, life-long. Knowing that you’re common, not good enough, not one of the decent people.

In the case of Russell Brand, faced with mass and social media sneers at his upstart activism and the ‘sub-undergraduate dross’ of his writings about politics, he retreated. He realised that if he wanted his right to discuss his concerns to be recognised, he would have to reeducate himself. He is now doing a three-year MA in Religion and Global Politics at SOAS, and is sharing his newly-acquired knowledge via a (frankly unmissable) podcast. In the first episode, an interview with the political philosopher Brad Evans on the theme of political violence, he gave what I think is an inspiringly honest account of how he arrived at this point and how it feels to be there:

“Being briefly in the academic world, as I have been, obviously loads of it’s really really exciting but I think a lot of what I hear feels reiterative, like someone says ‘what’s a country? It’s just an agreement in our minds, and I think, I knew that, anyway, those are things I’ve come to myself. But then there are things that are so complex I can’t begin to come to terms with them, and in this field I’m having to learn about political history, critical theory, philosophy, so I’m suddenly having to learn about Foucault, Derrida and all these other names I can’t even say confidently yet. And my original impulse for doing that course was, I got really deeply involved in the political world, and (…) I realised that this was a very complex world and I didn’t have the armoury, the artillery to engage in this battle. And I’ll like our listeners to be able to embark on this journey with me, so what do you think is a good entry point for someone like me who feels disillusioned with politics but doesn’t know quite where to begin on a journey of understanding?”

One theorist who Russell would find very useful in terms of issues of language, politics and class is Pierre Bourdieu. He relates that feeling of being out of one’s depth and beyond one’s station to what he calls ‘habitus’: the attitudes, mannerisms, tastes, moral intuitions and habits that influence our life chances. This behavioural comfort zone is a manifestation of our level of cultural capital. While Brand may have a high level of objectified cultural capital in the form of fame and wealth, his attempts to acquire institutionalised cultural capital (formal educational qualifications) are hindered by accent, which is a manifestation of embodied capital. In particular fields (for example in the academic world) it can be hard for individuals from a working-class background to obtain a “feel for the game” and to feel they should be (as it were) on the pitch.

This seems to me to be related to the experiences of people from ‘foreign’ language backgrounds in higher education. ‘Foreigners’ don’t automatically have a pre-assigned rung on the social ladder, and hence struggle to find an appropriate station even when they have a sufficient mastery of the language. I’ve been thinking about a friend of mine who has an excellent command of the spoken language and who knows things and can do things in it that I certainly couldn’t. I wonder how he views Brand, and how he relates to what Brand says about his own struggle to feel like a valid participant in the academic world. My friend recently dropped out of a university course he’d long dreamed of doing because he felt his English wasn’t up to writing long essays (I encouraged him to continue and offered to help, but to an apparent avail). In fact, I’m writing this to persuade him, others like him and also to remind myself that such feelings are very common and by no means insurmountable.

From outside, manifestations of social class are hard to perceive. English people know when to question someone’s intellectual credentials as soon as we/they hear us/them speak. To people who didn’t grow up here, vocal class markers are much harder to recognise. It may seem to my friend that all ‘English’ or British’ people are equally confident in higher educational settings, that they we all feel valid and accepted.

Perceptions of these issues inevitably differ, depending partly on one’s cultural and social background. Among my (mostly well-heeled) students, I’ve found that some people have a frustratingly monolithic understanding of the relationship between language and social status. The belief persists that the speech of some is simply inadequate. There’s also widespread misunderstanding of the relationship between spoken and written language, with some assuming that the former is a poor attempt to produce the latter. Inevitably, others have explored these issues far more articulately than I ever could.

As for myself, I always feel anxious when someone makes a jibe about someone(’s?) being ‘self-taught’. Everyone is, to some extent. Luckily (after three slightly wasted undergraduate years from which I was lucky to emerge with a 2;1), I eventually had the chance to go back to university and get a Master’s degree, an experience which greatly improved my sense of confidence in what I say and write. Having lived in other countries and struggled with other languages has also helped to bolster my self-assurance, as has teaching the spoken and written language for almost twenty years and spending several years examining others on their usage. In terms of writing, the internet has also helped enormously (what’s a good synonym for confidence? what are the three types of cultural capital again?).

Inevitably, for everything I write here, thousands of people are studying or have studied that subject in an academic context and are far better placed to provide evidence-based theories than I am. A lot of what I present here is hearsay and guesswork, but I content myself in the knowledge that this is after all just a blog. I’d like to think of myself as a polymath, but ultimately I’m more of a dilettante, and this is an appropriate format.

The wounds of class run deep, but then, as both Lynsey Hanley and Helen Mort have articulated brilliantly, the sense of discomfort at being stranded between classes, particularly at being a working class person in the more rarified echelons of higher education, can also be uncomfortable. Then there’s the opposite: chippiness and reverse snobbery, and then the reaction to chippiness and reverse snobbery. And so on.

I still lack confidence when sending people what I’ve written with a view to getting it published. To do so you have to be fairly bullish, and being rejected or ignored is always painful. Although some things I write get a very pleasing reaction, I have little way of knowing whether or not what I write is any good in terms of what matters, which is to be accepted as more-or-less an equal by those whose writing I admire. But at the same time, most of them are professional writers and/or academics, and I’m not, so it should, by rights, remain a pipe dream.

There remains one thing I want to make clear, for the sake of my own honesty and integrity. This piece may contain what some will regard as self-pity, and I wouldn’t really have much of an answer to such a charge. I had the chance to go to university, twice, without getting into debt, in my own language. My privileges in terms of education have, in comparison with most people in the world, been immense. I’m not a victim of disadvantage in any sense that means anything on a global scale. I’ve even, despite my manifold anxieties about my credibility as an English speaker and writer, and thanks largely to a mere accident of birth, managed to make a reasonable living as a teacher of my ‘native’ language. But I know that these feelings are not exclusive, and I hope a) that reading this has made clear some connections between class, status, nationality and language that may not have occurred to you before and b) that you find this sentence an appropriate way to end a piece of writing of this nature.

That time I worked for a religious sect


Of all the language schools I’ve worked for over the last 18 years, only one has gone on to help organise a military coup. The school in question (in North London) was part of a global network belonging to Fetullah Gülen, the Muslim sect leader accused of orchestrating the anti-Erdogan coup attempt in in Turkey July 2016.

I started working at the school in late 2007 and stayed for about nine months. At first I thought it was a normal school that just happened to be owned by Turks, but was intrigued when, upon learning who I was working for, several politically-minded Turkish people I met around that time reacted with outright revulsion. I also found out from a former student from Uzbekistan, who had been part of the group while studying in Ankara, that they had some connection with a group of terrorist fascists from the 1970s called the Grey Wolves. Turkish leftists told me that where Gülen’s movement had taken power in more remote areas they had imposed quite a strict version of Islam, and that then Mayor of Istanbul (A Gülen supporter) had recently banned beer-drinking in the street. Given that the job apparently involved potential for travel, I was quick to picture myself running round Chechnya with an AK47. It would make a refreshing change from teaching Korean design students and unemployed Italian graduates the language for sucking up to their bosses on their unpaid internships. In any case, I knew a little bit about the murkiness of Turkish politics (the Deep State, the Susurluk affair, the succession of military interventions to prevent a non-secular government being elected) and (especilaly since I’d never been to Turkey) I thought it would be a good way to learn more.

Nevertheless, rumours aside, the people I worked for all seemed very nice. They were good-natured and courteous and they plied me between classes with strong tea, sujuk, olives and overflowing fruits platters. The students (mostly men in their 40s) were also polite, attentive and motivated. They were also respectful of my role as a teacher, almost excessively so. They taught me a slightly mad Turkish proverb: ‘if you a teach me one thing, I will be your slave forever’.

As for politics, although I was on the lookout for any furtive radical inclinations, I didn’t detect any secret jihadi fervour. Their views seemed occasionally naive but certainly well-meaning. They were very excited about a conference which had just taken place in UCL on their work of their founder, with several leading academics and a number of UK parliamentarians. They talked a great deal about education, quoting Gülen himself on the need to open the minds of the young and to educate women. My boss told me that their organisation had recently been kicked out of Uzbekistan, with all the school closed down at a whim of the regime. We talked about the prospects for meaningful democracy in Central Asia (he had spent several years in Tashkent and I’d recently read Craig Murray’s book), and he said things would change once ‘our people’ were in charge. This set off a muted alarm bell, but he said it in an almost reassuring way, or at least as if he was a loyal employee of a corporation looking to expand its commercial domain.

My students (mostly from the organisation or there under its auspices) taught me a huge amount about 20th Century Turkish history. When it came to the Kurdish question they were sentimental and a little patronising, saying that the Kurds didn’t seem to understand what the Turkish State was trying to achieve, but they never seemed aggressive in their attitudes. At the same time, all of them were very enthusiastic about a  TV crime series called ‘Tek Türkiye’, which seemed to promote a quite brutal model of policing. I did recognise a strain of nationalism but it didn’t strike me as untypical or remotely fanatical.  

Where differences in our worldviews emerged, they were always conciliatory. They were sympathetic to the new Government (Erdogan’s party was then called the APK) and their apparent progressivism seemed to reflect what I was reading in the press about his more enlightened form of Sunni Islam. An article appeared in the Guardian which reported on Erdogan’s relationship with the then Spanish Prime Minister Jos’e Luis Zapatero and the Turkish PM’s mission to create “a 21st century form of Islam, fusing Muslim beliefs and tradition with European and western philosophical methods and principles”.

When it came to the classes, there was a slight clash between my expectations and those of my Academic Director, as his formal approach conflicted with my then teaching ‘style’. This involved my being attentive to whatever came up and exploiting learning affordances, or, if I was hungover, then same thing in far less high-falutin words. He asked me more than once for a complete booklet of the week’s activities in advance, which at that time was a bit like asking me to conduct the course in 13th Century Japanese. Luckily he didn’t insist.

I also taught a group of teachers from Turkey, who were among the smartest and wittiest students I’ve yet had the pleasure to teach. Another memorable student was a 14-year-old from Rotterdam. He had clearly grown up deep within a conservative Turkish immigrant milieu and, horrified at my suggestion that Turkey, like anywhere else,  had a fair share of gay people, argued back that not only did Turkey have no gay people, his adopted homeland (The Netherlands, lest we forget) didn’t have any either.

While few of them did or said anything to shock and offend me, I can’t say I was always as well-behaved. Once, given widespread confusion over the meaning of the word ‘speech’, despite my miming and trying to get them to name any famous speeches that Atatürk had made, I decided to draw upon my, well, drawing skills (which are non-existent but come in handy sometimes for comedy purposes). I drew a picture of someone who looked a bit like Mussolini (I couldn’t remember what the Father of Modern Turkey looked like), stuck a fez on his head (er…), and gave him a speech bubble reading ‘blah, blah, blah’ with a couple of umlauts and cedillas floating around in it. I thought it was an efficient means of communicating my point, and it certainly got their attention. In the mid-morning break students from other classes crowded into the room to admire my artwork. One of them, clearly awestruck at my mastery of desin, remarked with not atypical Turkish gravity, ‘In Turkey…you die’. My elevated position of Respected Knower Of All Things seemed to have stood me in good stead and my life was spared.

The bigoted Dutch/Turkish teenager wasn’t typical of the 2nd-generation immigrants I met. I also taught a pair of 13-year-old German/Turkish brothers who I would happily place in my personal top 10 of funniest-and-most-charming-people-I’ve-ever-taught. Their mother would send me daily meals of ichli kurfter and other treats. The brothers were part of a group mostly made up of 15 or so very sweet kids from Turkmenistan. I suspect that in their three weeks in the UK me and my fellow teachers were the only locals they spoke to, such were they shepherded around. They left me with enough CDs and postcards of their country to suggest they’d brought enough to go round everyone in London.

When those groups weren’t around I was just left with the local staff of the Gülen organisation. Occasionally someone who I’d been teaching for several months would disappear, and upon probing I would learn that he had been relocated overnight to Nigeria or Russia. What they were doing in London apart from gamely fielding my inquiries about Turkish politics and struggling with the present perfect continuous was a bit of a mystery. I knew that there was some sort of fundraising which involved Turkish businesses, but I let myself believe that the invitations they were making to local kebab shops to contribute to the cause weren’t too forceful. They also had some vague relationship to the movement’s (leading national) newspaper ‘Zaman’ (Time).

As it happened, my Uzbek friend had come back into contact with members of the Movement, and, down on his luck, gone to stay in one of their houses for a few weeks. This involved getting up to pray at 5am and having very lengthy debates about which food products from Lidl could be considered Halal, but no apparent talk to the need to violently overthrow the state.

The managers of the school were ambitious. They wanted me to get them up to British Council inspection standard in a few months, but with only the occasional proper class it was a forlorn hope. By the autumn of 2008 it was clear it wasn’t going to happen, at least not for the time being. Even sending people down to Oxford Street to hand out leaflets for free classes wasn’t working. The school closed soon after and the premises were given over to a company promoting educational tourism.

I’ve vaguely followed developments since then. At some point Gülen broke away from Erdogan to the point where he and his group became public enemy number 1. The coup last summer shocked me and others I know who have had contact with them in the past, but it did put me in mind of that comment made by my boss about Uzbekistan. I don’t know if Hizmet (the more recent name for the movement, meaning ‘the Service’) shares Erdogan’s evident leanings towards Isis, or at least his willingness to use them to suit his strategic ends with regard to the Kurds. I suspect not, and the circumstances of the split suggest (without wanting to be either naive or cynical) that some principles were at stake. If those pleasant, courteous and seemingly very sweet people I taught over the course of those few months are also supporters of the most brutal forms of political violence (as the Turkish state alleges), there’s clearly something about life, people and the world which I haven’t understood.

Great activity for getting to know who you’re teaching


It’s easy to forget, but your students are never just students. They are parents, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, third cousins twice-removed, guitar players, Japanese speakers, chess players, travel bloggers and many other things besides, many of them entirely surprising*. How many times have you, towards the end of a course, found out something really interesting about one of your students and thought, I wish I’d known that sooner? I once, on the last day of an (ahem) challenging low-level ESOL course, found out that one of my students had played football for the Iraqi national team 40 years earlier and that another had eleven (count ’em) children. Silly me for not making the effort to find out such things sooner.

In order to trust you to teach them they need to know who you are and who their classmates are. This is a fun activity which helps with that process. You can do it at the start of your course or at any point afterwards and it works well with pretty much any level post-beginner.

  1. Write up on the board/screen your own version of the following (n.b. don’t just copy mine):
  2. I am a teacher, an examiner, a dad, a brother, a son, an uncle, English, half-German, a husband, an immigrant, a second-generation immigrant, a Northerner, a Sheffielder, an East Londoner, an avid reader, a music-lover, a Momus fan, a Thomas Pynchon obsessive, a blogger, a cyclist, a non-driver, an English speaker, a Philosophy graduate, a Portuguese speaker, a Spanish speaker, an Italian speaker, a language learner, a former DJ, a former part-time comedian, a former part-time actor, a former activist…
  3. Encourage your students to ask you: “so you’re a …”. Then tell them a couple of entertaining details. Do this for five minutes or so, dealing with vocabulary as it comes up.
  4. For lower levels point out the difference between where you’ve used an adjective (with no article) and where you’ve used a noun (with an article), and also the meaning of ‘former’.
  5. Get them to make their own lists. Monitor to help out if they’re stuck. Make sure they each have a decent list of things (at least eight or nine).
  6. Put them in pairs and get them to swap lists and take it in turns to ask. They don’t need to take notes. Make sure they’re asking follow-up questions (‘when?’, ‘why?’).
  7. Rotate the pairs once or twice depending on how many students you have.
  8. The third time they swap pairs, get them to film each other on their phones.
  9. At the end of the lesson, get each of them to report what the most surprising thing they found out was.
  10. Extension: If you and they like, make (or get one of them to make) a short film compiling the most interesting snippets of the interviews. This might sound challenging but there will probably be someone in the class with the technical know-how.
  11. Extra extension: You could easily incorporate a listening comprehension activity using this.


* Some of them might even be racists, but you’ll have to hope they don’t proudly announce that in the course of the activity.

Lesson plan: Getting your students to solve the world’s problems


A lot of exams (like IELTS) quite reasonably expect candidates to be able to talk about social, environmental and economic issues. I’ve noticed over the years that some lack the basic conceptual tools. This lesson is designed to classify global problems and discuss possible solutions. It works well with B2+ classes.

  1. Match the definition with the keyword


  1. Society
  2. The Environment
  3. The Economy


  1. The area in which something exists or lives
  2. The system of production and distribution and consumption
  3. An extended group of people with a specific cultural and economic organization
  1. Problems

Are the following problems social, economic or environmental? (some of them fit into more than one category). Decide for yourself and then compare with a partner.

  • Unemployment
  • Climate Change
  • Violence against women
  • Racism
  • Poverty
  • Corruption
  • Inequality
  • Poor healthcare services
  • Deforestation
  • Financial collapse
  • Underemployment
  • Obesity
  • Malnutrition
  • Homelessness
  • Alcoholism
  • Illiteracy 
  1. Solutions

What possible solutions are there to each of the above problems? Can you think of any more? Discuss in small groups. Feel free to disagree!

  • Awareness-raising
  • Regulation
  • New legislation
  • Education
  • Redistribution of wealth through taxation
  • Investment
  • Subsidies
  • Aid
  • Leave it to the market
  • Revolution

Evaluating solutions

Look at the list of words for describing solutions, and look up any you don’t know in a dictionary. 

utopian      practical/impractical      equitable      viable/unviable      sufficient/insufficient      popular/unpopular      expensive      radical

4. Writing

Plan and write a paragraph (150 words) headed ‘The world’s biggest problems and what should be done about them’.

5. Reading and Speaking

Stick your paragraph up on the wall. Walk round and read what others have written. If you disagree, find the writer and tell them!

6. Homework

Bearing in mind the conversations you’ve just had, rewrite and expand your paragraph and then email it to your teacher for feedback.

Lesson plan: Talking about experiences and abilities

Could this be one of your students?

After two months, seventy or so blog posts, 880,000 views and the arrival of one impossibly cute baby daughter, I am now back at work. This is the lesson I just did with a low B1 class. I think it’s very important in any lesson for the students to produce something they can feel proud of, so (with their consent) I have posted the recordings of their interviews at the end. You could use them as examples/models at the start of the lesson or to demonstrate the task to the students before they do their own interviews (you could also use them to highlight errors in question formation. Then do some drilling of the correct forms. I didn’t do this and it shows). The point of this lesson is to give them a chance to reflect on their English at the start of term, but you could easily use it in the middle or at the end of a course. The items in the list relate directly to what they’ll need to do in the next few months (some of them do, anyway. I’m not planning to send them to do an eye test) so obviously feel free to change them.


Your experiences and abilities in English

Look at the list below and make sentences using ‘I have (never)…(past participle)’ / ‘I could (not)…(bare infinitive)’, eg ‘I have never written a 200-word essay in English’ or ‘I could write a 200-word essay in English’.

  •         Write a 200-word essay
  •         Work in a bar
  •         Read Shakespeare in the original language
  •         Order a meal in a restaurant
  •         Work as a taxi driver
  •         Give a five-minute presentation
  •         Read a short novel without a dictionary
  •         Watch a whole TV series with no subtitles
  •         Do an eye test
  •         Teach a beginner’s class
  •         Do a Master’s degree











Now look at your sentences and decide if you want to insert any of these expressions:

if I had to         easily                 with difficulty                when I was at school                 with a bit of practice

Now look at the list of things you couldn’t do and choose two you would really like to be able to do, eg ‘I would love to be able to…’:



Now think of one more thing you would love to be able to do in English:


Now prepare to be interviewed about your English. Don’t worry about making mistakes. If you are the interviewer, ask questions beginning with ‘Have you ever…?’ and ‘Do you think you could…?’. Remember to choose the appropriate verb form and then ask follow-up questions: when, why, why not, etc.

Swap partners and take out your phones. This time you are going to record the interview! Once you’ve finished, listen to it and check that you’re happy with the result – if not, delete it and do it again.

(nb. I know this is not strictly speaking a lesson plan but the material sort of teaches itself so I don’t feel it’s necessary to specify the points at which you should monitor, look out of the window, do the TEFL crouch, etc.)

Polyglots/language freaks lesson plan


This is a lesson about learning languages quickly. The input is mostly in the form of videos, so your students get to develop their listening skills. More importantly, however, it uses five examples of savants – extraordinarily gifted/freakish language learners – in order to encourage your students to think about what they could do to improve their command of English as quickly as possible. Due to the demanding level of the input I wouldn’t attempt it with anything lower than a solid Upper Intermediate group. If you use all the material it should take between 75-90 minutes.


  • Begin by telling the students you’re going to talk about learning languages -not just English. You want to start by finding out which languages they have a command of or would like to learn.
  • Stick up a piece of A4 paper on each of the four walls of the classroom. At the top of one write ‘I’m fluent in’; another ‘I can get by in’, the third ‘I know a few words of’ and the fourth ‘I’d love to learn’. Establish that in this context ‘be fluent in’ means ‘have a full command of’. Students walk round and add their names and languages to each sheet, eg. ‘Davide – French’. Monitor to clarify what the terms mean in case of confusion.
  • Have a brief whole class discussion, drawing on what they’ve written: ‘So, Sandra, you can get by in German’, or ‘So, Yuki, you’d like to learn Chinese’, etc.
  • Elicit/introduce the word ‘polyglot’. Decide together on the basis of the discussion who in the class could be considered a polyglot. Explain you’re going to watch two short interviews with polyglots. The first one is Alex, from the UK. Their task is to write down which languages he speaks.
  • Compare lists. If there is anyone who speaks any of the languages mentioned, ask how well Alex spoke it.
  • Then ask them: if a 20-year-old can speak 11 languages, how many could a 16-year-old speak?
  • They can then repeat the previous exercise with the second video. (NB: If you prefer, there is also a listening gapfill exercise here.)
  • Ask the student how the two polyglots learned all those languages – put them in pairs to discuss.
  • Tell them you’re going to watch two more videos which present very different methods for learning languages quickly. The students’ task is to choose which method they prefer.
  • Gather ideas. This will be very subjective- some will prefer the music/radio approach, others the book-based method. That’s fine.
  • Give them 5 minutes in small groups to discuss how the videos relate to their own language-learning experiences. Get one person in each group to report back on their discussion.
  • Tell them you’re going to show them one more video. Write on the board the phrase ‘from scratch’ and ask them what it means. Once the meaning is established, ask them how fluent you could become in a week in a completely unfamiliar language if you really dedicated yourself to it.
  • Tell them to take notes on: the name of the person; the language; the challenge; how successful they think he is at it. (NB: there is also a listening comprehension exercise here.)
  • Gather responses. Give them a chance to watch some or all of the video again if they need to.
  • Put on the board the following questions, and tell the students on their own to write down their responses:

1. Which example do you find most inspiring?
2. What lessons can you learn from the five videos you’ve seen?
3. What three specific things are you going to do in the next week to improve your English as much as possible?

  • Do a 5-minute whole class stand-up mingle in relation to the third question.
  • To close, elicit some of the things they’re going to do. Make sure they’ve chosen specific things, not just ‘read a book’ or ‘listen to music’. What book? What music? Remind them that they have a week to do those things and you will dedicate time in next week’s lesson to discussing how each thing went.

Det är det!

ps. there’s an interesting dimension to this whole polyglot thing, viz. why are most of those who go online to boast about their language skills men? You could open up this question with a higher-level class, using this blog entry (and the subsequent comments) to guide you.