Waiting at the Airport and Brainstorming on Lesson Planning

A lot of my time is spent at airports as I travel Colombia giving training sessions at schools, universities, and institutes. I truly love my job, yes, even the traveling part. I get some of my best ideas while traveling (and waiting).
So, here I am just leaving Armenia, Colombia and once again faced with waiting at an airport and psyched because it allows me time to create new ideas of my own. After each session I walk away with so many creative and innovative teaching ideas and strategies from the amazing teachers I meet that I usually end up in a brainstorming airport session. This time my thoughts take me to lesson planning.
I am big on doodling and use this technique all the time to prepare presentations, and even classes. Albeit I am a huge tech geek, I still find that paper is the best way to map out my ideas and make sense of all the crazy ideas that pop into my head.

What is doodling?
Well, doodling is one way to say it, but you could think of it like mind mapping or sktechnoting as well. All of these are great ways to put on paper your thoughts in a way that allows you to associate freely, create links, and visualize your thoughts in an easy way. Now, I want to focus specifically on sktechnoting because I think it could be a great way to plan your lessons, especially for those of us that don’t think linearly and can’t fit all of our ideas in a rigid lesson plan design.

Ok, quick pause, just had to share the view from my window on my way back to Medellin before I kept going.


What do you need to doodle?
First things first, you have to be prepared to sketchnote anywhere you go, so if you’re going to get on board with this technique then you should start carrying around a notebook and a pen or pencil. Now, what you use will depend on what your intention is.

What to write on?
Loose paper> if you’re just taking a quick note to get your ideas straight and organize them, well this is the way to go. Any loose paper, napkin or recycled paper will do.
Notepad> a small notepad will do if you have quick, random thoughts you want to keep track of.
Notebook> if you are invested in keeping a log of your sketchnotes and want to revisit them whenever you want and maybe even add or modify them, then you’ll definitely need a notebook. I definitely recommend this if you are going to be lesson planning.

What to sketchnote with?
You can sketch with anything you like but you should consider how permanent you want your ideas to be. With pencil you can be less restrictive and easily erase mistakes, although you will have to additionally carry around a sharpener or leads. With pens or markers, on the other hand, it can be a bit more challenging because you really need to commit to each stroke.

How to sketchnote?
There really are no set rules to sketchnoting. It’s all about unleashing your creativity, adding “picto-notes” (this is a made up word I saw which means making a drawing of something you can’t quite explain in words), fun lettering, colors, frames, arrows and anything else that will let you visualize your ideas.
Finally, remember you don’t need to be an artist to doodle or sketchnote. Anyone can do it, it’s not about drawing a masterpiece, it’s about putting your ideas on paper.

Why sketchnoting can be useful for lesson planning?
When I plan, I usually begin from the end and work my way back. I know what I want my student to be able to do at the end of the session, and then I start working my way back slowly. I make sure that every single activity in the session has a clear purpose and helps me to reach my target. By sketchnoting, I can easily go back and forth and make sure there is a linguistic, lexical and communicative connection to everything I’m including in the lesson. I usually add colors for the different skills, grammar or vocabulary I’m including so I can visually make sure I’m recycling it enough for students to get it. I usually try to work my way through at least 3 of the 4 skills to teach one grammar topic and a group of vocabulary words.
By keeping a notebook, you can focus on long-term planning as well, because it’s not only important to make sure that there’s a thread connecting all of the activities in one class. It’s just as important to plan your course goals and plan backwards to help you map out when and where you should include each topic, how long you have to focus on each one and what you should recycle throughout the course because students didn’t quite get it in a previous class. So, sketchnoting not only lets you plan the class but also write feedback or extra notes on how it went and what to remember for the next session.

If you need help to get started you can try this kind of format which gives you framework to start off with, or you can simply get a blank piece of paper and get started. Either way, you should definitely give it a try.

More ideas for planning with sketchnoting from an interesting blog I found.

Well, guys I’ve reached my final destination so hope you enjoyed this traveling post and tune in next time where I’m going to explore what makes a good target or goal for your class.

Here are some of my examples:



Find the perfect balance of high-tech and low-tech in ELT

Technology is becoming an integral part of education represents something that seems to be inevitable. Our everyday lives are affected in almost every aspect by technology, be it home appliances or medical equipment, and not to mention all of the alternatives in personal communication devices. Technology has engrained itself in our society and because of this it is no surprise education is also part of it. I, for one, believe that technology brings an element of interactivity into the classroom that no other tool had done so far, so I love using it. I consider myself a tech geek and love finding new ways to include apps, interactive activities, BYOD lesson plans into my teaching, but at the same time, I am not blind to the difficulties, disadvantages and maybe even misadventures it could bring to my classroom. So, to be honest, I don’t think technology on its own is the only answer to changing education and engaging students. There must be a balance between high-tech tools (or notions) while not leaving behind the low-tech materials and props that can make your class unforgettable.


Advantages to using high-tech

There are many advantages that jump out at you when you consider high-tech in an ELT classroom. Some of the obvious ones are having access to immediate almost unlimited resources, which is a huge time-saving tool for us, teachers. But let’s look at some other advantages that high-tech aids could represent for us.

  • Faster and mobile: Any activity, in theory, will be faster and mobile allowing students to interact, participate and move around while they do so. The fact of having technology on small devices like tablets and phones opens the door to the types of activities that we can plan.
  • Collaborative: Of course, being connected allows our students, ourselves and even fellow teachers to interconnect and collaborate in a way that they’ve never been able to before.
  • More engagement and motivation: Especially for younger learners who have been brought up around technology, learning through these devices seems to be more engaging, entertaining and motivational. Students will usually get excited about doing an activity in front of a screen rather than on paper.
  • Transferable technological skills: Today’s world needs more professionals that are tech savvy and feel comfortable innovating and finding new ways to change the status quo. With an increasing number of nomad workers and professionals, technological tools will come in even handier. Who knows, maybe that tool they used with you in class will come in handy down the line.
  • Learner independence: Once they learn how to use the tools, where to find the information and how to find what they need and want, they are free to do it on their own, as independent learners.
  • Integrate CLIL, project-based and content-based learning: In the case of any of the new emerging methods, you can easily integrate them into your curriculums with access to technology and devices in the class. It will make finding the content, sharing it and keeping track of student’s work relatively seamless.


Advantages to using low-tech

When analyzing how low-tech activities can help in an ELT classroom, some teachers may feel it’s just easier to use tech, while others still prefer to make those flashcards themselves. I think low-tech tools for the classroom are just as beneficial to students and can bring their own advantages.

  • Hands-on activities: Our students are so used to doing everything on a device that some have even lost practice writing by hand, drawing or doing anything manual for that matter. This gives our students of all ages the opportunity to do hands-on activities that allow them to show and explore their creative side.
  • Promote face-to-face communication: Our society is becoming more and more isolated as our communication is reducing itself to social networks, even with family and close friends who live in the same city. Promoting activities that allow our students to interact in ways that don’t involve a screen will help their interpersonal skills.
  • Creative and critical thinking: Facing students with situations where they have to interact, discuss, debate and create with classmates will not only help them become engaged but will help them discover new skills that they will need later on in real life.
  • No budget, doesn’t matter: In many schools around the world, there is simply no budget to have a device for every child, or even one for the classroom, which leads to teachers wondering how they will ever engage and teach students. The fact of the matter is that with low-tech ideas teachers won’t have to depend so heavily on budget and lack of technological resources at schools.
  • Promotes resourcefulness: The fact of having to go “old-school” for a lesson plan may seem like something quite difficult, for those of us accustomed to using tech in our classrooms. In reality, not using it promotes resourcefulness not only for students but for teachers. We as teachers can also find benefits in figuring out ways to get our students to be engaged without using a device.
  • Transferable skills: By prompting students into an environment that promotes creative and critical thinking, hands-on activities and interpersonal skills, they will begin to see useful applications for them in real life. In fact, some of these skills are the ones that are lacking in many of our youth today, and in part this is because of their inability to develop skills in a context other than their devices.


Finding the balance

In cases where teachers do have access to technological devices for their students, it’s all about finding a balance. Blowing off low-tech activities all together can also be problematic for a number of reasons like not allowing students to develop their other real-life skills. On the other hand, for those who don’t have technology available to you and your students, don’t worry. At the end of the day, we are trying to get our students to acquire knowledge of the language through content and a series of skills, and this can be done just as well through low-tech or high-tech activities. Don’t underestimate the power of a paper and pen, the best ideas have come from notes that were written on a napkin. Let’s focus more on the content, rather than the mean used to deliver it. I have seen inspirational teachers get their message across to completely engaged students with little or no resources. Let’s dream big and find ways to make our students fall in love with English and want to become autonomous learners, independent if we use high-tech or low-tech resources.


Week #3: Are you using 21st century skills in the classroom?

In last week’s survey, which explored how you felt about  pair or group work, almost everyone agreed that they would organize groups or pairs depending on the activity or that they love when students work in groups and always let them choose who to be with. I think we can all agree that collaborative work will usually come with an enriched learning process, but at the same time, there are ways of working in pairs and groups that we can explore as teachers. By finding alternative ways of grouping students we can also bring to the classroom other elements that will allow students to truly be 21st-century students.

This week’s question

Continuing with understanding 21st-century skills in the ELT classroom, here’s the next question:

Week #2: Are you using 21st century skills in the classroom?

Last week’s results!

As part of this series of exploring 21st century skills, last week I asked:

What’s your take on using technology in the classroom?

So, most people voted for “I love using tech in and out of the classroom and include it in everything” and “I love using tech, but I try to keep a balance between lo-tech and hi-tech activities in the classroom”. Now, I wasn’t very surprised by the results, because I figured most teachers out there that are not very tech savvy would not be exploring my blog and answering polls, but at the same time, I saw something quite interesting. I think we all realize the importance of using tech in the today’s classroom, but most of us may struggle with which tech to use, how and when to use it and how much of it we should be using? My task this week will be to investigate these questions in depth during to see what other teachers are saying and what research is out there, so stay tuned for my next post to discover  what I found out.

This week’s question

Continuing with understanding 21st century skills in the ELT classroom, here’s the next question:

Every week I’ll ask a new question to get a feel for where we stand in terms of using 21st century skills in the ELT classroom. Based on the responses I’ll write a post with different strategies to implement innovative and creative ways to apply these skills. The more responses the better because I’ll be able to make the post as specific to your questions and doubts about using 21st century skills in the classroom as possible.


Week #1: Are you using 21st century skills in the classroom?

Answer this question and later find out if you’ve already started or are in the process of starting to use 21st century skills in the ELT classroom.

Every week I’ll ask a new question to get a feel for where we stand in terms of using 21st century skills in the ELT classroom. Based on the responses I’ll write a post with different strategies to implement innovative and creative ways to make the transition as smooth as possible. The more responses the better because I’ll be able to make the post as specific to your questions and doubts about using 21st century skills in the classroom as possible.

Setting straight what Communicative Language Teaching is all about

Where to start?

The transition to Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) or the Communicative Approach has been sneaking into all the classroom around the world for the past few years now. I know some of us may think it is a quite recent concept, but in fact it has been around since the 1970s. Yes, that’s right. In the 1970s the concept was introduced as what we now know as Classic Communicative Language Teaching, which revolutionized teaching at the time. So how come we’re only hearing about it since the late 90s, well that’s when some ideas behind the notion were revamped and the current CLT approach came about. When giving teacher training sessions I have explored this topic quite a few times, and there are still misconceptions from two main aspects, so I wanted to take advantage and see what your thoughts are on this topic. The two main misconceptions lie in:

What it means (and what it doesn’t mean)

Everyone uses the term Communicative Approach as a “sales pitch” nowadays. But how many people that use it can actually define it. And I don’t mean a longwinded explanation that leads nowhere, but just a simple phrase or sentence to really define it. Give it a try, before reading on try to give your definition of it.

Go on, give it a try.

Got it?

picOk, so before I give you the definition, let’s explore a little bit what it’s not. CLT is not strictly focused on speaking, which in the same way does not mean that grammar is no longer important. In previous teaching approaches and methods teachers were expected to correct every single mistake a student made, in an effort to avoid fossilizing mistakes, that’s not what CLT is about either. The teacher is no longer a monitor, but this doesn’t mean that they are off the hook and it’s all in the student’s hands.

Ok so, what does it mean.

Communicative language teaching (CLT), or the communicative approach, is an approach to language teaching that emphasizes interaction as both the means and the ultimate goal of study.”


Jack C. Richards, in his book Communicative Language Teaching Today, summarizes it quite well stating what CLT actually includes. CLT is all about knowing how:

  • To use language for a range of different purposes and functions.
  • To vary our use of language according to the settings and participants.
  • To produce and understand different types of texts
  • To maintain communication despite having limitations in language knowledge.

How to actually apply it class

When teachers are faced with planning classes every single day, they may say they are applying CLT, but the fact is we sometimes fall into some old habits in an attempt to make planning easier. So how can we assure that we applied CLT? Next time you plan a class or even after you give it try going over if you applied these concepts.

Swap target language for communicative task

CLT suggests that instead of choosing a grammar topic and planning a two hour session with fill in the blank exercises and a few activities from the book, we should identify the communicative task (which most books clearly identify in their “Scope and Sequence” or Contents page) and then inherently include activities to target through communication the necessary grammar, vocabulary, and language skills that must be used and/or learned to accomplish the given task.

Assuring our speech supports the learning process

Our speech must be clear and precise so as to be coherent to our communicative task. We can serve as models and purposely use the target language in our speech, so students can begin to mirror it. So make sure you take a second glance at how you word your instructions, or what vocabulary words you are using in your examples.

Giving balance to the language

CLT is not all about speaking, so find a balance between the four skills (speaking, reading, writing, and listening) . At the end of the day, these are just a means to an end. They are ways to put in practice, model, or mimic the communicative task we want our students o hopefully do on their own at the end of the session.

Making content useful and meaningful

In an effort to engage our students, we have to always try to make the content of our classes as useful or meaningful as possible. This will allow our students to focus more on the topic than the language, while adapting to the tasks at hand.

The main idea behind CLT is teaching in a way that our students can become proficient in a variety of scenarios. Can you guys give me some examples how you apply CLT in your classes, or maybe some challenges you’ve faced when trying to apply it.



Richards, J. C. (2006) Communicative Language Teaching Today. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press


Bringing RPG to the classroom


We may not always know exactly how to keep our younger students engaged in our classes and may even face discipline and classroom management issues. I’ve found this interesting proposal that some students and teachers may find can be the solution to their issues. It turns your classroom into a role-playing game, where your students can create a player, earn points or lose them, gain new powers, work in teams and be able to transfer all of this into real life results.

I’m still just exploring everything you could do with this, but applying it to English Language Teaching, it may even help us to get our students to participate actively in an all-English platform that will actually help their language learning process along as well.

Their objective is not to change what you’re teaching. The content and lesson planning can remain the same, it’s how you teach that will get a boost. They state that it won’t affect or disrupt your class because it runs int he background, while you dedicate at most 5 minutes of your lesson to the game management. What I found especially interesting was that they gain real rewards as well, such as being able to eat in class or have more time on a task, or being able to ask a question during a test. At the end of the day, students to stay alive in the game have to participate actively, which means that in theory this will translate into engaged students.

Classcraft is worth taking a look at!


Using corpora in the ELT classroom

Ever get stuck in trying to find example sentences for a word? Ever want to create your own worksheet, but ran out of examples? Ever want to see how a word is used in context (spoken or written)? Ever try using a Corpus for your class planning or language acquisition?

If you have and have any ideas share them here! If you haven’t and want ideas as to how to use a corpus, stay tuned for my next article coming up next weekend.

What is a Corpus?
A corpus is a collection of written texts, especially the entire works of a particular author or a body of writing on a particular subject. And as ELT professional we should start using it more often for class preparation, research and content creation!

“The freely searchable 450-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) is the largest corpus of American English currently available, and the only publicly available corpus of American English to contain a wide array of texts from a number of genres.” – Wikipedia

Give it a test drive and let us know your ideas! 

How to grade board games and other “fun” activities?

RES00001645-LWhen giving fun classes and being creative in assessing students’ progress throughout a course, it sometimes seems impossible to give an official grade to those “fun” activities. Now, these activities usually don’t show up in the final grades that the student (and their parents, bosses or institutes) sees. Doesn’t this seem a bit unfair? During these games is where they are usually put in a situation where they can interact freely in a stress-free environment using the target language or grammar, which will later be evaluated in a test. So why don’t these activities weigh in just as much in their final grade? Well, the first reason is that it’s quite difficult to quantify. How do you get a percentage from the times a person spoke during class, or his /her performance during their turn in a board game activity? I’ve learned many strategies that allow you to grade student’s performance, but in this post I will focus on the one I have found to be the most effective.

Creating a marking criteria for gamesRubric

Every activity we, as teachers, do in class should have an expected outcome. The secret is sharing these outcomes with students in a way they easily comprehend what’s expected from their performance, be it in language skills, target language or grammar. When faced with this situation the best solution for me has always been to create a marking criteria that has the basic skills I expect from the given activity (2 to 3, keep it simple) and then give each one a mark (0-5, 0-100, whatever works for you). By grading them in each criteria and then obtaining a final average, you can show students which areas they have to work on the most, and which ones are their strengths. This way you can grade any activity, as long as you’re doing it with a clear objective in mind.

Extra tip:

Adding a self-assessment component to a course is a great way to compliment any grading system. Almost all text books come with the “I can” statements at the end of each unit, so why don’t we take more advantage of them? When planning games and activities make sure that the end result are these “I can” statements, which are usually communicative, allowing them to clearly demonstrate if they know the grammar rules, but more importantly if they know how to communicate using the grammar and target language. So, when doing the activity place these “I can” statements on the board, letting students know what they are expected to do during the activity. At the end have them evaluate their own performance, assuring in this way their active participation in their individual learning process.

At the end of the day evaluation and assessment are necessary in any learning process. In today’s ESL/EFL classrooms where we are expected to take activities and make them fun, engaging and creative; we also need to find strategies to not forget the student’s need to recognize their individual learning goals and take part actively in their process.