Use Project Management Tools to Set Up Your Exam Preparation Course

I have been pretty busy in the last couple of weeks, starting out with new projects and starting up with some old ones. In the years I have been a teacher (still can’t believe it’s been almost 15 years now) the more I teach, the more I feel like I want to keep teaching. I think part of what makes me passionate about teaching is that it keeps me on my toes. For me, part of being an amazing teacher is being a lifelong learner and aficionado to my craft. So, that’s why I love staying up-to-date with how we can improve teaching and continue finding new tools that will make any learning experience more engaging for your students.

I was kind of stumped on what to write about this week until I ran across Anthony Ash’s post on Using Trello for Language Learning. After I quit my day job, I decided to turn into a full-time ELT consultant and since then I tend to end up working on various projects at a time, so I’ve had to find tools to help me keep everything in order. I usually use Asana, but I’ve heard of Trello and I know that it’s just as handy. So, once I finished reading Anthony’s blog, my brain got super creative and tons of ideas started flowing. (Thanks, Anthony!). So, this got me thinking about how I could apply this to what I do today. Nowadays, I’ve been focusing more and more on training teachers and teaching exam preparation courses for different international English exams, specifically IELTS and TOEFL. So, a thought came to mind, why not use a Project Management web app like Trello or Asana to set up my exam preparation course. It could be so effective, and you’d only have to set it up once, because from there on out you would simply update and rev it up every once in a while. After playing around a little with the features on Trello here are some ideas on how you can use Trello to organize your next exam preparation course (or any course for that matter). 

Get familiar with Trello features

On Trello, you can visually organize your information, the same as you would on a board. On each board, you can create columns which are called lists, to which you can also add cards. The cards can contain all types of information from links to images, or you can even attach files from your computer or from other online apps like Dropbox, Google Drive or One Drive. When you open your account you can always check out the welcome board which will walk you through the different features you have available.

How to use to design course?

After playing around a little with Trello, there are really many different ways you can set up a course on this app. Here are just a few ideas:

  • Skills: Each list can be focused on a skill (reading, writing, speaking and listening). By having each List represent a skill you can segment activities, exercises, homework, and links.
  • Subskills: When preparing students for exams, understanding the subskills is just as important as knowing the skills. Here you can set up activities and exercises to help them hone in on these subskills like scanning and skimming, as they improve their overall communication skills.
  • Vocabulary lists: If you’re interested in making sure your students improve their vocabulary, which is essential for  your students if they want to get a better score on an international exam, then try Trello and make a list for each of the different categories like phrasal verbs, collocations, idioms, or word groups by topics. Here you can include word lists or links to practice the new vocabulary, or simply homework so students can put them in use.
  • Grammar review: Make a list of the grammar topics that most people get wrong during tests and strategies with how to improve them with links where they can find grammar explanations, exercises, and examples.
  • Exercises: You can also add exercises, practice tests, links to shared folders on sites like Google Drive or Dropbox.
  • Resources: You can also simply use it to have a bank of files, links, and images that will help your students on their path to preparing for the exam.

How to get students to use it?

During your courses, independent if it is an exam preparation course or if it’s a general English course, you can get your students to keep track of all of the resources that they find the most useful during their learning process. You can motivate students to make lists such as vocabulary, grammar, games, news, references, among others to keep track and revisit all of the resources given to them in class. By keeping it all in one place, it will be more likely that they’ll use it again at some point.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 6.31.26 PM

Check out my sample

Here is a quick and simple example I made just for you guys so you can see how you could potentially set up your IELTS Exam Preparation Course on Trello.




Using GIFs and memes in the ELT classroom

I was exploring different tools that we could use in today’s classroom and that would capture our students’ attention. The reality is that most students will automatically be reeled in by anything that is similar to what they are used to seeing on their social networks. This means tons of video content, animated GIFs and memes. I think as teachers, even with just YouTube, we have tons of options and ways of using video in the classroom, not to mention TED, English Central and But, what about memes and animated GIFs? Here’s a quick run through of how these two fun tools could become educational.


You can either create them yourself or simply find one that’s already made. All the same, you can spark conversations in your classroom and get students interested in what you have to say. A meme is a combination of an image and words, so you can use this to explore language, expressions, idioms, vocabulary or context. They can be funny, or serious and will still work to get the topic going. Here are some ideas of how you can use it:

  • Get students to share: Have students use a meme to either share what they did over vacation, or to introduce themselves to the class. Choosing just the right image and the right words to place on it can be a more challenging task than you think. Now, of course, despite all of the misspellings and poor grammar usually seen on memes, my students are expecting to demonstrate their good use of the language.
  • Report or summarize a book or project: While doing a summarizing activity or even during a debate you could have students make their own meme to express their ideas and ensure they give only the most relevant ideas. Post these memes around the room, and you’ll get a sort of visual summary, where you can then get students to group them into categories and explain the relationship.


  • You can also create your own, or bring them in: As teachers you can also play around with making your own memes. Be it to show the rules of your classroom or as a warm up to a book or project you are going to do in  class. One idea is to make an inference game with memes, where students have to infer the meaning based on the image and phrase that is given, you could give them options to make it easier at first. Another idea is to have a meme corner, where you place one image weekly and all of your students have to assign a phrase to the same image. You’ll get tons of different versions and it’ll make for great discussion in the class.

Here are some sites where you can get good memes to teach English, or where you can make them:



Meme Generator

GIF Lingua

Animated GIFs

Animated GIFs are short looping videos and they have become very popular on social networks. We can also use them in the classroom in many different ways.

  • Vocabulary: By presenting a short animated GIF you can solicit vocabulary words and brainstorming from students. By using an animated GIF you can give a full context of difficult-to-explain phrasal verbs, idioms, and collocations that an image just might not get across.
  • Short story and prompts: Use animated GIFs as a prompt to get students to continue a story, be it in writing or as a speaking exercise. You can find tons of creative and fun prompt animated GIFs here.
  • Get students involved: Give students a topic and have them bring in animated GIFs that are related to the topic. If you have access to collaborative tools like Google Drive, have students share them. You can even get students to vote on their favorite and find the favorite one from each topic. This can be a great warm up when starting a new unit.


  • Reaction animated GIFs: Find three to five animated GIFs that express a reaction your students could have to something. These animated GIFs would represent if they agree strongly or don’t agree at all with a particular topic. Use these in class when having student weigh in, by having them vote. Or to make it even more fun, have students find a animated GIF that shows how they feel about a topic and then have them explain why they chose this animated GIF.

Here are some sites where you can make your own animated GIFs:

Images to GIF

Make a GIF

GIF maker

Giphy (My fav)

GIF Creator


If you are ready to start using animated GIFs and memes, consider opening a closed Facebook group with your students. This will make it very easy to get students to share and vote on the animated GIFs and memes that you will be using for your activities. You can even make an album for each lesson or topic and that way easily revisit ones that you can reuse with other groups.


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.


What are quiet ESL students not telling you?


I think we have all struggled with students that give us the look or often get distracted in class. Now, we as teachers know the real reason behind it. They are simply not understanding. There are many explanations behind WHY they are not understanding. Sometimes it’s their own fear of the language, of not understanding fast enough or failing. But on the other hand, there are also times it’s us. We’re speaking too fast, or not explaining clearly, or giving the class at the pace of those who participate the most and moving forward, not noticing the quiet ones in the back. I think as teachers we should constantly look for ways of finding out these reasons and doing something about it.

Here are some things I do when I start noticing quiet ones in my group:

  • I have one-on-one feedback sessions. This way they are not being compared to the rest and feel more at ease to tell me how they feel their process is going. I know sometimes we have very large groups, but if you do the one-on-one sessions with 5 students every class until you finish the whole group, even if it takes you a month, you will see the reward in your student’s confidence-boost.
  • I always try to have some kind of prepped feedback process. Some teachers like keeping a progress journal, others have worksheets. Depending on the age and learning purpose of your students the HOW can vary, but at the end of the day the important thing is to have a structure. Those quiet students will most likely stare back at you, even in this circumstance, if only asked “How are things going?”.
  • Once I identify the WHY, I start to prepare my classes with this in mind. I know if you have 30 students and each one has a different “why” this can be overwhelming, or even impossible. But, it’s actually not. What I do is that I organize my students by needs (once I’ve done the individual feedback); I will usually get about 3, tops 5 groups. So, now those 30 individual “whys” have turned into 3 or 4 manageable groups that I can prepare my weekly classes for. Once they are in groups I can:
    • Make mixed-needs groups to assure they all have a role that can help them learn in their own way.
    • Recycle certain language or activities in a way I know each group of students is able to really understand and engage.
    • Give projects or role-based assignments, where I can use each student’s strengths to help their peers and raise confidence.

As I said, we are all aware that many students struggle in our classes and depending on the reason they are learning English, it can be quite stressful for them not to see immediate progress. Learning English, and any other language, does have a lot to do with confidence and self-esteem. There are many signs that can help us identify just what’s going on. If you want to know more take a look at this great article I found on

7 Things Your Quiet ESL Students Are Not Telling You.

Until next time.

Some extra links for additional research on giving feedback and keep track of your student’s progress:

Portfolio assessment 

Teaching English Through Daily Journal Writing

Providing Meaningful Feedback

Monitoring and Guiding Student Process

Helping students become independent learners in today’s English mania world

tedMovieLearning English has become the world’s new mania with about 2 billion people around the world trying to learn this universal language, says Jay Walker in this TED talk. There are many manias, and this one in particular cannot necessarily be categorized as something good or bad. The reasons for learning English are so many nowadays that it ultimately becomes a necessity that people and governments try to find a “solution” for. Some governments do standardized testing, others like in Colombia, demonstrate the use of English either through courses or tests which are requisites for graduating from higher education programs. The standards will continuously increase to the point countries can assure that their citizens are competitive in today’s world. This does not mean that the other languages are being lost, simply that we have a lingua franca that allows us to “solve problems”, as Walker puts it. It is truly a universal language that lets us communicate and that indeed is what we as teachers should be focused on in our classes.

The world has other universal languages. Mathematics is the language of science. Music is the language of emotions. And now English is becoming the language of problem-solving.” – Jay Walker 

As teachers there are many strategies that we can apply to facilitate learning a second or foreign language, but from my experience turning your students into independent learners is the best tool and strategy you can give them. This will make learning the language their responsibility, not ours; we are meant to be facilitators and the more we let our students take an active role in their learning process, the more they will go on to learn the language independent if we are or aren’t there as their teachers to guide them.

How to make our students independent learners?

These are some strategies that have worked for me in the classroom to make my students take responsibility for their learning process. I hope they work for you.

1. Students should always use a dictionary.  They should have an English-English dictionary ( or Thesaurus ( be it physical or as an app (it makes things so much easier). In class when vocabulary is requested have them refer to their dictionary. If they have a lower level and you find definitions are not for them, I’ve found that Google Images makes a great dictionary!

“Teacher, what is peacock?” Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 10.18.11 AM

2. Have students read out loud. When you do a writing exercise have students read their exercised out loud, so they can identify some mistakes on their own. Once they are done, whatever wasn’t identified by them is most likely an error not a mistake. (What’s the difference between an error and a mistake?). Have them keep a record of their errors so they can gradually become aware of them and correct them on their own.

3. Know when to correct. Correcting at precisely the right moment can make a difference. When is the right moment?

4. Make reflective questions. When teaching a specific goal, make sure that the linguistic and communicative objective is clear and that at the end of the lesson you question your students; this will let your students self-evaluate their learning process. Always give feedback that will reinforce or guide their self-assessment, but make it specific!

5. Create meaningful assessment instead of continuous testing. Keep track of your student’s progress and long term development through a variety of tasks that allow the use of the language. “Place as much value on process and progress as in the final product”- Edna Sackson

6. Make connections. Always make a rational connection with the knowledge they already have, their experience in the outside world and the language you’re teaching them.

7. Everyday English homework. Try to get your students in contact with real English as much as possible and to fulfill tasks that are everyday activities for them and will be meaningful to them.

There are many other strategies, but these are the ones I use the most. You can take a look at the following articles so you can find out more strategies to help you make your students independent learners. Trust me they’ll thank you later!

Some interesting articles 

10 ways to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning

Independent Learning in the Classroom

Helping Learning Become Independent Learners

Tips to Help Students Become Independent Learners

Jay Walker Jay Walker: The world’s English mania #TED :