Teaching Thanksgiving on Thursday in January and Other Awkward Moments with My Pal Siri

I had a really creepy moment in the classroom last week that I feel compelled to share. I was reading chapter 9 of “Magic Tree House #27: Thanksgiving on Thursday” with my students here in South Korea  (not the best choice for January, but there were extenuating circumstances), when something utterly unexpected happened. It was Twilight Zone in nature, actually.

Those familiar with the book will know that in the story studious Jack and his utterly clueless sister Annie had traveled back to the time of the Pilgrims, enjoyed a feast with the locals, and were about to be tutored in the art of growing corn by the wise Squanto. Jack of course was apprehensive because in his words, “He feared that once they were alone, Squanto would figure out they’d never met before.”

It was after reading that last sentence aloud that Siri piped up and announced without warning or invitation, “I’m sorry to hear that. You can always talk to me, Mark.”

Everyone in the class were utterly bewildered by this intervention on the part of my ancient iPhone 5. I can only assume that Siri believed I was lamenting my own situation. Although of the dozens of novels I’ve read in that classroom I can’t for the life of me understand why she chose right then and there to voice her concern.

I screen captured it to save the moment for posterity.


If you teach this novel to students whose first language is either Japanese or Korean (Spanish will be available soon) please check out the links below to my novel studies at the The ESL Review Store.

Wonderopolis – The Greatest ESL/EFL Site EVER, Without Even Trying

So… just outside my bedroom window there’s this beehive that sprung up during the summer. As you can imagine, it’s a real pain in the ass since bees get into the house – and I really hate bees. I had been taking steps to get rid of the hive but my wife told me to let the poor things be (the pun was probably unintentional).

Fortunately for them I got busy with other stuff and sort of forgot about the hive for a while. But just a half hour ago my wife brought up the subject of the bees and after peering out the window, I noticed that they were gone. That shouldn’t come as a big surprise to anyone since the weather is cooling off pretty quickly here in South Korea.

But then she asked: Where do bees go in the winter?

Having never actually thought of that before I of course Googled her question verbatim and lo and behold I found the answer while at the same time striking ELT gold.

Wonderopolis is like one of those really, really good-looking people you knew from school or work who honestly didn’t realize how good looking they were and it just made you sick with jealousy. The site has more than ten thousand articles on any number of subjects perfect for class discussions including such gems as:

What’s more, the articles can easily be printed or downloaded for free as PDFs, there are audio recordings, and the highlighted vocabulary words in the texts provide definitions when you move the mouse over them.

There are sites like Breaking News English and Dreamreader that try really hard to be the essential EFL site (and do a pretty good job at it too) but Wonderopolis does it without even realizing it. The downside of course is that the site doesn’t come with the comprehension questions or vocabulary exercises that teachers would normally want, but hey, it’s still pretty cool. Check it out.

More About Comic Books in the Classroom

036610This past Christmas I tried out the short novel Nate the Great and the Crunchy Christmas with a few of my intermediate level classes. It’s a riveting tale of one detective’s efforts to save Christmas for a ferocious hound named Fang, desperate for his annual Christmas card from his mother. Between the witty banter of the characters and the beautiful illustrations, the book proved to be a hit among my students.

One of my favorite end of novel activities is to get my students to create a comic book version of the story. For most children it’s a preferable and more creative activity than the classic book report, so they generally put more effort into it. I tell them to choose their favorite section of the book and concentrate on that. 

But one of my students asked if he could do his assignment about the whole book. With my full blessing (and the exasperation of some of the other children), he took a few more sheets of paper and got to work. The following Monday he presented me his masterpiece, which, like all good adaptions, was a combination of the actual text and some creative deviations.
You can see his work below:      img_3818

Nate the Great and the Crunchy Christmas (Korean)

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Topnotch FREE Reading Comprehension Passages from Dreamreader.net

스크린샷 2015-05-06 오전 11.48.09 As someone who is always looking for alternatives to costly and sometimes cumbersome coursebooks, it was a pleasure to have discovered Dreamreader.net while reading this interview with one of its cofounders on the excellent blog ELT Rants, Reviews, and Refections. The work of Neil Millington and Brad Smith, two EFL lecturers in Japan, Dreamreader.net provides FREE reading comprehension passages and exercises for use at home or in the classroom.

There are five levels to choose from: easy English, interesting English, fun English, practical English, and academic English. Each lesson offers a reading passage on topics ranging from airplane announcements or shopping receipts to articles about the iPhone or Google Glass. Students can listen to the article being read out, as well as complete the multiple choice comprehension questions without having to do any logging in. One click and you can check your answers right away, and the site will even explain where you went wrong. There are printable versions of the lesson and quiz as well as other useful handouts. 스크린샷 2015-05-06 오전 11.51.43 스크린샷 2015-05-06 오전 11.51.57 스크린샷 2015-05-06 오전 11.52.12 스크린샷 2015-05-06 오전 11.54.02 Dreamreader stands up well against Newsmart, the WSJ reading site which I reviewed last year, and is in my opinion a more practical option for the classroom. You should check it out.

Fantastic Mini-Books for Early Readers from Super Teacher Worksheets

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Once my young learners have conquered CVC words like cat or pig, and are working on their long vowels and CCVC words like frog or shop, I generally feel it’s about time for them to start reading some “real” books. It’s not always so easy though to get just the right level and variety of book from the library, and it can be costly to have everyone reading the same books at the same time since that means resorting to purchasing from the big publishers.

Fortunately, Super Teacher Worksheets (STW) had just what I needed with their mini-books for early readers, which can easily be colored in, cut out, and stapled together with little muss or fuss. They can then be used for reading practice in class or assigned as homework. They have the advantage of costing virtually nothing to make, and they can be kept for future use (with a little laminating). And truth be told, I’m very partial to the illustrations.

스크린샷 2014-04-05 오후 10.22.20 스크린샷 2014-04-05 오후 10.22.39There is one book per consonant of the alphabet, each of which introduces a new sentence pattern, the consonant’s sound, and new vocabulary words. There are also books for the short and long vowels, several blends and digraphs, and there’s even a perfect little mini-book template for designing your own books which could have tons of uses in the EFL classroom.

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In an ideal world, it would be great if STW had audio files that could be downloaded by subscribers to the site, or a better yet, a dedicated YouTube channel, where children could tune in and listen to the books being read to them (maybe like this one). Neither would be that hard to set up. In fact, I fell for these books so hard I was actually thinking about doing the recordings myself, or at least putting it on my list of things to do during the summer break.

Even without the audio files, I’m still ecstatic at having such a wonderful resource for teaching reading to young learners.

My Review of Newsmart, the Latest and Greatest in Reading Comprehension with the WSJ

A while back I stumbled across Newsmart, a great new(s) site for students to experience reading one of the world’s top English language newspapers, The Wall Street Journal, at no charge. At first, I thought lawsuits would soon be on the way, but as it turns out Newsmart is produced with the blessing and cooperation of the WSJ. Anyway, it’s a super easy to use service and – with a few tweaks – one that has a bright future in ELT.

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Students can select from a collection of news stories gleaned from the WSJ proper. While reading they can also complete mostly multiple choice questions on vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension, crafted by professional content creators from ELT Jam. Readers are then given a score based on how many articles they’ve read and the accuracy of their answers, which then appears on the left side of the screen. Even better, like in my Boy Scout days, you get badges for your effort. The latter may seem a touch trivial, but you should never underestimate the power of small awards and just how immensely satisfying it is to have your achievements recognized (however humble they may be, as in my case).

The site itself is beautifully crafted, devoid of the advertising and other junk that clutters up competing sites. There is a large variety of articles to choose from, and thus something for everyone. A search box, though, is strangely lacking, which means having to spend several minutes scanning all the articles for the one you may have glanced at a couple of weeks ago but then forgot to click on the star-shaped ‘save for later’ button at the top of the page. And surprisingly, no app is yet available for iOS or Android, although I imagine there must be one in the works, since so many students would inevitably want to use this service while on the bus or metro.

Each article mentions how many points can be acquired in the three categories of questions, important for those trying to game the ranking system. More importantly for educators, the learning objectives are conveniently presented at the beginning of the text.

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The questions can be accessed by clicking on the color coded words spread throughout the article.

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Like this comprehension question:스크린샷 2014-03-01 오후 1.59.51

This vocabulary question:스크린샷 2014-03-01 오후 2.00.35

Or this short grammar exercise:스크린샷 2014-03-01 오후 2.01.36

Overall, not bad, eh? (…as I give away my nationality.)

The site is the creation of Dan Teran, a partner at the New York-based venture development firm Prehype, in cooperation with Nick Robinson of ELT Jam, Collins Learning, and of course The Wall Street Journal. It’s free for now, but that won’t last forever sans advertising, although in an exchange of emails Dan and Nick have reassured me that some version of the site will continue to be free going into the future.

Newsmart is already a powerful tool for individual study and it has the potential to be a great classroom tool for teachers. There’s nothing simpler than emailing links to articles you’ve assigned for homework, not to mention there is already a scoring metric in place. But going through some of the articles, I couldn’t help but think it lacked the convenience of Breaking News English, a similar site I reviewed last year.

Sure, the production values are not even close to Newsmart, but on BNE you can download the entire article, comprehension questions, and answer key as a pdf file, distribute it to students, and go over the answers in class. Now Newsmart may have a very good reason for NOT doing this, namely any method that makes it easier for students to use their material offline inevitably reduces the number of site users, but it could be a feature offered as part of a premium service. BNE also offers downloadable MP3s of their articles being read aloud in both American and British accents, which makes it easier for students to check and practice their pronunciation.

Then there are sites like The Day, whose articles come with discussion questions and can also be downloaded for classroom use. And there really should be some way for teachers to see how their students are getting on in the aggregate, much like the set up OUP has for its online homework, as I’ve written about here and here.

So as an educational tool, I still think there is some work to be done. As a business model, though, Newsmart could and should be replicated for other major newspapers like The New York TimesThe Financial Times, and The Economist, just to name a few that I’d like to see be made available. The whole thing might be free now, but I could be convinced to to pay quite a bit for it if it were more classroom friendly.

A Review of Famous People Lessons, a Site by Sean Banville

Several weeks ago I wrote about an amazing site called Breaking News English by Sean Banville,
which provides FREE downloadable teaching materials on current events. I said I would be writing more about his other useful sites, and after weeks of delay, that day has come.

Famous people 02

Just scroll down the list of famous people on the site until you find someone who might interest your students. The list includes such usual suspects as Hillary Clinton, Brad Bitt, and Aung San Suu Kyi, but there are also some more eclectic selections like Ratan Tata and King Mswati III.

Famous People Lessons features short articles on a variety of well known people from around the world. At present there are 164 pieces on singers, actors, models, authors, artists, politicians, corporate executives, royalty, athletes, fashion designers, union leaders, journalists, first ladies, centenarian twitter users, social commentators, civil rights leaders, dancers, educationalists, filmmakers, Nobel laureates, religious leaders, linguists, terrorists, former hostages…and the list goes on, making it a great resource to supplement your lessons.

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Click on the image to take a gander at the site’s piece about Albert Einstein.

Accompanying each article are a series of practice exercises, discussion questions, as well as space for writing about the subject of the article. You can download all of the articles in pdf or word format for easy printing and use in the classroom. There is also an audio file available for download which you can pass along to your students to listen to at home or on their mp3 players.

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This is just the first of a series of useful exercises all ready to use in the classroom.

There is an online component too; more or less one of those exercises where the teacher cuts up a text into its individual sentences and then asks the students to put them back in the right order. On the screen the student will see three sentence fragments from the text, one of which is the beginning of the first sentence. After choosing the correct answer, three new sentence fragments appear on the screen, from which students choose the next part of the sentence, continuing in this way until they have recreated the text in full. It’s not a bad activity, actually. (I may just try to figure how I might make one myself.)

Famous people 01Although the site is “just” a scaled down version of Breaking News English (with considerably fewer exercises) there is a lot of potential to expose your students to a wide variety of global personalities. Just remember to bring along some teaching aids from YouTube or Google Image Search to help your students put faces to the names you teach them.

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Cam Jansen Worksheets from Super Teacher Worksheets Review

Cam Jansen #1: The Mystery of the Stolen Diamonds at Amazon.comDuring the summer I taught a chapter book reading class to an energetic group of high level elementary students. We started off by reading Cam Jansen #1: The Mystery of the Stolen Diamonds from the bestselling mystery series by David Adler. It was a huge hit with my students for most of whom it was their first real mystery-detective story. For comprehension and vocabulary worksheets I naturally turned to the excellent selection offered by Super Teacher Worksheets, the essential site for teachers created by Tim Weibel.

The worksheets for this unit have been crafted to a very high quality by people who obviously know what it’s like to work in a classroom. Here is what you can get:

  • Chapter Questions: Multiple choice and full sentence comprehension questions for the first half, second half, and whole of the book. You can download the first one here for FREE. I also used it as a book quiz, with great success.

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  • Summarize the Picture: Students write a short paragraph describing a scene depicted from the novel. (Preview)
  • Question Leader: Students can practice writing discussion questions about the novel. (Download it for FREE).

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  • Summarizer: Students summarize in their own words a section of the novel assigned by the teacher. (Preview)
  • Illustrator: Students choose a scene from the story and draw a detailed image using their own imagination. Then other students can guess which part of the story the image takes place. (Preview)
  • Real Life Connector: In this innovative worksheet, students compare events in the novel with things that have happened in their real lives. (Preview)
  • Word Wizard: Students choose tricky words from the novel and write a definition in English. I also ask the students to write the meaning (but not the definition) in their L1. (Preview)

There is also a nice cover page for students, a character web worksheet, and a word search of key vocabulary from the text.

Quality is rarely free, and this site does have a USD20 annual subscription, but that is a steal for the value you can get out of the site.  If you like these worksheets you really should check out the other novel worksheets offered by the site.

Breaking News English Review: Everything You Need to Teach Reading to Adults

Some years ago I was asked to teach English to a senior business executive who told me he wanted to improve his listening ability. Although his spoken English was already excellent, he was having trouble understanding what was being said during meetings at his LA-based subsidiary. For a time I used a (not entirely useless) textbook, but after a while I switched to making my own materials. Essentially I choose a news article, created a vocabulary list and set of comprehension exercises, discussion questions, and recorded an mp3 that the exec could practice listening to in his spare time. We would read and listen to the article, discuss the topic and complete the exercises. Nothing revolutionary, and probably no different than countless classes taught by teachers around the globe.

But I’ve got to tell you… while producing those materials was a good experience overall, and the exec did seem to like the class, the whole thing was real time consuming (tens if not hundreds of hours) and I ended up never using those materials again.

Then a few weeks ago I discovered Breaking News English, a site which provides exactly what I had needed way back then, crafted to a much higher quality than I ever could, and it’s all FREE.

Break News English 01

I wanted to kick myself.

Every other day a new lesson is uploaded featuring a news article covering anything from the new Samsung watch to…well… police arresting coconuts. Teachers can then download a PDF file with the article and pages and pages of exercises, discussion questions and writing assignments. Click here to check one out. There’s everything you really need, not to mention downloadable mp3s of the text being read out in both British and American accents, as well as several online activities worth a try. 

The creator of Breaking News English is Sean Banville, a British national and permanent resident of Japan who has taught and studied in Thailand, Turkey, the UAE and Japan. Sean was kind of enough to answer many of my questions about his great site by email, many of which I have included here:

ESL Review: How do you go about choosing topics for your lessons? 

Sean Banville: I search for topics I think will interest students and that I would like to use in class. I don’t look for specific topics – one usually jumps out as the obvious topic for a lesson. I keep an eye out for more controversial news that teachers might not be able to find materials for.

ESL Review: Do you test your material with students?

Sean Banville: I’ve tested all of the activity types with my students. They have given me ideas for other activities which have been incorporated on my site.

ESL Review: How did you develop the current lesson format?

Sean Banville: It just developed over time. My first lessons in 2004 were less than ten pages long. As the years went by I simply added activities I thought might be useful, leading to my present 26-page lesson and the 40+ online activities.

ESL Review: What tips would you give to those trying to use your materials in class?

Sean Banville: To teachers – Let students pick and choose the activities they want to do.  All students are different. Some students love jumbles, others don’t. Some want to practise listening, others writing, etc. There is enough variety on the site to please most students (I think). To students – Try a variety of activities. The same vocabulary is recycled many times to give you lots of practice.

ESL Review:  Do you have any suggestions for people who would like to follow in your footsteps? 

Sean Banville: If you think you have a good idea, go for it. Be prepared for many knocks along the way. It takes a long, long time to get your site known (at least in my case).

Sean has also assured me that he is not considering a pay wall, which should come as a relief to teachers such as myself who are only now discovering his great work. For a more detailed breakdown of the worksheets, a look at the table of contents for a typical lesson will give you an idea of what exercises are available:

  • The Article
  • Warm-Ups
  • Before Reading / Listening
  • While Reading / Listening
  • Match The Sentences And Listen
  • Listening Gap Fill
  • Comprehension Questions
  • Multiple Choice – Quiz
  • Role Play
  • After Reading / Listening
  • Student Survey
  • Discussion (20 Questions)
  • The Article 2 Discussion (Student-Created Qs)
  • Spelling
  • Put The Text Back Together
  • Put The Words In The Right Order
  • Circle The Correct Word
  • Insert The Vowels (a, e, i, o, u)
  • Punctuate The Text And Add Capitals
  • Where The Spaces Are
  • Free Writing
  • Academic Writing
  • Homework

There really is something for everyone.

In addition to his blog, Sean Banville has eight other great sites that I will be reviewing in the weeks ahead:

So much great stuff, so many wasted years not using it.

Turtle Diary Review: Biographies

Turtlediary.com is a funky educational site with games, videos, worksheets and lessons plans which could come in handy for the resourceful teacher. They cover a variety of subjects including language arts, science, social studies, and math. In the online biographies section children can read about explorers, scientists, world leaders, writers, and artists on their computers at home. This could be a great resource for teachers looking for online reading material or as a supplement to course sections about any of these great figures.

Einstein biography 01

Above you can see the first two pages of a short biography about Albert Einstein. Many key words are underlined so that when you click on them a little window opens up with a short definition of the word, a pronunciation guide and recording of the pronunciation. There is also a complete word list on each book page which children can click to hear the pronunciation.

At the end of the reading there is a summary of the subject’s major accomplishment and several pages of review questions. 

Einstein biography 02

If the child clicks the correct answer the box changes to green, and red if they are incorrect.

Turtle Diary is of course a pay site ($79 annual subscription fee), but there are five biographies you can try for free (as well as a host of other material on their site).