Lesson Plan: “Thriller” by Michael Jackson! (B2 to C1)

When was the last time you taught a song-based lesson in which the ‘listening’ component consisted solely of gap-filling? Let’s be honest with ourselves: gap fills are easy to create, easy to give instructions for and (tellingly) easy for students to do, even if they don’t actually have the strongest listening skills. But if a student only listens for the 10 words that complete the 10 gaps on a worksheet we gave them, did they really listen to the song at all?

For this lesson, I forced myself to come up with a variety of different tasks, gap-fill included, that would require students to put those top-down and bottom-up listening skills to work. The lesson also encourages learners to dig deeper into the song lyrics and imagine how they could appropriate the vocabulary they hear for their own personal use. Happy Halloween, everyone!

Level: B2 to C1 (Upper-Intermediate to Advanced)
Age: teenagers
Time: 60 minutes
Materials: song (YouTube or MP3), 1 class worksheet + 1 homework sheet per student ––– comment for files


  • By the end of the lesson, students will have practised strategies for upgrading story language to make it more descriptive. They will do this by using synonyms to upgrade standard language and comparing their ideas with descriptive song lyrics.
  • Students will also have practised meaning-building strategies (using contextual and grammatical clues to make sense of audio signals) and decoding strategies (discriminating between similar sounds, transcribing squeeze zones).

Continue reading Lesson Plan: “Thriller” by Michael Jackson! (B2 to C1)

I really missed my students over the summer!

I’m not entirely sure what the etiquette is for apologising after a six-month absence from your own blog, but here goes: sorry, everyone. A special sorry to those of you who posted asking for materials, since I was away from my computer for May and June (exam season), and then away from work for all of July and August (backpacking in far-flung and much warmer climes).

You see, I take my work-life balance as seriously as I take the separation of church and state, and after an unrelenting and intense year at work, I threw myself into the summer holidays just as I’d promised myself I would. Thoughts of lesson plans and homework and marking and materials were so far from my mind that even as I told new acquaintances that I was a teacher, I almost felt as though I was describing someone else, a third person neither of us in the conversation would ever meet, or a version of myself lost to the past.

And I enjoyed it: the free time, the complete break with the realities of school, day in, day out, where every day was different and yet somehow the same in so many ways. For the first time in four years of teaching, I had a whole summer off, both on paper and in mind, and it was ridiculously fun to rediscover all the aspects of myself that had been slowly but systematically drowned out by that innocuous label ‘teacher’.

But somewhere around mid-August, the matrix started to glitch. I was listening to a song, and before I knew it I’d made a playlist with one of my super-talented FCE classes in mind. It was full of awesome songs just perfect for decoding practice! They’d all been released in the previous twelve months! The lyrics contained exactly the kind of inspiring, upbeat messages that teen students generally seem to appreciate!

It definitely didn’t count as work though. Did it? I mean, technically I wasn’t at work, and it certainly wasn’t my intention to accidentally get a bit of work done … So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if an ELT teacher plans and doesn’t get paid for it, does she need to take her job a little less seriously?

Anyway, I went back to work on September 12th, mainly writing exams and doing other assorted admin in preparation for the new school year. On the weekend of September 15th and 16th, I saw some of my students out at a festival, and I wondered how their summers had gone, and if they’d had fun on their trip to England, and had they passed their FCE exams? And on September 25th I walked back into my classroom, that one with the same kids I’ve been teaching since I first moved to Calabria in 2016, to a round of applause and lots of hellos and general merriment.

What an amazing vocation we have. What amazing people my students have become over the last couple of years. What a surprise that I actually missed school over the summer! But I’m back now, and I’m ready for another year of academic and professional excellence. On your marks …

I helped organise an international conference!

In all fairness, the title of this post should really be something like “I did a couple of odd jobs here and there to help out with the absolute ocean of work involved in organising and successfully running an international conference”. In any case, for the purposes of this blog post, I hope you can find it in your heart to allow me this little bit of click-bait.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, down to business. By now you may have heard that my school hosted the IH Young Learners conference last week, which I co-wrote the application for and then eventually got the chance to speak at; all in all, a developing teacher’s dream come true, prosecco all round, clink, blah blah blah …

However, amid all the networking and sharing and developing, there was one particularly special moment during that long conference weekend, a moment that I know I will never, ever forget as long as I work in ELT: on arrival at the conference, every single visiting delegate received a handwritten welcome letter from one of our young learner students.

The idea was deceptively simple, and utterly perfect in terms of the message we wanted to send to our international visitors. Our original conference application stressed the strong ties our school has with the local community, especially the state schools where we run outreach programs. Our directors were adamant that if we were to host a conference for YL teachers, then our YL students should be involved somehow, and they were absolutely right.

Once I had come up with the idea, we just needed to give our students a little nudge in the right direction. To help them get their ideas out onto the page, I designed a couple of easy-to-adapt lesson plans for letter-writing as well as the teaching materials to go with them, including three model welcome letters at the A2, B1 and B2 levels. Our fantastic team of YL teachers then took those plans and materials into their regular English classes and ran with them, and our ridiculously talented YL students did the rest!

Some of them wrote about their favourite restaurants and dishes to try, some of them explained local traditions and cultural references that they thought might interest international visitors, and some chose to give a more warts-and-all description of the reality of living in one of Italy’s forgotten southern regions. Different though they were, however, all the letters were nonetheless spectacular reads.

A welcome letter handwritten by Lara P, a B2 student at the local high school.
A welcome letter handwritten by Lara P, a B2 student at the local high school.

To encourage participation, the letter-writing task was pitched as a city-wide competition, open to our internal YL students as well as all of our external teen students at local state schools. All in all, just over 120 young learners aged 11-18 wrote welcome letters for our incoming delegates. My colleague @lennyberlenny and I then had the unenviable task of sorting through them all to choose 54 winners, one for each of the delegates coming to visit us for the conference.

This welcome letter was handwritten by Sara C, one of my B2 students at the local state-run high school.

A welcome letter handwritten by Sara C, a B2 student at the local high school.
A welcome letter handwritten by Sara C, a B2 student at the local high school.

The reactions as the letters were discovered and read were absolutely priceless. We had gasps of delight and surprise, and even a couple of tears! As a foreigner who has had the privilege of getting to know this sleepy little part of Italy over the last 18 months, I was so incredibly proud and moved to watch others be offered the same insight into the local culture, especially in a place that has had a historically difficult relationship with outsiders.

This welcome letter was handwritten by Alessandro F, one of my B2 students at the local state-run high school.
A welcome letter handwritten by Alessandro F, a B2 student at the local high school.

The cherry on top was unexpected even for me: our delegates were so impressed by the gesture that they have started writing back to our students. The international community has helped our YL students use real English to speak to real people for real reasons. As an ELT teacher, what more could I possibly wish for?

Lesson Plan: “Tears” by Clean Bandit! (B2 to C1)

In my previous job, I used to spend a lot of time lamenting the fact that my students never bothered to listen to any English-language media outside class. Now, I have exactly the opposite ‘problem’ – my students know so much about English-language popular culture that I’m forever trying to find lesson material they haven’t heard or seen before!

That’s where I got the idea for this lesson plan, which I built around a lesser-known song by British electro-pop group Clean Bandit. It has worked particularly well for me with teenagers, but there’s no reason you can’t use it with your adult classes –  especially if your students are getting a bit complacent about their listening skills!

Level: B2 to C1 (Upper-Intermediate to Advanced)
Age: teenagers and adults
Time: 80 minutes
Materials: slide with photos, song (YouTube or MP3), 1 class worksheet + 1 homework sheet per student ––– comment for files


  • By the end of the lesson, students will have understood the overall meaning of a song about moving on from an old relationship. They will do this by listening for keywords and making inferences.
  • Students will also have practised meaning-building strategies (using contextual and grammatical clues to make sense of audio signals) and decoding strategies (discriminating between similar sounds).

Continue reading Lesson Plan: “Tears” by Clean Bandit! (B2 to C1)

Lesson Plan: Banksy Part Two! (B2)

As promised, here’s Part Two of my Banksy lesson arc! You can find Part One here. The strength of this lesson lies in the way I personalised it for the particular city I teach in, and I encourage you to edit your materials so that your lesson can more closely reflect your own city and context.

I really can’t overstate how much production this lesson generates –  even when it comes to writing, which my students usually hate. I’ve actually just finished marking a batch of FCE formal letters based on this lesson, and the marks are the highest this class has achieved all year!

Level: B2 (Upper-Intermediate) or FCE
Age: teenagers or adults
Time: 80 minutes
Materials: exam question, list of phrases for formal letters, destroyed model text (comment for files)


  • By the end of the lesson, students will have written a formal letter (FCE Writing Part 2) in the context of graffiti and street art.
  • Students will also be more familiar with fixed expressions used in formal letters.

Continue reading Lesson Plan: Banksy Part Two! (B2)

Lesson Plan: Banksy Part One! (B2 to C1)

This is easily one of the most engaging lessons I’ve ever taught. So far, I’ve used it with over 100 different students across a range of ages and classes, and it just works. As if that wasn’t enough, it also leads quite naturally into FCE and CAE writing projects (lesson plans coming soon). All in all, it’s a great way to get your students into modern British art, while also encouraging deeper reflection and critical thinking.

NOTE: Originally, this lesson was just a riff on a double-page spread from the Speak Out Upper Intermediate course. Eventually, I developed it to the point that I was no longer using the materials from the coursebook. However, I’m still very grateful to both Frances Eales and Steven Oakes for the fantastic idea!

Level: B2 to C1 (Upper-Intermediate to Advanced)
Age: teenagers or adults
Time: 60 minutes
Materials: vocabulary cards, slideshow of artwork by Banksy (comment for files)


  • By the end of the lesson, students will be better able to use the following lexis to praise/criticise Banksy’s art: irresponsiblesatirical; vandalism, a valid art form; controversial; provocative; anarchy-lite; defaces buildings; derivative; hideous; pioneering; iconic; subversive, distinctive.

Continue reading Lesson Plan: Banksy Part One! (B2 to C1)

Lesson Plan: All I Want For Christmas! (B2 to C1)

If your teenage students are anything like mine, then they’re absolutely exhausted and in desperate need of a fun, festive lesson around this time of year! This low-prep lesson outline uses a task-based learning format to help students tackle a Cambridge FCE/CAE-style speaking task in the context of Christmas presents.

Level: B2 to C1 (Upper-Intermediate to Advanced)
Age: teenagers (preferably working towards FCE or CAE)
Time: 80 minutes
Materials: 1 question sheet per student (comment for files)


  • By the end of the lesson, students will have practised FCE/CAE Speaking Part 3 in the context of Christmas presents.
  • Students will also be better able to use phrases for … [e.g. turn-taking, negotiating, etc.  – depending on what your students need to focus on]

Continue reading Lesson Plan: All I Want For Christmas! (B2 to C1)

Lesson Plan: Courtroom Drama! (B2)

This is a really memorable, creative lesson I designed for my FCE teen class as a fun way of reworking the classic B2 tense review. They loved the context and the creativity, as well as the explicit grammar and pronunciation focus through the lens of TV drama.

Level: B2 (Upper-Intermediate)
Age: 15+
Time: 90-120 minutes, depending on the size of your class
Materials: 1 worksheet per student (comment for files)


By the end of the lesson, students will have written and performed a short dialogue in the style of TV courtroom dramas.

Students will also have reviewed the meaning, form and pronunciation of past and present tenses in the context of eyewitness testimony.

Continue reading Lesson Plan: Courtroom Drama! (B2)

I wrote a successful conference application!

The craziest thing happened this week.

During a weekly staff meeting in September, our DOS told us about this thing called the IH Young Learners Conference, and how this great opportunity for professional development was hosted at a different IH school every year, and would we like to write an application to host it at our school, even though the deadline was in less than a week?

So I looked at my new timetable, rapidly filling up with high-stakes Cambridge exam classes, and my brand-spanking-new CLIL maths syllabus that seemed to require some kind of debugging every single damn day, and my non-existent social life, constantly shrinking to accommodate all the things on my work wishlist, and I thought, “Let’s write us a conference application!”

So I did. I trawled Skyscanner to find every single direct flight from our nearest three airports, I brainstormed a never-ending list of potential corporate sponsors for the event, and I slaved over four paragraphs outlining in concise yet vivid detail all the reasons I love this school and this city. Every single person who I reached out to for help was only too happy to pitch in with everything from hotel rates to ideas for creative, unique social events. And even though I knew, in my heart of hearts, that IH were never going to choose our tiny school to host an annual international event, I really believed in what we were doing even just for the sake of acknowledging amongst ourselves how great our school really is.

I mean, everybody knew we weren’t going to get it. Our DOS reminded us not to get our hopes up, and a colleague told me she’d heard a rumour that a very, very big rival school in a very, very big city was also in the running, and a certain ELT pronunciation guru, who had popped down to our neck of the woods to lead a teacher training session, reassured me that the work we had done was valid and that we might even be in with a chance … the following year.

And then earlier this week my DOS and Director ushered us all into the staffroom in hushed tones at 4.30pm on an otherwise normal weekday afternoon and held up a wrinkled piece of A4 paper with a hastily-scrawled message that said IH YL CONFERENCE MARCH 2018 OUR SCHOOL, and, well, I lost my freaking mind, everyone.

I’m still not sure I’ve quite managed to get it back. It’s one thing to believe that you and your organisation are powerful, but it’s quite another to have that belief validated by your multinational parent organisation and school directors around the world who chose the proposal that you wrote.

That heart-pounding exploding-glitter shock was closely followed by the cold realisation of just how much work lies in store for us between now and March, should everything go to plan. For days, I was too scared to even write this blog post, terrified that my director would pop into the staffroom again only to say that it had, in the end, all been a big joke. But she hasn’t done, because it isn’t, and now it’s up to the whole team to prove that we are up to the task.

I have faith, just as I had faith that writing a ten-page application wasn’t a complete waste of time in the first place. But while we’ve got a little breathing room, I’m going to keep celebrating these small victories that remind us of the potential that we teachers have to change our little ELT worlds, one conference at a time.


I wrote a syllabus!

This morning I put the finishing touches to a three-year syllabus aimed at preparing Italian teenagers to sit for the Cambridge IGCSE in Extended Mathematics.

Even writing it down feels strange, but I’m slowly coming to terms with it. I did this. I designed a full teaching programme for CLIL students at a local state school, and heaven knows I did it with very little help.

I’m not particularly proud of the latter part, especially since my school were kind enough to send me to the official Cambridge training session in Rome last year. Unfortunately, when I got there, the workshop leader decided that addressing the topic of syllabus design wasn’t the best way of “catering to the needs of the teachers in the room”, leaving me feeling somewhat short-changed but nevertheless challenged to see what I could do about it.

Luckily, having spent most of my teaching career working in the EFL industry, I am no stranger to being asked to do something in which you have received minimal training and will be expected to learn about on the job. We can discuss the merits of that in a later post, but the fact remains: I would never have known I was capable of doing this if I hadn’t been asked to do it. Besides, I already knew the school, the course and the students inside out. If there was ever a perfect syllabus-writing situation, this was it.

The actual nitty-gritty of it wasn’t anywhere near as glamorous as I’d imagined, and mostly consisted of me spending long weekends and weekday mornings poring over the IGCSE exam syllabus from the Cambridge website, various English-language GCSE textbooks, a couple of Italian-language textbooks for the first three years of liceo, and the Italian-language maths curriculum that the students would be following simultaneously.

I started off by using a three-year wall planner to subdivide the IGCSE syllabus into ‘layers’ that could more or less be mapped onto each of the three years available for teaching. These layers were then broken down into study units using a huge academic diary. I blocked these off month-by-month, including several review opportunities and significant assessment time as advised by the exam syllabus. Then each unit had to be further subdivided into individual lessons, using the textbooks for guidance, all the while trying to mirror the meander of the Italian curriculum as closely as possible.

And now that it’s complete, two weeks later, the only thing left to do is see how it works in practice. From now until May, I get to teach the first two years of my own syllabus, which means any changes can easily be made as and when the need arises. By the end of the year I hope to have a tried-and-tested syllabus document on file, complete with lesson plans and homework tasks, and hopefully some student feedback to help me adjust and refine it for the next academic session.

Wish me luck!