A Word on Grammar: Relative Adverbs: Where, When and Why. use and Omission

I have to say that I have an incredibly complicated relationship with grammar. I don’t like it and that’s my problem. I wouldn’t go as far as Michel de Montaigne and say “The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar”, that’s probably going too far but, for me,  “Grammar is a piano I play by ear” as Joan Didion said,.

Obviously, this is something that, as a teacher, I cannot share with my students.

So, in order to make teaching grammar more palatable, I am forever trying to present it in a more appealing way. Not only to my students, but also to me.

Embedded below is a more visual explanation of the use and omission of the relative adverbs: where, when and why.

I have used one of my fav free tools, PlayBuzz, which is not specifically designed to be used as a teaching tool but it really has a lot of potential for language teaching.


Step by Step: How I train my students to pass Part 2 (the pictures) of the standardized speaking exams. Part 1.

Alright, alright!

I know this is the third time I’ve posted this week. It seems I’m full of energy after the Christmas break. I really needed that break, didn’t you? Anyway, happy to go back to teaching, but hanging ominously over my head like a black cloud about to burst is the pressing necessity to start training my students to take their standardized speaking exams which will allow them to promote to the C1 (advanced level).

For those of you who are not familiar with the exam, let me explain how it goes. You might find you can apply it to your own classes, even though it’s not exactly the same kind of exam.

There are two tasks in the speaking exam.

  • Part 1: examiner-led conversation. The examiner asks questions about a topic and the students give full answers.
  • Part 2: the monologue, where the students are given a set of pictures (normally two or three).

About Part 2

In this second part, the one this whole post is built upon, the student is offered two or three colour photographs. Normally, the photos are in contrast or represent different options of the same issue.  Also, there is a title or a statement which suggests the topic of the monologue. After some thinking time, normally a couple of minutes, the student is given the opportunity to speak for about 4-5 minutes without interruption.

At this level, students are expected to talk about the topic using a wide range of vocabulary and grammar structures and they will have to compare and contrast the pictures talking about the most important issues related to the topic.

Students face different fears when preparing for the oral exams. Some of them are:

  • Do I know enough specific vocabulary?
  • Will I be able to use a variety of structures or will I stick to the simple subj+verb+complement structure?
  • Now,  the topic is “food”?  3 or 4 minutes talking about food? Seriously?  For heaven’s sake, I cannot even talk for one minute, let alone three or four!

Vocabulary and ideas. Keywords here.

How I train my students. Topic: Food

This is how I help them step by step. Bear in mind this is the first post of a series of posts dedicated to training students to pass the oral exam. As students gain confidence, guidance will be less necessary and some of these steps will be either unnecessary or done by students as part of their learning process.

1. Brainstorming vocabulary. Learning progresses through prior knowledge, so tapping into students’ prior knowledge is an essential part of learning.

On the board, we brainstorm the vocabulary they already know. This is an important step because it helps students reinforce and bring to life the vocabulary studied in previous courses.

Then, I ask them some very simple questions where they can activate this vocabulary: What’s your favourite food? What is the most expensive restaurant that you have ever been to? What did you eat there?

2.Acquiring new vocabulary. We work on new vocabulary using a number of written and oral exercises. (Any good course book provides enough vocabulary input, at least to get started). It’s important to emphasize here the importance of learning words in chunks. Surely, you can teach the word “ obesity” on its own, but there some other words you really want to teach in collocations like, for example, “eating disorders” or to “be obsessed with”. Also important, essential I should say, is pronunciation.

3.  Getting Ideas. Reading and Speaking. More often than not students find it hard to think on their feet. They find it difficult to come up with ideas that will fill in the 3 or 4 minutes allowed for this part.

You might disagree with me here, but I always tell them that oral exams are like the rest of the exams they might take. They need to prepare. They need to study.

Lack of preparation might result in something I’ve seen very often when assessing oral exams; students might talk for one minute and then, suddenly, stop. Now, you might wait patiently for them to come up with something else but the truth is that very often, when prompted to continue, they just repeat the same ideas they have already used. Why? most of the times due to lack of preparation. They mistakenly think that they don’t need to study for oral exams. They do.

So, listen up dear students! You need to study for oral exams.


Reading about different issues related to the topic not only reinforces the vocabulary they have learnt and gives them a chance to see it used in context but also gives them ideas of what they can talk about when doing the real task.

I normally use short extracts from The Pais in EnglishHere’s my choice of extracts for the topic of food. This how we do it:

  • We read the extracts in class or set the reading task as homework.
  • We underline relevant vocabulary.
  • Students discuss the questions in pairs, followed by class discussion.


4. The pictures. I am lucky to have a computer and an overhead projector in my class, so I normally display a collage with two or three related pictures on the board. You can see the ones I have used for this topic here and here.

Together we read the title and brainstorm ideas to fill in these 3 or 4 minutes. This step should be easy now as we have previously discussed some ideas in the previous task. Some ideas could be:

Together, we brainstorm vocabulary

  • Pesticides
  • Label
  • To be obsessed with
  • Bulimia
  • Fats
  • Proteins
  • Carbs
  • …etc

  1. Tips.
  • Look at the pictures and the title if there is one. It will hint at what you need to talk about.
  • If you are given some thinking time, use it.
  • Remember that you are not asked to describe in detail what you can see in the pictures. You are asked to compare and contrast the pictures talking about the topic.
  • Focus on three or four ideas and develop them as much as you can without repeating yourself. Start with a short introduction about the topic, talk about the first idea, develop it; start with the second idea and repeat procedure.
  • Don’t forget to use specific vocabulary and a variety of structures.
  • Essential: practise a lot and record yourself taking the exam.

6. Homework. Further practice. Collaboratively writing on a Padlet.

This follow-up task has two main aims:

  • to reinforce acquired knowledge and strategies
  • to share ideas. By asking students to write on a  collaborative Padlet, they benefit from each other and see other ideas which might help them improve their own performance.

All the Padlets created for this purpose will then be shared in a single one where students, at a glance, can decide what topic to revise.

In the next post, we will move from writing to speaking on a Padlet.

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A Simple Activity to Get Started after the Christmas Break

Back to normal after the Christmas break and looking for ideas to get students  back into the mood, my faithful companion The Wheel of Fortune is again unfailingly helping me to provide, with almost no effort, an engaging activity to get started: grammar and vocabulary will probably follow, but let’s start off on the right foot.

So, I have in mind a warm-up activity that gets students out of their seats (have they even had time to sit down?) while animatedly sharing their experiences during their Christmas break.

How to go about it:

  1. I filled the wheel with some questions from the Internet TESL Journal
  2. After the mandatory welcome-back salutation, I asked my students to stand up (initial sceptical look assured, so please, don’t be discouraged and insist with your sweetest voice)and occupy the space in the middle of the class or any other free space available in your classroom. Ask them to choose a partner.
  3. Spin the wheel and ask them to talk about the randomly chosen question with their partner. Allow them 2 or 3 minutes to discuss the question. Use a  classroom timer to add more fun and excitement.
  4. Ask them to change partners and spin the wheel again.

Note: this is a warm-up activity, so I’ll keep it going for just about 15 minutes.

Now, that they are right where I want them, let’s begin this new term.

Photo: Greg Lonbinsk


This is what I Call Christmas Homework. Enjoy!

It is Christmas time. Don’t you think it would be nice to give students some alternative homework? Wouldn’t it be nice to give them something they really enjoy?

Inspired by this guest post on Sandy Millin’s blog, written by Katie Lindley, I decided to reconsider the kind of homework I  was going to give my students. I’m glad I did. It’s taken me some time to find ideas to fill in the 24 boxes, but I think it’s going to be worth the effort.

How to go about it. 

Choose a day and click on the animation below the day. A window will open up with the activity chosen for this day.

I hope you enjoy it!

Are you a visual teacher? An amazing free resource based on pictures

As of yesterday, I’m almost (not yet though!) done with correcting essays for the year.  I cannot even tell you how happy this makes me. I’ve spent the whole long weekend trying to squeeze in time to correct students’ compositions.

I cooked, I corrected; I washed my hair, I corrected; I watched TV, I corrected.

Now, I am almost finished. And I’m celebrating by writing this post to share with you a website that I love.

What is there in a picture? I don’t know. What I know is how differently my students react and perform when the task has been introduced with a picture.

Imagine this, you need to do a reading text about Alcatraz, the infamous prison.

Option 1. Ok, now, open your books at page 7. We are going to do a reading about Alcatraz.

Option2.  Display a picture of Alcapone’s cell in Alcatraz. Don’ t tell them anything about the picture just yet. Ask the sort of questions that might arise interest to finally disclose that it is the picture of a cell where Alcapone lived in Alcatraz.

I won’t insult your intelligence by asking which option you think will arise interest in the reading test, but the truth is that it takes nothing to introduce the reading with a picture of the prison and it makes a world of difference.


I am a very visual teacher and  love working with images to enhance learning. In my humble opinion, images should play an important role in the language classes as they help students retain information and make learning more memorable and effective.

The site I’m sharing with you, Pobble365, is certainly worth a visit if you keen on using pictures in your classes. Pobble365 offers you engaging lessons based on images.

The site offers one interesting picture a day and different activities related to the picture. These activities include:

  1. A story starter: the perfect prompt if you want to do some creative writing with your students.
  2. A sentence challenge: it challenges you to write or say a complex sentence based on the picture. Perfect to improve your grammar skills while rising to the challenge.
  3. Question time: you are offered some questions to help you describe the picture. Excellent to boost your speaking skills.
  4. Sick sentences: in this part, you are offered the opportunity to improve some sentences, which are grammatically correct, but are too simple.

Some extra features:

  • It’s free and you don’ have to register unless you want to.
  • You can download the pdf for the lesson
  • You can also see other pictures with their corresponding resources by clicking on Pick a Day at the top right-hand corner.
  • You can search images with Pobble to find relevant images or videos to the topic you want to discuss. For example, say you want to find images or videos about the weather; you just type the word in the search box and see what Pobble has to offer.
  • Here you can read about  9 ways to use Pobble 365 with your students.

I hope you enjoy using Pobble.

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Six Low-Preparation Vocabulary Activities for the English Classroom

When I teach something new, I’m always worried about one simple thing. Will my students internalise any time soon the new “whatever it is”? How can I help them? How long does it take for them to feel confident using the new structure/expression/word? How many times do they have to be exposed to the new term? How many different examples/contexts do you have to give them? How long does it take before a word becomes familiar and therefore usable?

This is an article I wrote for Voices, the British Council magazine, where I suggest  Six Low-Preparation Vocabulary Activities for the English Classroom, which can help.

Winner of the British Council Blog of the Month Award

I am humbled and grateful that my blog has won this month’s British Council Teaching English blog award for my post

Lacking inspiration? 6 awesome resource websites to find stuff for your classes

Thank you so much to the British Council for so much support. This is a day to celebrate lots of hard work and perseverance; always with a smile on my face ’cause teaching really makes me happy.

This award is dedicated to my students who are the source of my inspiration.


Do you Think Translation Exercises are Boring? Just the Opposite!

Believe me, they don’t have to be boring. In fact, just the opposite.

I know some teachers consider translation activities a thing of the past and that, arguably, they should be banned from our classes. I don’t completely agree.
If I am honest with you, I can’t say that I like giving students a whole paragraph to translate, but a one-sentence translation exercise can help consolidate and reinforce grammar and vocabulary.
And it doesn’t need to be boring. In fact, it can be a lot of fun. How?

Easy. Let’s combine a seemingly boring traditional exercise with an online fun tool and let’s turn it into a competition.


• Decide on few sentences you want students to translate. I’d suggest 6-8 sentences. If you like exploring tools, my favourite for this kind of activities is Playbuzz flip cards.
• Slips of paper

How to go about it:

1. Pair learners and give them as many slips of paper as sentences you want them to translate.
2. Write the first sentence on the board and ask students to translate into English. If you use the online tool I mentioned above, just show the first card. (See mine below)
3. Depending on the length or difficulty of the sentence to be translated, set a time limit.
4. Once the pair have their sentence, ask them to write it on the slip of paper big enough for you to see from a distance.
5. When the time is up, ask the pair to hold it up and quickly go through all the translated sentences awarding 1 point to the pair who has the correct translation.
6. The winner is the pair who get the most points.

Note: Be strict with spelling mistakes or any other tiny mistakes. Students love it when you are strict and don’t give away the points easily.

Follow-up: Revise again all the sentences, but this time orally.

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