Monday, March 23, 2015

My Personal Favourite Posts on the Blog So Far...

As you might notice, I've started to post again.  I've also noticed that there are a few more people visiting the blog.  So to all the new readers - welcome!

If you are new to this blog and you don’t know where to start then I would like to recommend these 10 posts that are my personal favourites.  I think these 10 posts are the most useful and most helpful articles for learners of English.

This is a very popular post which explains one of the things that Cambridge examiners are looking for in your speaking and writing.

2. Accent vs Pronunciation

This looks at the difference between the two and provides some advice and links to a wonderful resource for listening.

3. Cudunagonbeda

If you are having problems understanding native speakers with their fast talking, or you would like to improve your speaking, this might be of interest to you.

4. How much time do I need?

How long does it take to learn a language and how much effort do you need to be successful?  It is different for each person, but there are a few general rules here.

5. Anybody having problems with the Present Perfect?

This takes a poem/song to provide a little exercise for listening to examples of the present perfect tense.  You might find it useful, but I've added it here because it was fun to make!

6. Thinking about Superman a.k.a. Imaginary Situations (Conditionals)

Talking about things we wish were true makes up a lot of our conversations, so these grammar points are explained clearly and with lots of written and picture examples.

7. How Green is your Internet (Working with Numbers in English)

This is another very popular post that takes a two minute video and gives you a small listening task to help you practise listening to English numbers.

8. Learning and Forgetting Vocabulary & No Magic Please

Did you know that forgetting vocabulary is actually a very important part of building your vocabulary?  These two posts explain one of the best ways I know to improve vocabulary quickly!

9. Using Tongue Twisters for Your Pronunciation

I honestly feel that practising little tongue twisters is a great way to improve pronunciation in another language.  It is also very impressive to people when you get it right!

10. How Useful is Translation? (University Preparation Tip #1)

I love Google Translate and I think it had become a very useful tool to help language learners.  But it can't replace learning a language.  This article shows the problems of using too much translation.

Friday, March 6, 2015

How do you approach an IELTS Writing Task 2 question? (guest post by Stephanie Furness-Barr)

‘Approach? What Approach?’ vs ‘Approach? Definitely!’

Here’s what my students say they do when they’re writing an IELTS Writing Task 2 essay. Which way do you think is best? Why?
  1. "Approach? What approach? I only have 40 minutes to write a task 2 so I don’t waste any time. I read the question and just start writing what’s in my head. I have a general plan, like I do when I'm giving the answer to a question. I stop writing when the 40 minutes is done."
  2. "Approach? Definitely! I only have 40 minutes to write so I don’t waste any time. I read and analyse the question, jot down some of my ideas, write a plan then check if the plan is going to help me answer the question. I check the question a lot because it’s so easy to answer it the wrong way. Then I write the answer, paying attention to grammar and vocabulary. If there’s time, I check the writing for spelling and punctuation mistakes."
Have you guessed which way is best?

Let’s look at the first approach. If you think about what you’re going to write and try to write with good grammar and vocabulary at the same time, you’re asking your brain to do too many things at once. This is often unsuccessful, even for native speakers. Why?

Your essay...

...might be ‘stream of consciousness’, in other words, unorganised and incoherent, and possibly repetitive.
...may not answer the question.
...may be too short
...may have a lot of unnecessary grammar, vocabulary, spelling and punctuation mistakes
...might look really messy. This shouldn’t matter to an examiner – unless your handwriting is so bad he or she can’t read it - but you want to ‘put your best foot forward’* don’t you?

*do and look your best

If you said the second approach is better, you’re right! Here’s why:

1. Read and analyse the question
In these two stages you focus on


you’re going to write
2. Brainstorm – write down any ideas (in notes – sentences take too long to write) you have about the topic and question.
3. Plan your essay – write a structure.
WHAT (ideas)
HOW (organisation)
4. Write your answer.
In these stages you focus on


you’re going to write it.
(e.g. grammar and vocabulary,
spelling and punctuation)
5. Proofread your answer.

If you think about WHAT to write first then your brain will be able to concentrate on HOW to say it afterwards. This is more likely to result in an essay that...

...answers the question. 250 words. finished. well organised. written with the best grammar and vocabulary you can manage in the time limit

This is formally called the Process Approach to writing.


A question for the IELTS exam might look like this:

‘In some school systems, it is normal for students to have a sports lesson during the week. Some people say that this is a waste of time, while others say it is an important part of education. Discuss both these views and give your opinion.’

Below is a possible response to the question from a writer that didn’t follow the process approach to writing. What do you think of it?
  • Does it answer the question?
  • Is it 250 words?
  • Is it organised?
  • How much variety of grammar and vocabulary do you see?

Sports are really important. They are important because they keep us healthy and happy. Everyone should do sport in school, even though there’s not enough time to do them. If we don’t have sport we’ll get bored, and then we can’t get concentrated in classes because we want to go out and play all the time. Everyone knows that sports are good for you. The experts say this is important especially for boys. Girls don’t need to sport so much because they are better at their studies. Teachers should organize teams to play football. My school teacher was terrible at football but everyone loved him anyway.

Of course, school subjects are important too and we need to spend time with maths, language and science, sure but it is really good to be exercised and get fresh air. This is my opinion.

Now you try writing an answer to the question using the Process Approach!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Developing Your English through Poetry (guest post by Allan Kennedy)

Here are two poems I wrote. The first poem is called 'My Love for Dreams' and the second poem is called 'Breathless'.

My Love for Dreams

My love for dreams is so great,
my heart melts for them 'til the dusk of day.
The night runs when they're away,
helps, loses 'til day's dawn.

Their beauty is so great,
Wondering mind 'til they see,
ending is all I do,
While waiting for the moment, for them to say "I do."


in the evening
waiting in the rain

at the station
running for the train

when I see you

when you leave

You're all I ever dream of and
you're all I ever need and
You're all I ever think of and
you’re all I ever


To tell the truth, I told a 'white' lie (meaning a small lie); really I only wrote one of the poems. For the other poem I simply thought of a few key words and then used a poetry generator. All I did was choose a noun, a pronoun and four verbs (one end 'ing') and the poetry generator wrote 'my' poem.

For example:

Poetry generators are a useful and fun way of introducing English language and literature students to poetry – that is both reading and writing poetry – and for helping English foreign language students improve their English in a number of ways.

Put very simply, poetry helps us to:

a) organise our thinking
b) choose exactly the right word for the right occasion
c) increase our vocabulary
d) to play with metaphors and figurative speech
e) to play with rhyme
f) to think about the sound of a word as much as its meaning or part of speech (verb, noun, adjective and so on)
g) to play with synonyms (words with similar meanings) and antonyms (words with opposite meanings) – and even homonyms (words that sound like each other but are different).
h) to say more with less (being concise)
i) and much more...for example, (The Four Benefits of Poetry, What Use is Poetry?)

So let's write a poem. At the moment in the northern hemisphere it’s winter and in the southern hemisphere it’s summer. Here in the north we're looking forward to the spring. In the south, autumn (or 'fall' in American English) isn't far away. So let's write a poem about the seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter.

Four Seasons by Haluk Ozcan

To get us going here's part of a poem about the seasons by poet Arlene Smith.

Springtime filled with baby's breath,
stretching forth, rising tall.
Unconfined from east to west,
breaking free from every fall.

Summer's heat can't be denied;
playful and unencumbered.
Passion swells as ocean tide;
basking tho days be numbered.

Now let's write (or create) a poem using a poetry generator. For this exercise I'm choosing Spring, so the poem is called 'Here Comes Spring'. I'm using the poetic forms generator found at this site: (for more opportunities to make poems, take a look at other topics on their list -

There are just three stages:

For the first one, I chose “Budding trees, April showers”
For the second, I chose “New leaves, May flowers”
For the third, I chose “Energised, hopeful”

And here’s the poem:

Here comes spring,
Here comes spring,
Budding trees, April showers
Here comes spring,
Here comes spring,
New leaves, May flowers
Here comes spring,
Here comes spring-
Energised, hopeful there it goes

Okay, it’s not Shakespeare, it looks fairly simple and to a certain extent it is. But even in this very quick example there’s quite a lot going on. Here are a few questions for you to think about.

Question 1: In what season does it seem that this poem has been written?

Question 2: What are the obvious relationships between ‘trees’, ‘leaves’, ‘showers’ and ‘flowers’?

Question 3: Why did the poet chose the words ‘energised’ and hopeful’ to finish the poem?

Question 4: Identify one particular feature of this poem?

Think about these questions and then scroll down to see the answers below...













Answer 1: Winter – the poem starts “Here comes spring,” which means spring hasn’t arrived yet, but that ‘it’s just around the corner’ (meaning it is coming very soon). However, at the moment it’s winter.

Answer 2:
  1. There’s a physical relationship (trees have leaves and showers are rain and flowers and trees/leaves need rain)
  2. There’s also a rhyming relationship in that the words sound similar: trees/leaves, showers/flowers
Answer 3: These words identify some of the poet’s feelings at the time of writing, about how spring with the ideas of new birth and creation can fill people with both energy and hope for the rest of the year and beyond.

Answer: Repetition. The phrase ‘Here comes spring’ is repeated six times. This is a very familiar poetic device which in this case gives the poem the feel of a song, straight away I'm reminded of George Harrison’s ‘Here come the comes the sun... an’ it’s all right...'

Repetition is only one of many, many poetic devices. A few other examples could be:

a) alliteration – where the same sound is repeated at the beginning of words,

e.g. she sells sea shells on the seashore

b) hyperbole - extreme exaggeration,

e.g. a thousand wild horses could not move hungry I could eat a horse...

c) personification – human/personal characteristics to animals or objects,

e.g. The sea had climbed the mountain peaks, and shouted to the stars o come to play: and down they came splashing in happy waves

For those of you who want to find out more about poetic devices here’s a useful pdf list:

So if you’re an EFL student or a teacher and you are interested in poetry, ‘give it a go’ (meaning ‘try it’); you won’t be disappointed. All aspects of your language learning/teaching will be better for the experience – listening, speaking, reading and writing, improving grammar, extending vocabulary and, importantly, thinking and expressing yourself clearly.

Here’s a little poem to finish. Oh, and if you’re wondering which of the two poems at the start of this article was actually mine, well, take a guess.


You are friendly, kind and caring
Sensitive, loyal and understanding
Humorous, fun, secure and true
Always there... yes that's you.

Special, accepting, exciting and wise
Truthful and helpful, with honest blue eyes
Confiding, forgiving, cheerful and bright
Yes that's you... not one bit of spite.

You're one of a kind, different from others
Generous, charming, but not one that smothers
Optimistic, thoughtful, happy and game
But not just another... in the long chain.

Appreciative, warm and precious like gold
Our friendship won't tarnish or ever grow old
You'll always be there, I know that is true
I'll always be here... always for you.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Untranslatable Words

I found this on Facebook a while ago (thanks to the Memrise page).  It sent me to a really interesting website called Maptia, which is full of true stories from around the world.  They are not very long stories and many of them are very ‘uplifting’ (meaning they make you feel good).

Words like these are why English has so many words.  When we find a new word that we can’t translate, we often just steal the word!  These words aren't used in English... yet - but I might start using them in my conversations. ;-)

If you are interested in the origin of words in English, then you might enjoy this little video.  It might be a little difficult to understand all the words that are said, but you will get a good idea of the story from the visual information.

Are there any other words you know in your language that don’t translate into English?  If so, please leave a comment below giving the word and some description of what it means - go on, it will be good practice for your English! :-)

To see the rest of the untranslatable words, click here.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

And Now for Something Completely Different!

So this post isn't really about learning or understanding English.  This is a video that I've just finished making.  The paintings are by a good friend of mine, James Allan Kennedy, who's an artist... but also an English language teacher!  I met Allan during my first job as an English language teacher in Mexico a few years ago.

It's his birthday today so I've posted this video as a present for him!  You can see more of his art on his Facebook page.

I'll be posting more about learning and practising English soon but until then, play the video in full screen and enjoy! :-)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Homophones... What's a homophone and why is it important for learning English?

This is a picture I shared on Facebook a few months ago (thanks to Memrise).  It is a message from a secondary school teacher to her class about the need for checking written work for mistakes.  This is called proofreading.  The mistakes that the teacher talks about here are incorrect homophones.  If you don’t know what a homophone is, read the teacher's message again and see if you can find any mistakes (there are lots of them).  Here is the text:

Deer students,

Win you are righting something four my class, bee shore that you are using the write homophones.  Eye cannot tale you enough how unintelligent you look win you use the wrong word.  Their are know excuses four using the wrong words cause you have the education too no better.  Your smart enough to no the differences butt you rush threw you’re work and mess up.

Love, you’re concerned teacher lady, Ms Jenkins ;-)

Do you see what a homophone is now?  I hope you see that it is a word that has the same sound as another word.

When you are doing any sort of writing (emails, exams, essays, etc.) incorrect homophones are just one of the things you should take the time and proofread for when you are finished.  But be careful, don’t rely on Microsoft Word to find all the mistakes for you.  Here are the mistakes that Word 2013 found…

… I promise you there are many more mistakes than those.  How many deliberate mistakes can you find in this message?

Scroll down the page when you are ready to check…

ORIGINAL TEXT (21 homophone mistakes)

Deer students,

Win you are righting something four my class, bee shore that you are using the write homophones.  Eye cannot tale you enough how unintelligent you look win you use the wrong word.  Their are know excuses four using the wrong words cause you have the education too no better.  Your smart enough to no the differences butt you rush threw you’re work and mess up.

Love, you’re concerned teacher lady, Ms Jenkins ;-)


Dear students,

When you are writing something for my class, be sure that you are using the right homophones.  I cannot tell you enough how unintelligent you look when you use the wrong word.  There are no excuses for using the wrong words cause you have the education to know better.  You’re smart enough to know the differences but you rush through your work and mess up.

Love, your concerned teacher lady, Ms Jenkins ;-)

Hope this helps some of you reading this. If you are a teacher and would like to use this example to help your students practise proofreading, then I’ve made a PDF here.

Finally, here are a few funny cartoons that might help you remember some of these homophones (click on the cartoons to see a bigger version).

200 Facebook Likes! Thank you very much!

I don’t update this blog as much as I would like now but every few days, someone new ‘likes’ it on Facebook.  I hope that people continue to find the content useful.

I promised that I would post a new article when the blog got 200 likes and I will.  The new article should be online within a couple of hours of this one.

Thank you again!
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