Timelines in EFL

This is my second post in a series of posts going ‘Back to Basics‘, re-examining techniques and ideas introduced on teacher training courses.

What is a timeline?
A timeline is a visual representation of the relationships that exist between tense and time. They are simple drawings which can illustrate the meaning of these sometimes, let’s face it, rather complex relationships.

Why use a timeline?timeline

  • Timelines can illustrate meaning in a much simpler way than using metalanguage to describe tenses (e.g. ‘we use this tense to talk about something that began in the past and continues up to the present’).
  • Used alongside concept checking questions, they can reinforce meaning.
  • They may appeal to more visual learners.

What can timelines be used for?
Timelines are mainly used in the EFL classroom to represent grammatical tenses.

An example

By the end of the year, Sophie will have been living in Paris for 4 years.

I’ve deliberately chosen a difficult tense to exemplify how a timeline can illustrate a complex idea much more simply. A teacher explanation might go something like ‘we use this tense to talk about something that began in the past and will continue up to a particular point of time in the future.’ – a lot of information to process there.

The nuts and bolts of timelines

  • A basic timeline is labelled with ‘past’, ‘now’, and ‘future’, as appropriate.


  • Specific points in time can be added using a X.

This example could visualise ‘The film started before I arrived’.

  • Arrows can be added to show connections between times.

20140622-223258-81178680.jpgThis timeline could contrast with the previous by illustrating the past perfect ‘I arrived after the film had started’.

  • Wavy lines can be added to represent actions in progress (useful for continuous tenses)20140622-233130-84690656.jpgThis could represent ‘This time tomorrow I’ll be flying to Italy’.

Tweaking your timelines

  • Adding simple pictures can make timelines even more visual.20140623-003758-2278404.jpgThis could represent ‘I used to play the saxophone’.

A simple idea, but effective.  Some other great examples can be found in ‘Basic English Usage’ by Michael Swan.


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Concept Checking Revisited

This is the first (hopefully) in a series of posts going Back to Basics, re-examining techniques and ideas introduced on teacher training courses.

Concept checking questionsMany teachers are introduced to the idea of concept checking in their initial teacher training courses, try it out for a bit, and then forget about it. Sound familiar?

What is concept checking?
The British Council Teaching English website defines concept checking simply as

finding out if a learner has understood a new item.

With concrete items, this could be as simple as asking a learner to point to an object in the room. With more abstract ideas, this could be targeted questions to explore the parameters of meaning.

Why is it useful?
Concept checking can help the teacher to see beyond doubt that the student has understood. Asking the class ‘do you understand?’ is not so useful as it doesn’t demonstrate the learners’ understanding.

What can it be used for?
The most obvious use for concept checking questions is vocabulary. They can also be useful for grammatical structures and ideas.

Concept Checking Vocabulary
Let’s look at a lexical item in context:

Last Easter, we took the overnight ferry from Palermo to Naples.

Ustica Island, Sicily  © Jonathan Ingham

Ustica Island, Sicily
© Jonathan Ingham

Possible concept checking questions

  • Is a ferry small or large?  large
  • Is a ferry fast or slow?  slow
  • Is a ferry for people or industry?  people and industry
  • Can you take your car on a ferry?  yes
  • Where else can you go by ferry from Palermo?  Genova, Citavecchia, Tunisia, Ustica
  • Which boat is a ferry? (Showing flashcard)  learners point
  • Have you ever been on a ferry? Where did you go?  students’ own answers.

Concept Checking Grammar
Let’s look at a grammatical structure in context:

By December, Sophie will have been living in Paris for 3 years. (It is now June 2014).

Possible concept checking questions

  • Does Sophie live in Paris now?  Yes
  • Has she always lived in Paris?  No
  • When did she move to Paris?  2 1/2 years ago or December 2011.
  • Will she be in Paris in December?  Yes
  • So is this sentence talking about the past, the present or the future?  The past, the present and the future.

This could be followed up with a timeline:timeline

How can you write a good concept checking questions?

1. First, take a good monolingual dictionary to check the core meaning of the lexical item, or a good grammar reference book to check the meaning of the structure.

2. Write down the core meaning.

3. Turn these sentences into simple questions.

E.g.  I visited a charming old village full of quaint houses.

1. Definition

2. Core meaning
It is interesting… It is attractive… It is unusual… It is old-fashioned.

3. Concept checking questions
Are the houses interesting or boring?  interesting
Are they attractive or ugly?  attractive
Are they normal or strange?  strange
Are they old-fashioned or modern?  old-fashioned

Different types of concept checking questions.

Display questions and referential questions

Display questions are those which the teacher already knows the answer to and is simply asking to check the core meaning. There is a clear right or wrong answer.
Referential questions are real questions, they are more open and the students can respond more freely and personally.

E.g. We went to a really bustling market full of life.

Display question   Are there a lot of people or very few people in a bustling area?

Referential question   Where is a bustling area in your city?

It is good to use a variety of question types, it is more logical perhaps to begin with display questions then move on to referential questions.

Display questions can be:

  • Closed questions  E.g. Is a test-tube big or small?
  • Open questions  E.g. What can you buy in a newsagent’s?
  • Trick questions  E.g. So, when you are made redundant, you did something wrong at work, right?
  • Sentence finishers   E.g. A screwdriver is used for…

Common pitfalls  

  • Checking the context rather than the concept.   E.g. ‘He didn’t know the answer to the exam question so he made something up‘.   CCQ – ‘Did he pass the exam?’ (This does not check the meaning of the phrasal verb ‘make up’).
  • Using language more difficult than the item being checked.    E.g. ‘When Bill arrived, we were having lunch’.   CCQ – ‘Had we already started lunch when Bill arrived?  (If teaching the past continuous, the students are unlikely to have much awareness of the past perfect).
  • Using the target language in the CCQ.   E.g. He hasn’t finished his homework yet.  CCQ – ‘Has he already finished?’ (Checking the present perfect with the present perfect).
  • Using CCQs unnecessarily.  E.g.  Teacher shows the class a picture of an eagle in flight and asks a CCQ – ‘Can an eagle fly?’ (Bemused look from students!)

In summary:
Good concept checking questions should:

  • Relate to a model sentence in some sort of context.
  • Be thought out carefully at the planning stage to ensure the core meaning is being checked.
  • Be easy to answer – yes/no, one-word answers.
  • Be surrounded by language which is easy to understand.

With thanks to my own teacher trainers at IH Palermo for first introducing me to CCQs and my Delta trainers at IH London for helping me revisit them myself.

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Back to Basics

It’s June in Sicily… Not only does that mean it’s starting to get really hot here in Palermo, but it also means I’ll soon be wearing a different hat at work… We have a CELTA course starting in a couple of weeks. It is fascinating being the other side of a CELTA course as a tutor and it really takes me back to my own CELTA course many years ago at this very school. Over the next few weeks, time permitting, I hope to blog about some of the methodology and ideas introduced on a CELTA course in a series of posts going back to basics. 20140605-225859-82739650.jpg So expect posts on lesson planning and aims; instructions and classroom management; concept checking; meaning form and pronunciation; lesson types; and whatever else emerges in the course. Watch this space…

Back to Basics blog posts

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The 5 Second Rule

20140520-234852-85732310.jpgThere is a common adage that any food dropped on the floor is safe to eat if picked up within five seconds. Now I’m not sure if this is a theory I subscribe to wholeheartedly but I’d be lying if I said I had never done it. An alternative 5 second rule I do subscribe to however relates to an important interaction between teacher and students in the classroom.

Back in September 2012, at an AISLi DoS Days conference in Bologna, I was listening to Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill presenting their views on Demand High Teaching. This was the first time I’d heard their ideas on this and I found many of the suggestions for tweaking classroom interactions struck an immediate chord with me. Jim talked about avoiding rubber stamping when getting feedback from students, he summarises this here in a short video from IATEFL 2012 in Glasgow:

I can remember Jim’s words in Bologna as he spoke about this:

…hold for five seconds… read the room… allow for space…

…wait a little longer than is comfortable…

This was something I immediately took away with me and tried out in my classes.  I have found it has made quite a difference.  The most natural thing for a teacher to do is jump in and respond, but just letting things hang in the air a little longer can have a great effect, allowing ideas to brew, perhaps allowing other less vocal students to contribute their ideas and stronger students to question their answers.  This encourages more interaction between students, rather than a teacher->student->teacher->student interaction loop.

I also remember Jim suggesting a way to avoid jumping in, making use of ‘The Finger Lock’, as demonstrated by Obama below:

Not only does this physically prevent the teacher from jumping in, but it also has the benefit of making them look very wise, like they are in deep intelligent thought, which can’t be bad!

Try it out in class!

But remember, the 5 second rule does not apply to ice-cream!


My thanks obviously go to Jim Scrivener for introducing me to the ‘five second rule’ and the ‘finger lock’. If you don’t already own a copy of his book ‘Classroom Management Techniques‘, I would highly recommend it for more practical tweaks to help with classroom interactions and interventions.

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Come Cline with Me!

This is a follow up to a blog post I wrote a couple of months ago on using clines in language teaching,

First of all, I’d like to say a big thank you to all the readers, numbering over 35,000. An overwhelming response. It was a simple idea which seemed to strike a chord with teachers around the world. It goes to show how often the simplest of ideas can be the most effective.

As a result of the positive feedback from the post I decided to talk about this topic at the IH Teachers Online Conference on Friday 9th May. This session was recorded and the slides and recording are available on the conference blog or by clicking below.

It was a great conference and there were some super sessions from 25 teachers, trainers and managers from IH schools across the world. Each speaker had just ten minutes to present an idea so it gave some great snapshots of current practice, skills, tips and techniques.

Thank you to Neil McMahon and all the IH World team for organising such a great event, I look forward to the next one!

Why not check out the conference blog next time you have a spare ten minutes.

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Keralan Chicken Masala

This is a recipe for a really great curry. I picked it up on a cooking course in Cochin, Kerala, in India.  I also picked up a great dal recipe, you can find this in a previous post.


Chicken Marinade
1 kg. chicken
1/4 tsp. turmeric powder
1 tsp. chilli powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vinegar

2 onions – finely chopped
2 green chillies – finely chopped (no seeds)
2 tomatoes – chopped.


  • Black Mustard Seeds – 1 tsp.
  • Cumin Seeds – 1/4 tsp.
  • Garlic paste (or crushed) – 1 tsp.
  • Ginger paste (or crushed) – 1/2 tsp.
  • Turmeric powder – 1/2 tsp.
  • Coriander powder – 2 tsp.
  • Garam Masala powder – 2 tsp.
  • Crushed Pepper – 2 tsp.
  • Chilli powder – 1 tsp.
  • Salt – 3/4 tsp.
  • A few curry leaves (or coriander leaves).


1. Marinade the chicken for half an hour with the turmeric powder, chilli powder, salt and vinegar (see above).

2. Fry the chicken in a little vegetable oil until cooked.

3. Heat some vegetable oil in a pan and add the mustard seeds. Once they start to pop and it smells like popcorn turn the heat down and add the cumin seeds.

4. Add the onion and sauté until they start to brown.

5. Add the green chillies and continue to fry a little longer.

6. Add the garlic and ginger (together if using paste, if crushed add the garlic first). Lower the flame.

7. Add the powders onto the onion, not directly onto the hot surface of the pan. Mix it all together.

8. Add the tomatoes and coconut milk.

9. When the milk is boiling, add the chicken and half of the curry leaves. Simmer and cook on a low flame for 20 minutes.

10. Add the remaining curry leaves.

Serve with rice or Indian breads.

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How did it get so late so soon?

Dr Seuss

Despite its questionable grammar and lack of apostrophes, I like the Dr. Seuss poem above. It highlights a common difficulty faced by many teachers.

  • 5 minute warmer took 25 minutes?
  • Lesson ended on a grammar presentation?
  • No time for practice?
  • No time for feedback?

Sounds familiar?

Timing is something most teachers I know have issues with, myself included. We can’t and shouldn’t always expect things to go exactly to plan, often it’s a good thing if it doesn’t, it can mean learners get more out of the activity and perhaps the teacher is working on the emerging needs of the students, teaching them rather than the plan.

But what if that is at the expense of practice of the target language? I guess it all comes down to the main aim of the lesson, if there is a clear systems focus in the lesson aim, then practice of the new language is one of the most important stages of the lesson.

Some tips for working on timing

1. Get to the meat early
If your lesson has a grammar or vocabulary aim, then this language needs to be introduced early in the lesson so there is sufficient time for important practice and feedback on production.

2. Think carefully about your aim when using a text based approach
Many coursebooks use texts as a contextual vehicle for presenting grammar or vocabulary.  This puts the language in context, which we all know is important. However, in order to exploit the text fully for meaning, we need time; some texts could quite easily be stretched out for an entire lesson. Think about this at the planning stage, is your aim skills development or language development? Think about adapting the text or splitting the lesson into two separate lessons, one based on skills and one based on language.

3. Use milestones
Think how long your lesson is and when realistically, you need to be analysing the language with your students. If the lesson is only an hour, then this would probably need to be within the first 15 to 20 minutes in order to allow sufficient time for practice.

4. Plan backwards
What is the most important part of your lesson? When answering this, you’ll need to look at your main lesson aim. If you have a developmental aim such as ‘by the end of the lesson, the students will be better able to use past tenses in the context of speaking about a childhood memory‘ then clearly the productive phase towards the end of the lesson is most important. Plan this stage first and work backwards, this may help you prioritise the stages of the lesson.

5. Plan for a shorter lesson
If your lesson is 80 minutes long, try planning for just 60 minutes. In my experience it is much more common that there’s not enough time in a lesson rather than there being too much time.

6. Allow space for feedback
This is a valuable stage of the lesson and all too often jettisoned. For tips on dealing with this stage, see my earlier post on delayed error correction.

7. Allow space for work on emerging language
Respond to the language the learners are using, and importantly what they are not using. Listen out for what they are not saying, upgrade the language, explore new items in depth. Review this language at the end of the lesson.

8. Less is more
There is a lot to be said for this old adage. Have the confidence to go in to the classroom with less material and aim to get more out of it and really listen to the learners and respond to them.

Timing is not an easy thing to get right, but these tips really help me in my lesson planning.

Any more tips anyone?

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