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Teaching directions using 3D Cuisenaire rod cities


How many Parisian monuments can you identify?

In the continuing series officially baptized « things you can do with Cuisenaire rods in ELT» here’s the next idea : building 3D Cuisenaire cities.

This can add a hands-on twist to lessons on asking for and giving directions and also brings in a whole lot of extra functional language as learners build their cities together. You’ll need a set of Cuisenaire rods (one set per 1-2 groups of learners is good). For all of these activities, learners ideally work in pairs or groups of three maximum. 

Building up the situation (literally) :

Give learners a map of a city (or even better, ask learners to bring in maps of cities they have visited or would like to visit). Learners select a city and use Cuisinaire rods to reconstruct the city and its main landmarks in 3D. 

The long blue rods then become rivers, any rods stood vertically can represent skyscrapers and tall buildings. They can also add arches, bridges, and cathedrals with steeples by stacking rods like blocks. Then let them take turns asking for and giving directions in the city they just built. If they need more landmarks to help their partner find their way around the city, they can always add them as they go too. 

Then there are a few possibilities as to what to do next :

Learners can practice basic language for asking and giving directions. They’ll first need to decide where they are in the city. They can even place a little Cuisineaire mini-me (the small cube Cuisenaire rod works well) in their 3D map. The conversation may go something like this :

« Excuse me, I’m looking for Victor Hugo Square but I can’t find it. »

« Yes, it’s just there, past the church. Go straight for about 10 minutes and you’ll see it on your left. »

« OK, thanks. »

A variation on the above activity : Have learners place a mini-me in the 3D map but then stand up near the table (so they can still see their city). They do the same activity as above, but this time add hand gestures and body language that we so often use when giving directions. This has the added bonus of associating memorable movements with the meaning of the language (thanks to Scott Thornbury’s plenary at the 2013 TESOL France Annual Colloquium for reminding us how important this is). 

Learners can focus on prepositions of place by continuing to construct their city. One learner has the map and the other adds on to the Cuisenaire city. They decide what they want to add and then the « builder » asks the « map-reader » where to put the new buildings. Make it more challenging by encouraging them to be as precise as possible (« across the river from the Eiffel Tower and a little to the left, if the Tower is behind you »).

Consolidation :

After learners have done the activities, they can consolidate language with a writing activity such as writing an email with directions to a friend coming to visit or by simply recording the scripts of their conversations to keep in their notebooks. An audio alternative would be to record their conversations on their mobile devices to keep as digital notes they can listen to.

For a more interactive and investigative writing activity, have the pairs create a worksheet for another group. The aim is to use the landmark clues provided in the text to fill in the missing target language for directions. Click this link to Cuisenaire rod cities – sample text Paris for a sample text based on the city of Paris. Of course, the text can also be used to demonstrate the task to students before they create their own.

And if you’re looking for more ideas for using Cuisenaire rods (because if you’re going to buy them, you may as well use them to their full potential!), you may enjoy these articles too:

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Posted by on February 23, 2014 in Lesson skeletons


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7 reasons to use Cuisenaire rods in the language classroom

I love Cuisenaires


As you may have noticed from a few previous posts (The Big Picture: Teaching Grammar Holistically and VisuallyHolistic Grammar with Cuisinaire Rods, and Teaching Past Simple vs. Present Perfect with Cuisenaire Rods), I’m a bit of a fan of finding fun ways of using Cuisenaire rods in ELT. Of course they’re amusing, colorful, and surprising for learners using them for the first time, but that’s just scratching the surface. They also have valid pedagogical qualities such being able to help learners notice patterns, bring the additional senses of touch and sight into language learning, and add an element of play to an otherwise cognitively taxing process (translation: they’re fun).


Here’s a short list of reasons why Cuisenaire rods can make an interesting addition to any teacher’s toolbox:

  • They give learners hands-on ways of manipulating grammatical structures and vocabulary (great for showing the differences between interrogative & declarative forms, for example)
  • Learners have something tangible on which to focus, generally increasing concentration and engagement in the task at hand
  • They offer visual and memorable ways of explaining word and syllable stress (good for non-auditory learners, for example)
  • They can be used to represent things for other activities (bar graphs, a room or city layout, quantities, an abstract work of art, etc.)
  • They can make prettier timelines and process stages than simple drawn lines
  • They’re so versatile—the teacher’s (or learners’) imagination is the limit!
  • This one’s obvious, but they can be used to teach colors and comparisons (“the blue rod is longer than the red rod”)
  • They’re not incredibly expensive—I’ve seen sets for around 20-30€ and they’re durable. With lots of ideas on how to use them (coming in a future post J ), a set of Cuisenaire rods can be a worthy investment! You can even find them on amazon.

Please add your own reasons below! I’ve only touched on some of the qualities of these versatile little tools.

Further reading

Interested in the theory behind using Cuisineaire rods in the language classroom? Here are a few resources for further reading if you like to know the rationale underpinning the activities!

Akarcay, S. (2012). Cuisenaire Rods: Pedagogical and Relational Instruments for Language Learning. AYMAT Individual Thesis/SMAT IPP. Retrieved from

Callahan, J. J., & Jacobson, R. S. (1967). An experiment with retarded children and Cuisenaire rods. The Arithmetic Teacher14(1), 10-13.

Mullen, J. (1996). Cuisenaire rods in the language classroom. Les Cahiers de l’APLIUT16(2), 69-82. Retrieved from

More detailed ideas on things to do with Cuisenaire rods coming soon–keep an eye out (or just sign up for email notifications if you want to be sure to get them!)


Posted by on October 18, 2013 in Random reflections


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Holistic grammar with Cuisenaire rods (or 9 tenses in one lesson!)

Last week, a learner asked to do a visual tense revision in his next lesson. He told me “I need to see it to learn it” and that he kind of knew various verb tenses in English, but needed to organize and reinforce that knowledge a bit.

Thankfully, I remembered reading an article by Rod Bolitho in the May 2011 issue of English Teaching Professional on holistic grammar. This brilliant article (which unfortunately is not freely available online, but can be accessed through the digital archives if you have a subscription to ETp) offers several ideas for teaching several tenses in one lesson, in a very visual and memorable way, and without a lot of metalanguage. Just what I needed!

The original article, however, sets activities to do with groups of students. My learner has 1-on-1 lessons. Not to fear, the Cuisenaire rods are here! They came in handy to adapt Bolitho’s ideas to my 1-on-1 context.


  • 1-on-1 lesson
  • B1.1-ish, not afraid to analyze language to understand how it works
  • In-company lessons, but prefers general English. We had spent several lessons talking about his project of renovating an old farmhouse, so had built up lots of vocab
  • Last lesson, he requested to do some visual grammar revision

The lesson:

Photo 24-04-13 09 21 161. We established three points of reference in time: past (orange), present (blue), future (brown). Each rod represented a different reference point.

2. I asked basic display questions to elicit the continuous forms and the fact that these refer to temporary actions:

  • What are we doing now? (We’re studying English)
  • What were we doing this time last week? (We were studying English) 
  • What will we be doing this time next week? (We will be studying English)

Pretty obvious, context-bare questions, but the idea was to show that all continuous forms take -ing (this would come up later with present perfect), that continuous forms exist in past, present, and future, and that it’s the auxiliary that changes while the -ing verb part of the construction stays the same.

We used the green and magenta rods to show the “be” auxiliary + verb+-ing and for the future, magenta + beige + green = will be studying.

3. Another display question: How long have we been speaking together this morning? (We’ve been speaking for an hour).

Photo 24-04-13 09 28 43We added yellow rods to show how the present perfect continuous extends from the present back into the past. We talked about how long the learner had been working on his house, how long he had been moving boxes, etc. to show variations in how far the yellow rods extended into the past.

4. I added 5 rods lined up together to represent the five days of the current working week plus beige cubes to represent events in my schedule (we had talked about my schedule this week during pre-lesson small talk). I had the learner guess what the cubes referred to (my lessons this week).Photo 24-04-13 09 45 05

We established that I had 3 lessons on Monday, I had no lessons on Tuesday (these past days represented by 2 orange past rods), and I have one lesson today (represented by 1 present blue rod). This got us through the past simple for finished events in finished time and the present simple for facts.

5. Then we added I’m teaching 3 lessons tomorrow and I’m teaching 2 lessons on Friday (represented by two brown future rods)–present continuous as a future tense with a time adverbial.

6. Separating the weekday rods, we got on to the present perfect simple. I asked “How many lessons have I done this week?” and it took a bit of fumbling around, but we got to “You’ve had four lessons this week” since today is Wednesday and I still have more lessons to teach on Thursday and Friday.

As we were going through all these tenses, the learner was drawing his own timeline, noting examples from his own farm renovation project, and making notes about the tenses and their use. It wasn’t just me talking the whole time!

Then we removed all the rods except those first three past – present – future rods. The learner told me about his renovation project, trying to use the appropriate tenses we had seen.

Here’s what he came up with: 

Last week we were moving and we said to ourselves “Zut! the armoire is too heavy!” and we called a friend to help. We haven’t finished yet but we hope we’ll finish next week. 

On Monday night, it was necessary to take a box from the old house. I took a box on Tuesday too. This morning, I lost the key to the workshop, and we were looking for it all morning until we found it in my wife’s car. 

Tonight, I’m planning to fix the mirror in the bathroom because I can’t shave! I don’t have a mirror! I haven’t fixed it yet because I had lost the key to the workshop.

So, in about an hour and a half, we managed to address:

  • past continuous
  • present continuous
  • future continuous
  • past simple
  • present simple for facts
  • future simple
  • present perfect simple for events in a time period that hasn’t yet finished
  • present perfect simple for an event that hasn’t happened yet but will
  • present perfect continuous
  • past perfect simple 
  • present continuous as a future with a time adverbial


  • A very PPP (present practice produce) lesson, which maybe could have been introduced differently. What if I had started by letting the learner tell me about his renovation project and then building on that output? Would this have been more efficient? After all, we didn’t actually need the future continuous in the rest of the lesson and it isn’t really used that much in everyday speech (excepting English lessons on the continuous form…)
  • Some of the uses in the final output text don’t sound 100% natural to me, but we didn’t have time to go into them. At the same time, this short little text does make use of lots of different tenses, as does natural speech in many cases. I did like the fact that in the “production” part of the lesson, the student wasn’t forced to try to use 1-2 specific tenses, as is often the case in traditional grammar-focused production exercises (Think “Now use the past simple to tell your partner what you did last weekend.”)

Rather, we looked at a panorama of tenses and the learner used the ones he needed to tell me about his project. Does this mean he’ll be able to use them all correctly spontaneously? Um, let’s not dream. But it did seem to help clear some things up and give us something to refer back to in future tense work.

  • I liked the active, visual aspect of this lesson. Actually, I really liked it. It drew on the basic timeline that we all use to explain tenses, but made it more involving. Plus the fact that you can pick up parts, move them around, etc. is practical. 
  • As we built on, you can see that I took photos. I sent these to the learner so he can match them to his notes. This is also a good way of keeping track of what you’ve done with the rods, in case you need to go back and re-create a specific set up but can’t remember it.
  • Finally, maybe we could have done some sort of a wrap-up but I don’t know what exactly. I don’t know if having the learner summarize the tense rules we worked on would be very helpful. Plus, we all know that often learners are very good at reciting the rules, less so at applying them. 

Maybe going back through the learner’s final text and saying why he used a specific verb tense in that part of the story would be more effective. At least it would give context that the learner could relate to.

What do you think? What’s a good, effective way to round off a lesson on tense revision?

And if you’re looking for more ideas with Cuisenaire rods, you may like this post. Still need convincing? Here are 7 reasons to use Cuisenaire rods.


Teaching past simple vs present perfect simple with Cuisenaire rods – a sample lesson and reflection

Last night, I was looking for a way to liven up a lesson the next day on that good ol’ grammar favorite “past simple vs. present perfect simple” (a topic specifically requested by a learner in the previous lesson). Out came the Cuisenaire rods.

For those of you who may not know, Cuisenaire rods are…you guessed it, rods. There are generally about 10 different colors and an equal number of different lengths. They may come in a rectangular plastic box and attractively packed so that when you open the box, students let out a little “ooh” or “aah.” How often do grammar lessons start with oohing and aahing?

You can use them for lots of things in the ELT classroom. There are posts by Scott ThornburySandy Millin and Ceri Jones, and on the site on where Cuisenaire rods come from and the many things you can do with them, so I’m not going to list many ideas here, just the one idea used in my class this morning.

Lesson on past simple vs. present perfect simple for unfinished time with Cuisenaire rods


  • 1-on-1 lesson
  • A1.2-ish / elementary student who likes lots of revision and tries really hard to recycle vocabulary from past lessons when he speaks
  • In-company lessons, but he prefers general English to get the basics
  • Last lesson, he asked to look at past simple vs. present perfect, so he is expecting this lesson


  • A set of Cuisenaire rods
  • 2 different colored markers (but 1 marker is ok)
  • A big piece of paper (from a paper board is ideal)
  • A pen

1. I come in and we start talking about discussions he had with his colleagues and his boss l last week. We also talk about his English lessons, his colleague’s lessons, progress that’s been made, etc. This topic comes up naturally when I ask “How has your week been?” and we go from there. As we talk, I begin making a few notes on the things he tells me about, notably the phrases where he uses (or should be using) the past simple or present perfect simple. I don’t correct anything at this stage.

2. I pull a piece of paper off the paper board and lay it on the table. I invite him to come over to this table and I divide the paper into two halves with a marker. On the left half, I write the infinitives of the verbs used in the conversation in step 1. I also make a “past simple” column and a “past participle” column. Image

3. Together, we write the past simple of each verb in the appropriate column and place a green rod above the verb. The green rods indicate “past simple.”

4. We then write the past participle of each verb in the appropriate column and place a maroon rod above the verb. Maroon indicates “past participle.”

5. I explain that we use this conjugation to create the present perfect simple write this next  to the past participle column. I then write “has/have” in parentheses in front of the past participle of the first verb as an example. We add a short red rod, which now indicates the auxiliaries “have” and “has.” We go through each verb, adding the red rod while the student says the present perfect form of each verb. By now we have a red rod + a maroon rod (representing the present perfect simple) sitting above each verb in the past participle column.

6. At the top, on the right side of the big piece of paper, I draw the classic timeline with “now” at the far right of the line. I explain that we are going to situate some sentences from the conversation at the beginning of the lesson in time and decide which tense we should use.

7. Student looks terrified, having been traumatized by time lines and the present perfect simple in school

8. I give him a sentence from the conversation, but pointing to the infinitive where the verb Imagein the sentence would be conjugated. For example “Last week I (me pointing to ‘to discuss’) it with my colleague.” The student selects the appropriate rod(s), places it/them below the time line and writes the sentence “Last week I discussed it with my colleague.”

9. We continue this for the remainder of the verbs written on the left side of the big piece of paper.

10. I ask the student to explain what he understands of the two tenses and we clarify as needed.

11. To wrap up, we draw boxes around the past simple examples on right side of the paper to show that they are isolated in the past and we draw open-ended boxes around the present perfect examples to show that the time is not finished.

12. I ask the student what he takes away from the lesson and he replies “Past simple vs. present perfect simple is not easy!”

Thoughts and reflections

I liked the way the conversation led naturally into the study of the target structures, but I think this was just a stroke of luck. I had actually planned a few questions to start a conversation and then guide it to the need for the PS/PPS, but in the end, I didn’t have to use this “grammar ammo” which made it feel more natural. Also, since I didn’t have to force the grammar in, we came up with about an 80%-PS-20%-PPS ratio, which seems to be characteristic of this type of discourse. (Disclaimer: That is just based on my own experience in doing lessons on the same grammar point. I have no research to back it up. I do know that when we try to get a more balanced ratio, it often feels contrived and “PPS for PPS’s sake”-ish.)

That being said, this student would probably benefit from more exposure to the PPS. Does this lesson give him enough? Probably not. But perhaps now that the contrasting tenses have been introduced and correctly manipulated, it will be my responsibility to “drip feed” more PPS into the lessons, preferably as the need to use it comes up. By this, I mean drawing the student’s attention to the tense and why it will be used in a particular situation.

I liked using the Cuisenaire rods because it got us both out of our chairs. Also, they provided a very visual representation of which tense was used and how it related to the time of the action.

However, the different positions in time could have been done better. Looking at the picture, you’ll see that “two hours” and “twenty years” are represented by two orange rods and three orange rods respectively. This was a spur-of-the-moment decision on my part to represent time with long orange rods, but I’ll need to consider the length of times being represented to add clarity.

The same thing goes for the placement of the rods on the timeline. Ideally, actions closer to the present will be closer to the right end of the time line. On our model, they were a bit haphazardly placed. Maybe two pieces of board paper would have been better to give us more space. Or I could have just put the conjugation table on a separate A4 sheet and used the entire paper board page for the timeline work.

The rods did seem to help the learner get a clearer grasp on these two tricky tenses. I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that this lesson solved all his problems. Next week, he’ll surely confuse the two tenses when using them in conversation, but isn’t this the way second language acquisition works? We learn a bit more about the language, mess it up but realize why we messed up, try to repair it and do better next time and repeat as necessary until the new language is operational.

Perhaps next week I’ll start the lesson off with “So, how has your week been?” again, just to see how the conversation goes.

If you want another idea for using Cuisenaire rods, you may like the post Holistic grammar with Cuisenaire rods (or 9 tenses in one lesson!) and if you want more reasons to use Cuisenaire rods, here they are!

What do you think could have been done differently in this lesson to make it more effective? Also, how have you used Cuisenaire rods in the classroom? Please share your ideas with us!


Posted by on April 18, 2013 in Lesson skeletons


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The Big Picture: Teaching Grammar Holistically and Visually

Here you can download the explanations on how to do the activities I demonstrated during my talk titled “The Big Picture: Teaching Grammar Holistically and Visually.” The documents contain a little background info on each activity, the materials needed, step-by-step instructions, plus ways of adapting the activities to one-on-one or group lessons.

Click here to download activity procedures for “The Big Picture – Teaching Grammar Holistically and Visually” by Christina Rebuffet-Broadus

So far, I’ve given this talk at:

TESOL France Grenoble, Oct. 12, 2013

IATEFL Poland, Lodz, Sept. 28-30, 2013

If you have any suggestions about the activities or just want to tell us about how they went in your classroom, please do so! I’d love to hear from you.

Want more? Click here for 7 reasons to use Cuisenaire rods in the Language Classroom


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