Category Archives: Lesson skeletons

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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Lesson framework: Telephoning

I love it when, at the end of a lesson learners say that they appreciated the work done because it helped them with English and with being more effective in their work too. Of course we could argue that that’s what Business English lessons are all about, but it is nice when the learners point out how helpful the lesson was and not solely in terms of language.

Yesterday we had one such lesson, on telephoning about problems. This learner specifically has to call about IT problems she may have, so we worked on that. In the role-plays we set up, I would play the role of IT support and she would be herself.

Here is the sequence of activities for the lesson, which can be adapted to other telephone conversations .

1.  Discuss with the learner the reasons why they use the telephone. Ask them to choose a situation that they wish to work on.

2. Invite the learner to give you more details about the situation. Who are they calling ? What is the subject of the call ? In our case of an IT problem, what have they already tried to solve the problem ? How urgent must the problem be solved ? What are some possible responses that will be given by the person called (in this case tech support) ?

This step has two advantages : you’re sketching in the background of the phone call that will soon happen (as in real life, you know all this information before calling) and it provides you the trainer with valuable information to use when playing your role (which you may be unfamiliar with—I’m certainly no IT technician !

3.  Role play and record the first version of the phone conversation.  I call this a « diagnostic role play » because you can « diagnose » what needs to be worked on in the lesson.

4. Listen to the recording with your learner. Discuss their impressions and yours, negotiate what to focus on in the communication work that will follow.

5. Ask the learner to take a piece of paper. On the left side they will draw a flowchart of their actions in the conversation. In our lesson, this took the form of boxes lined up vertically. Each box had one « action » in it and they were connected by arrows (Click here for a blank preparation chart that can be printed  or just used as inspiration). On the right side, the learner wrote key expressions and/or vocabulary they would need for that step of the phone conversation. The trainer can provide valuable input and suggestions during this step, where the learner and trainer decide together what goes onto the paper.

6. Role play and record a second version of the conversation done in step 3. This should be the same conversation (but hopefully improved).

7.  Again, listen to this second recording with your learner. Discuss your impressions and compare it with the first recording. What has improved ? What could still use some work ? You may also want to point out that taking a few minutes to sketch out some notes before making phone calls may vastly improve the effectiveness of the communication.

8.  Ask the learner to think of another situation, but one that falls into the broad category of the first role play. For example, our first role play dealt with calling to ask for help with a problem. The new situation thus involved solving a problem, but it concerned a problem with information in a document rather than an IT problem.

9.  Give the learner time to create their notes themselves. This is similar to what they will do when using this technique outside of class. They can then explain what kind of information they would possibly receive from the person they call. This way, the trainer who is playing this role can provide information that reflects the reality of the situation for the learner.

10. Role play this new situation and again, ask the learner for their feedback. Feedback can include both the effectiveness of the role play and the effectiveness of the preparatory stages.


The structure of the lesson has several advantages for both the trainer and the learner :

  • The content of the lesson is based on situations the learners must really deal with in their professional life.
  • By doing a « diagnostic role play », the trainer can ensure that the lesson covers the areas of communication that most need improvement.
  • Taking time to build up the situation allows both learner and trainer to have the necessary background information for a successful role play. Remember in real life, we often have a lot of background information before making a call.
  • Preparation time for the trainer is reduced. They supply the structure of the lesson, but the learner supplies the content.
  • By the end of the lesson, the learner has created notes they can use for future phone conversations. They also come away with a technique that can be adapted to other situations.

If you’ve got any suggestions for effectively blending telephone skills and language skills, I would love to hear from you ! This is a topic that comes up in nearly every business program I write, so I’m always looking for fresh ideas !


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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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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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Breaking the first-lesson ice

So, another year, another batch of students. And another run of first lessons to get through.

While I do love the excitement of starting off with a group of fresh bodies in front of me, it’s also key to establish good rapport during that crucial first lesson. I like to send the message that I’m a teacher who likes having fun in the classroom, but who also wants to push learners enough to make them feel like they get something out of the course. The “oh-yay-another-year-of-English-to-wade-through” is NOT the attitude I want my students to have.

I’ve recently come across an activity on Dave’s ESL Café that has worked over and over with levels ranging from false beginner to advanced and can be adapted to general or professional situations. I take no credit for the activity and although I do not know who originally posted it on the EFL Café, I heartily thank them.

You can read the original activity description here and my own account of it below.

For a general group of learners or university-aged students, I’ll bring in around 5 objects for 10-15 students. My most recent group had 10 students, so five objects.

Here they are…see if you can guess what they say about me (spoiler: answers are at the end of the post!)

  1. A magazine titled Go English with a bookmark to an article written by me
  2. A plastic skeleton
  3. A sports watch
  4. A stem of cotton
  5. A cell phone charger

At the beginning of the lesson, I wrote my name and email address on the board and explained that rather than simply introducing myself, I would “tell” them about me through objects. Each pair of students reached in the bag to pull out an object. This can add a touch of humor, because they always shoot the “Is it gonna bite me?” look! I exploit that!

In pairs, they spend about 2 minutes hypothesizing on what the object means. A skeleton? Did you study medicine before? Are you afraid of dying? Is it related to Halloween?

The pairs put forth their ideas. If it’s a lower level or a group of shy students, they can first do this with other pairs, then in plenary. You can also have them report directly to the whole class.

You either confirm or correct their ideas and sometimes, this leads to a discussion. They’ll want to know more about the subject of the object and may ask questions (hint: make some notes of their output to work on question structure later on!)

Then, it’s the students’ turn. If you’re lucky to be in an internet-equipped computer room or if your students have smartphones with internet access, they can search for an image that represents them. If not, they can draw the object (or an abstract idea!)

The students then share their object, again either with a partner, small group, or the whole class depending on their level, how outgoing and willing they are to talk in front of the group, etc.

This gets them talking and also allows you to find out something about the group of students. What’s better, it’s something they want you to know about them! I always scribble a few notes and try to keep their interests in mind during the course.


Depending on how much discussion comes up, this lesson can take some time to get through. I believe we spent nearly an hour on it because we got into a discussion of Dogme ELT (there’s a hint for object #5!) When it was the students’ turn, we also got onto a little language work on nationalities and the “Have you ever…?” question.

So did you guess what my objects said about me?

  1. I write for that and other magazines
  2. Halloween is my favourite holiday
  3. I like doing all sorts of sports—running, cycling, yoga, pilates, and my latest favourite Zumba
  4. I’m from Mississippi
  5. I like to take an “unplugged” approach to teaching when appropriate. I knew they wouldn’t guess this, but it’s what led to that great discussion on how they like to learn, teaching style, and what I expect of them!


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Posted by on September 23, 2012 in Lesson skeletons