Tag Archives: grammar

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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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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Lesson 6: Judgment Day!

The lesson started with the same error correction as in lesson 5 and everything went smoothly—student corrections and explanations, with a little teacher intervention as needed to clarify.

Then came the big question. Will we continue using a Dogme approach during the 2nd half of the semester?

I put 5 questions on the board to get students thinking about the approach:

  1. Describe your vision of a Dogme approach.
  2. What is your opinion of it?
  3. Say one thing you like about it.
  4. Say one thing you don’t like about it.
  5. Do you want to continue using this approach for the rest of the semester?

The questions were in English, but I let students know that they could respond in French or English. The important thing here was the information and if they felt too limited in English, French was ok.

After about 10 minutes, I asked students to discuss their answers in small groups then as a class, taking about 10 minutes total. I, however, would leave the room during this time so as to let them express themselves more freely about their feelings towards the approach.

Of course, I glued my ear to the classroom door. I couldn’t make out exactly what they were saying, but it sounded more like English than French! I left them be and headed toward the coffee machine.

10 minutes were up so I popped my head in. “5 more minutes, 5 more minutes!” they shouted. So I slipped back out to wait until a student opened the door to let me back in.

Here’s a condensed version of what they reported:

The postives:

  • Students bring their questions to the class and the professor helps them with them.
  • It is easier to memorize the rules and explanations because they have to find them on their own and work out the explanation.
  • They like choosing what they want to work on, because the class centers on their difficulties
  • They enjoyed being able to vote on the format of the final exam
  • Lots of opportunities to speak to each other.
  • Speaking is easier because they feel comfortable with each other

The criticisms:

  • They would like to go faster through some of the grammar—it takes a long time to work out the rules on their own
  • More interaction on a specific topic would be nice, maybe divide the time more evenly between working on language and working with language
  • Needs more focus during the student-created explanations. It’s not always easy to understand the correction.

I’m glad they feel comfortable about speaking and I have noticed that overall the students are more forthcoming than in some of my other classes. I’m not sure if this is due to the students’ personalities or to the approach, because there are also a few shy students who voluntarily contribute rather little.

As I imagined, we have been spending too much time talking about the language and not enough actually conversing. I think we’ll start lessons with a more topic-based discussion rather than a grammar-based activity, which has been the case.

Their feedback shows that this approah works for this group of students, but the first few weeks haven’t been perfect.

Grammar focus has been a bit too dominant and I need to include little grammar bubbles, but as they come up and as needed. Or as that golden opportunity for a meaningful discussion of the language strikes. Or at students’ requests. However, the lessons need now to move towards a real exchange of ideas, with communication at the core.

Which is just what we’ll get a chance to do—they voted unanimously to continue Dogme for the next 6 weeks!

Lesson 5                                                                                                                          Lesson 7


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Lesson 5: SAYA A (as in again)

Last week’s lesson ended with half of the class sharing their personal “headlines” with the other half of the class. Based on our daily feedback form, they enjoyed this activity, so we started with it in yesterday’s lesson.

It ran on and then the listeners retold the parts they remembered to piece together the stories about events ranging from a class lawn bowling star to a heavy metal band member’s noisy run-in with the neighbors. As last week, I popped in and listened to make notes on things that could be improved. Like last week, this would become homework—try to correct the errors.

After the discussion, we spent some time on last week’s error list. Rather than just going through the list with “Julien, what’s number 1? Marie, do you have the correction to number 2?” I split the students in small groups and gave them a few of the mistakes to correct for the class. The twist was that they were also asked to go to the board and explain why the correction was correct and why the error was wrong. They did this fairly well, using their own words. Sure sometimes we got explanations like “It’s not “like” it’s “liked” because it’s past” which seemed pretty obvious stuff, but for the activity, I figured such simplicity was sufficient.

Then back to the students’ stories.

Homework was to write the article to go with their headlines either as a recap of last week or to prepare for this week, depending on what group they were in. In pairs, students helped each other with language questions and I encouraged them to proofread, but they seemed a bit shy on this. I would have liked them to help each other organize their ideas, but criticism, even constructive just wasn’t flowing.

I’ve found though, that students can be very timid about critiquing classmates’ ideas. Correcting language doesn’t seem to bother, as it is more a question of correct or not. Ideas, though, they’re a different matter…

On to some SAYA focus to carry on from last week then. Again in pairs, students looked for examples of since, already, yet, and again, along with any present perfect continuous tenses in their text and that of their partner.

I was building up to an class-created example corpus to see if they could get the use without having to explain any rules (after all, they had already explained a lot of rules with the error correction activity).

We divided the board into squares, one for each element, and filled them with corresponding examples from the students’ own work, correcting as we went. In feedback, they said that they had enjoyed this, perhaps because it allowed them to see examples they could relate to and had already experimented with.

They seemed more comfortable with SAYA and one student admitted that he also had issues with the infamous “for” and “since.” He unknowingly set their homework: try to write a few sentences with these two, which we’ll use for the catalyst of next week’s lesson!

Lesson 4                                                                                                                       Lesson 6


Posted by on February 28, 2012 in Experimental practice


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Lesson 4: The SAYA dilemma

Since, ago, yet, already. These four little words seem to plague French learners and for obvious reasons. Since translates to depuis. So does for. The idea of ago has a structure that when translated looks like there are four years, I went to the US for vacation. As for already, well, its French equivalent can also translate to yet. In some contexts, that is.

Not what I had predicted doing, but it came up and incidentally SAYA could fit well with the jump-start idea that I had chosen (thank you, ELT gods!)

We began the lesson with a little revision from the regular “Lesson That Was” form that I fill in and photocopy for everyone at the end of each lesson (See Teaching Unplugged, p. 63). Students made mental notes of questions they still had about any language. We boarded this and then students grouped in 4s to try to answer some of their classmates’ questions by going to the board and playing teacher. I monitored and corrected as needed. Although the students seemed reluctant to take the place of the teacher, they do it and they really try. Best thing is they explain in their own words, which are probably better understood by their peers than my explanations.

This was when SAYA came in, probably sparked by last lesson’s work on the present perfect simple.

I explained it to one group, who then went to the board to explain it to the rest of the class. We elicited a few examples together, and I circled the words in red to set up for the next activity. Maybe we could have done some more SAYA-specific work here, but I thought the activity I had planned would lend itself nicely to some natural emergence. I was hoping this would be shed light on these little linguistic trouble-makers in a more organic, holistic way. Did it?

My own "headline"

I asked if any of the students had a newspaper on them. Since they give out freebies near the tram stop, I was pretty sure the answer would be yes. Bingo! We opened a page, I read the headline and asked if they could guess what the article was about. Luckily, this one particular headline was a bit enigmatic–something about a Salkin-Magnani face off. Then I pulled out my grassroots “front page” based on “Headlines” (Teaching Unplugged, p. 38) about my weekend spent purging my apartment of unneeded clothes, books, papers, and general clutter. Students asked a few questions about what sort of home purification took place, but I stopped them before they could get all the details (oh, the suspense building up to next week’s lesson!)

Students were encouraged to create their own headline, and if desired, to exaggerate their exploits. 6 of them lined up with their own front pages, the other half stood in front of a partner to ask him/her questions to learn more about their headline.  After a minute or so, the questioners rotated until they had spoken to each headline-holder. All the while, I circulate to help with vocab and make notes on what I hear.

Afterwards, group summary of the stories to check what they had understood and to consolidate the stories.  We went over some of the new vocabulary as we pieced together the stories and I pointed out where SAYA could have been used to try to tie the day’s bits together.

During the Headlines activity, SAYA didn’t come up as much as I would have liked, but I think that I was less disappointed than if I had done a traditional PPP lesson. In a way, it was a bit liberating and at the same time, a signal to say that this aspect would need some recycling in future lessons.

Which is why their homework is to write the “article” to match their headline, making a special effort to incorporate since, ago, yet, and already when possible. In the meantime, I’ll try to think of a catalyst likely to draw out this language again for next week.

Any suggestions?

BONUS: A few memorable headlines and their stories:

–On a Culinary Quest for Taste: about a girl making crepes with her mom

–Boomerang Rock Strikes: one guy threw a rock against a wall when he was a kid. It bounced back and left a small scar on his lower lip.

–Nightmare in the ER: this poor girl spent her week of vacation at home with stomach flu that required a trip to the hospital

–Young Painter Wins Prize: one of my students won his height in paint thanks to a miniature octopus woman figurine he created.

Lesson 3                                                                                                                       Lesson 5


Posted by on February 21, 2012 in Experimental practice


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Lesson 3: Blast from the past (vs. present perfect simple)

I’ve been thinking about how important it is to have some sort of continuity through a Dogme semester. Without it, we could run the risk of doing a series of one-off lessons and students would have difficulty seeing how it all builds up as a cycle.

This was one comment I got last semester when I tested a single Dogme lesson in a sea of planned, photocopied, and powerpointed sessions. The students said they had really enjoyed it, but they didn’t see how it fit in to the rest of the semester. Note taken.

So as a continuation of last week’s past simple vs. present perfect simple grammar point, I divided the students into 3 groups of 4 and had them concoct something to help another group with this dark zone of the English tense system.

And they set to work.

After about 30 minutes, we had a « spot the correction » activity with about 7 sentences, a biography of Steven Spielberg, and another of Goullom from Lord of the Rings. During this, I walked around and sat in on their group collaboration to answer questions, correct, and clarify as needed. I also noticed that one group was using a mobile phone to pull up info on Spielberg while another was gleaning ideas from one of those free “newspapers” they hand out on the trams and buses.

The students were discussing the grammar points! But they were doing it in French. For the moment, I let them continue, but it made me wonder “should we ask students to discuss and explain emerging grammar knowledge in L2?” One part of me says “yes,” it gives them good practice and they associate the language with the grammar. Another part of me says “no,” grammar is complex. They’re having a hard time with the concept, let’s not complicate things further.

What is your take on this?

Each group finished, gave their exercise to another group, and the second round of work began. It all went smoothly, many right answers, some a little less right. Each time, I pointed out the correct answers and the ones that needed to be reconsidered.

As each group finished, I asked them to formulate explanations for each tense based on what they noticed during the creation and the working stages. One member of each group also boarded the exercise they had completed so that we could go through them together.

Each group then had to explain the work they had done on the other group’s exercise, explaining why they chose whichever tense (this time in English!). The three volunteers seemed a little nervous about this part, so we applauded each one for their effort at playing teacher. Hopefully that created a bit of positive energy!

Students' board work

To round off the lesson, we ended by compiling some explanations of when to use the tenses and put them on the bottom of the board.

Students spent the last 10 minutes filling out and discussing what will become our weekly feedback session (this idea is pulled directly from Teaching Unplugged, p. 99). Students unanimously liked the grammar explanations and creating their own activities. However, I wonder if the affinity for grammar comes from some old scholarly comfort zone. I’ll have to be careful not to get sucked into the “talking about grammar” trap at the expense of “talking with grammar.” They’ll need some real, spontaneous use of the tenses, perhaps in a more discussion-led class next week. They’re off for a week of vacation, which means next lesson should be fertile with stories to tell!

I doubt the old comfort zone issue applies to creating activities for their classmates. While a few students pointed out that we spent a little too much time actually creating the activities (there’s my pacing problem creeping up on my again…), they all said they enjoyed doing it and would like to include it in future lessons.

So next time, perhaps we’ll put all this grammar to use and get them to spend the entire 2 hours just talking in L2 about things they’ve done. A challenge?

Lesson 2                                                                                                                 Lesson 4


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Lesson 2: Two simple tenses that are anything but

After an encouraging first lesson and positive responses on my “Will you do Dogme with me?” questionnaire, it was time to get into the nitty gritty of a semester of unplugged teaching.

I have to admit that I’m not really comfortable yet with waltzing into a classroom of 12 students with NOTHING prepared. Last night, I thought through a lesson catalyst: Write a few things I did this past weekend (celebrated my 5-year wedding anniversary, went to an exhibit on Italian immigration, jogged for an hour and half) and invite students to do the same. Then we would board some ideas, see how they related to bigger issues, and decide which topics would be most interesting to talk about. Big issues from my activities could have been relationships, immigration, and healthy lifestyles. After that, I would see where the students would take the class.

Perhaps the good news is we never got to that.

We started off by looking at their homework from last lesson. Amazingly, everyone had done it! I took this as a positive sign that they had actually engaged in the last lesson. I’ll have to see if this enthusiasm is real or if they were just afraid that I would collect their homework…

So, students compared their English translations with a partner, then in small groups to write a collective version. This led to three collective versions, which students then compiled into a single classroom version. As Ss worked on their collective versions, I went around asking about any variations between students. Preposition issues and a few tense questions came up—they were noticing!

We divided the board in two and one student wrote the class version. I wrote the original version from last week. There were only a few differences, but sufficient opportunities to address emerging language: present simple vs. present continuous; past simple vs. present perfect simple; American vs. British spellings (traveled vs. travelled); the Oxford comma in lists; work AT vs. working ON, for which the DELTA was a good example—If I’m working on the DELTA, what’s my job? If I work at Delta, what could my job be?


The biggest issue that came of the discussion was the thorny past simple vs. present perfect simple. French learners (and I’m sure they’re not the only ones) have real problems with this because the French passé composé tense is used like the English past simple, but looks like the present perfect simple. So French Nous avons testé un nouveau resto hier translates to “We tested a new restaurant yesterday” but looks like it should translate to “We have tested a new restaurant yesterday.” See the problem?

Remedy: I asked them to think of a famous person, still alive, that they knew fairly well. Silence. So we narrowed it down—celebrity or politician? Celebrity! French or American? French! Man or woman? Woman? Any suggestions now? Vanessa Paradis! Maybe my initial request was just too broad and no one wanted to look like they were dominating—helping students narrow down choices may be a good thing sometimes.

Short Vanessa Paradis bio and comparative columns

So we brainstormed a short bio of Vanessa Paradis, with blanks for the verbs that Ss filled in as a class. This gave the grammar a context. We then made columns of past simple and present perfect simple sentences to compare the two tenses.

Ss grouped together to try to find an explanation, which they shared with the class. Two groups had on-target explanations, using words that maybe I wouldn’t have used but that may have been more accessible to their peers. Someone from each group even went to the board to draw timelines and explain their ideas.

One group, however, came up with an explanation that I wasn’t sure what to make of: past simple=activities that everyone can do: She was born in 1972; she got married in 2003, etc. and present perfect simple=activities that are more rare or not for everyone: she has released one hit song since then; she’s had three kids (yes, most people have kids, but not THREE kids).

I have to admit that I didn’t really know what to say. I didn’t want to discourage them too much, but clearly the explanation was askew. I thanked them for the effort and pointed out that the choice in tense really depended on the time and how much we knew about when/if the action finished.

And we noticed time had run away. Class was over. We hadn’t touched what I had planned the night before. That was fine by me. Next week, maybe we’ll go back through the tenses and I’ll invite the students to create some activities to reinforce what emerged in today’s lesson.

Lesson 1                                                                                                                           Lesson 3


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