Tag 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:

Leave a comment

Posted by on February 23, 2014 in Lesson skeletons


Tags: ,

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 !


Tags: ,

Me: “Here are your booklets.” Them: (groan)


A few past booklets

I am not anti-course book. I have nothing against course book writers. In fact, some of my wider-world colleagues are course book writers. It’s starting a lesson with “Open your books to page 7 and look at exercise A” that bugs me.

This reflection came up after the first month of a new academic year. During this first month, the new classes begin, we discuss how the students like to learn, what they liked and disliked about past English classes, and the students’/teachers’ roles in a class where content is co-constructed–not dictated and transmitted.

Also, the students receive their course booklets for the semester. Each time “I’m going to hand out your booklets for this year” was met with “(groans and sarcasm) Oh yay, THE booklet.” Two students in two different groups actually asked “Is it for burning?”

For context clarification: Each semester, the students get a new booklet. Most of my groups are in their 3rd semester and as such are used to the booklet system.

Content-wise these booklets are not half-bad. They’re produced in-house by a dedicated head teacher (not me, just for the record), incorporate authentic materials, and are updated every year to improve on last year’s model. Sure they lack the glossy cover and full-color illustrations of publishing house course books, but don’t we have a popular idiom in English…something about not judging a book by its cover?

After witnessing the same less-then-enthusiastic reaction with several groups, I wanted to try something. With one lower level group, the first module in their book was spelling practice. Instead of handing out the books and asking them to do the exercises, I asked the students to spell their last names so I could note them in my records. As usual, there was confusion with the pronunciation of I vs E vs A, J vs G, Y, and H. After getting names, I suggested we do a little letter pronunciation practice and asked how they’d like to do so.

The students had lots of ideas—hangman, crossword puzzles, scrabble, etc. For these last two, I suggested that the person would have to spell the word they wanted to place while their partner actually wrote in the word to add an actual pronunciation element. Some students wanted to do this in plenary, others wanted to work in small groups to be able to have more speaking time (yes, one student actually said that’s why she preferred to work in a small group).

We put two groups off to the side while I led a round of scrabble with about half the class, drawing a grid on the white board and having students spell the words they wanted to add. They all paid close attention as words were being added, probably trying to plot where they could place a word come their turn.

This activity wrapped up and I gave out their booklets. As expected, students let out little groans. Then I opened the book and pointed out that the week’s lesson was supposed to be…spelling practice. I think at that point they saw through my little tactic of starting off with a task that would lead to work on the programmed target language. Needless to say there were no “Oh, so the booklet isn’t so bad after all” jumps for joy!

But they had been engaged in the work we had done. They had looked like they were enjoying it. When we wrapped up the lesson with a review of those problematic letters—A, E, I, G, J, Y, H–there was noticeably less confusion.

So what made the difference? After all, the content of the book unit and the content of the actual lesson were the same.

I’ll share my reflections on that in the next post. In the meantime, what do YOU think changed the way the students reacted to the activity?



Posted by on October 6, 2012 in Dogme


Tags: , , ,