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Building your repertoire

Earlier this year I published four blog posts about having a repertoire of go-to classroom teaching sequences and procedures to reduce planning time and workload. I'm now posting these all in one place, mainly for the benefit of language teachers learning their craft. You can pick and choose what you like and what you think would work with your classes.

In order, they focus on using sentence builder frames, ways to exploit written texts, how to teach using a set of PowerPoint pictures and, finally, some random useful lesson tasks. 

So, what I'm going to suggest here is that, if you have a little repertoire of go-to classroom activities, you can save yourself a lot of time and stress, and, what's more, all for the benefit of your classes. You see, I think (actually, I know) pupils like routines, but they also appreciate a bit of variety. So if you apply your repertoire of lesson/activity types sensibly you can satisfy both of those needs, comfortable in the knowledge that you are using tried and tested techniques..

Firstly, I'm going to show one way to use sentence builder frames (aka substitution tables) as the basis for a sequence of comprehensible activities which build memory and skill in a non-threatening way. For years, I came across substitution tables in text books and skipped over them, firstly because I couldn't really work out what to do with them and secondly, because they weren't very well designed in the first place. It really wasn't clear what they were there for. So here is what I wrote recently on this first arrow in your quiver, weapon in your armoury, or whatever other metaphor you prefer. I am naturally grateful to Gianfranco Conti for convincing a slight sceptic how useful sentence builders are.

I wouldn't use these every week, but I can imagine using them at KS3, maybe KS4 too, on a pretty regular basis as part of the repertoire.

The example below is followed by a possible teaching sequence. You could probably find alternative ideas.Note how everything is translated into English (where necessary) to ensure pupils understand everything at all times.


Je vais aller (I’m going to go)
au parc (to the park)
au cinéma (to the cinema)
au restaurant
aux magasins (to the shops)
à la piscine (to the swimming pool)
en ville (into town)

avec mes parents (with my parents)
avec mes amis (with my friends
avec mon ami(e) (with my friend)
Ce sera bien (it’ll be good)
Ce sera amusant (it’ll be fun)
Ce sera super (it’ll be great)
Ce sera cool
Je vais jouer (I’m going to play)
au tennis
au football
au rugby
aux jeux de société (board games)
au tennis de table
à l’ordinateur (on the computer)
à la console (on the games console)
Je vais regarder (I’m going to watch)
la télé
un film
un match de foot
Je vais écouter (I’m going to listen to)
ma musique
la radio
un podcast
Je vais manger (I’m going to eat)
de la pizza
du poisson (fish)
de la viande (meat)
des pâtes (pasta)
des frites (chips, fries)
un grand repas (a large meal)
un hamburger
Je vais faire (I’m going to do)
une promenade (a walk, trip)
du vélo (cycling)
des courses (shopping)
mes devoirs (my homework)
Je vais acheter (I’m going to buy)
des vêtements (clothes)
des chaussures (shoes)
un livre (a book)

Je vais rester (I’m going to stay)
chez moi (at home)
dans ma chambre (in my room)

Here is a possible teaching sequence (you might find other variations you like more).

1.         Read aloud some examples. Start with just the first row.
2.         Do some choral repetition for pupils to get used to saying the sentences.
3.         Get pupils in pairs to make up sentences (or do this as a whole class task with   hands up or down).
4.         Then move to the next line and so on.
5.         In the end get pupils to make up full descriptions using all three lines.
6.         Then take away the displayed items and see what they can do from memory.
7.         If the above needs support use the “aural gap-fill technique”, i.e. give them parts of each sentence orally, then they complete.
8.         With some classes you could invite them to make up their own additions in each slot.
9.         Do some call and response translation into French.
10.       You may like the idea of pupils recording their mini talks at the end or for homework if you give them a copy of the sentence frame. 

For an add-on, play Sentence Stealers (grazie Gianfranco)

  • Display around 15 sentences on the board, based on the language patterns from the sentence builder.
  • Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.
  • On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.
  • Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentence from the board to see if their partner has it.
  • As an alternative, to add some spice students can play rock/paper/scissors to see who has the right to read a sentence.
  • After five minutes, the winner is the person with the most cards.

This is a jolly good little game to recycle some language in a fun way and teachers say it works really well.


You take take the game a little further, though, adding an element of memory to go with the reading aloud aspect.

So, after playing the first game for five minutes, you could then display a list of the same sentences, but with gaps. The number and nature of the gaps would depend on your class. Each sentence would be numbered or lettered, e.g. A, B, C, D etc.

This time, instead of students writing a sentence on each of their cards, they simply write the letter of the sentence from the board. Then the game proceeds in the usual way, except this time students must produce their sentences from memory (referring to the gapped sentences on the board). The teacher could even create some more gaps in the displayed sentences as the game proceeds, to provide a bit more challenge.

So there you have it: a resource type and lesson sequence for many occasions and classes. In my next blog, I'm going to add a second possible string to your bow by talking about how to exploit a text or pictures using question-answer and other teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil interactions.


Now I'm going to look at simple ways to exploit written texts. Now, you often come across a piece of writing in a text book, or find an interesting, comprehensible text you fancy using. Yes, I did throw in comprehensible there, since (in case you need reminding!) the research suggests that for a text to be useful for acquisition it needs to be at least 95% comprehensible, i.e. the students should already know at least 95% of the words. (It 's Paul Nation who writes about this. In fact, he even suggests that 98% is the magic figure, but you need to take into account the individual differences in your class and how many words are easily guessable because they are borrowing from English or close cognates. 90% might even do with some classes.)

So you have your text and think "What shall I do with this?" 

The fundamental principles underlying this teaching sequence are about:
  • Making the language comprehensible and interesting.
  • Scaffolding activities, building from easier to harder.
  • Building in repetition.
  • Varying the task.
  • Varying the skill mode (listening, reading, speaking, writing).
  • Allowing each skill to reinforce the others.

Here is the text - pitched at intermediate level (e.g. Higher Tier GCSE):

A new survey in France reveals that young people spend more than 27 hours per week online. This figure has tripled over the last decade. The opinion pollster IPSOS carried out the study based on thousands of young 16-24 year-olds as part of its report in 2017 about media usage and attitudes towards it. IPSOS concluded that although most online content continues to be viewed on a computer, the proportion of access via mobile devices is rising rapidly. Currently three quarters of adults regularly use a smartphone or tablet computer. Online content has also changed considerably over the last ten years. Today people spend much more time watching video clips, playing games, using instant messaging and checking their social media accounts. An expert in online media explains why people are spending more time online. “New technologies are opening up lots of new possibilities for young people. It’s not just about looking at content. They are sending messages to friends at the same time. Over time, as young people grow older and set up their own homes they will watch less television. Over a quarter of young people now watch television programmes and films online rather than on a television. A 50 inch television screen offers quality you cannot obtain on a tablet or smartphone, so televisions will always have a significant role.

Suggested sequence
1. Pre-reading
Display two columns of words from the text with L1 on one side, L2 on the other. Get the class to match words from each column, either done as whole class hands-up, in pairs or individually + feedback).
2. Teacher reads aloud with text visible on screen for students to follow.

3. Choral reading aloud of part or all of the text. Teacher reads a chunk, students repeat. Correct any obvious errors. Insist on total participation.

4. Invite volunteers to read aloud paragraphs.

5. Hand out a printed version of the text. (You could have done this at the start.) Ask students to highlight or underline any cognates they can identify. then get feedback.
6. "How do you say...?" task. Teacher gives a word or chunk and students identify from the text. Either hands up, no hands up or responses on mini whiteboards.

7. True/false - teacher makes statements for the class to respond to with mini-whiteboards (or on paper).

8. Correcting false statements. Teacher makes a series of false statements for students to correct. (Not how at this point, having got better acquainted with the text students now have to provide more spoken language.)

9. Repeat the above activity but this time students write down their answers. Feed back.

10. Teacher asks questions in L2. Students respond (hands up or no hands up).

11. Provide students with a list of written questions. Students work in pairs asking each other the questions. Monitor the work from a distance ensuring all students are on task. Answer questions.

12. Check with the class if there are still parts of the text they don't understand.

13. Have students write out their answers to the questions they did orally. Add questions about their own use of their internet use (personalising the topic). (This might be done as a homework task.) Alternative written tasks could include translation into L1, retranslation into L2 (i.e. producing a set of sentences similar to those used in the source text) or a short composition about internet use.

Follow-up lesson(s)

Display the text again and check meaning of key phrases. Re-do short parts of the activities described above. Don't assume that language covered last time will have been remembered. For many students this will not be the case unless you recycle the language at spaced intervals in the future (spaced learning principle). In future lessons try to recycle some or all of the language in different contexts.


This is just a selection of the many tasks you can do with a text, but in this example I tried to build up the sequence moving from easier to harder, giving plenty of time and exposure to allow some "implicit" learning to take place before asking students to be productive themselves.
Exactly the same principles could apply with easier texts and with near-beginners. ELT writer Michael Swan has called this type of sequence "intensive input-output" work. I think it's better to work a short text intensively, building in repetition, rather than exploiting a longer text in a shallow fashion. This doesn't mean that there isn't room for more extended reading, but limited classroom time makes intensive work more fruitful in my view. 

It's quite a teacher-led approach, but bar in mind that pupils get to hear a LOT of comprehensible target language in the process. If done on repeated occasions, just think how much listening input students receive.


Next I'll take a look at exploiting picture sequences to build listening skill, grammatical awareness and spoken proficiency. This mixes teacher-led work with pairs, building up logically from receptive to productive activity. Having a well-designed and structured PowerPoint is the place to start.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:

Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sports. (A simple objective clearly laid out with success criteria.)

2. Show the first 10-20 slides, depending on the class, and speak each sentence. Let the class just listen. (On balance I would still favour letting students hear before seeing the words. They have the images to hold interest and establish meaning. This also allows you to do a second pass in a moment with the words visible - providing a twist and sense of progression in the lesson.)

3. Show the same slides with the caption, but with no repetition. (This gives more time for the students to get to grips with sounds and meanings without putting pressure on to perform. Sound spelling links are getting established and you could emphasise certain sounds, e.g. the "ou" of joue.)

4. Do step (3) but adding individual repetition (hands up or no hands up). (This is another recycling opportunity allowing students to gain confidence and familiarity.)

5. Using slide 43 (the grid with all the images), point at images and elicit individual responses, followed by choral repetition. Insist on accuracy. (This synthesises the earlier work.)

6. Ask if any students can out together at least two, then three, then four etc responses to produce longer utterances. (This offers a challenge to rise to and allows some to shine.)

7. Use slide 44 for oral translation, either teacher-led or in pairs, depending on the mood and the class. (How well the class handles this gives you good feedback about their understanding at this point.)

8. Play "guess the sport". tell the class you are thinking of a sentence and they have to say the sentence. (Classes enjoy such guessing games.)

9. You can then try some simple transcription/dictation. With weaker classes this could be with gapped sentences. You could use mini-whiteboards for this. (This provides a quiet, settled time for reflection and to focus on sound-spelling links.)

10. That may be enough for the first pass at this topic, but there is a slide at the end if you think the class is ready to see a whole verb paradigm. You could offer a little grammar explanation at this point, what the researchers call "focus on form".

I was not one for plenaries, to be honest, but you could get every pupil to say at least one sentence as they leave the room.

To sum up, the above sequence is very much in keeping with the direct method or oral approach where the focus is on TL use. To make this kind of sequence work I found you had to work at pace and with some humour, then follow up the work in the next lesson or two (even using part of the same sequence - let pupils show off what they have remembered).

Is this approach open to criticism? Well, some readers may be less than keen by all the "forced output" and artificial nature of the exchanges. There is little communication going on. Others may find it too teacher-centred and regimental. My response would be that this is just one lesson among many, others of which would feature listening and reading input and other forms of communication. My experience was that if you don't put in the disciplined choral, individual, reading and writing work, including the phonics, you are less likely to produce competent linguists in the end.

But that cat can be skinned in many a way.

In the final post of this clip show series, I'll bring together a range of low or zero prep lesson ideas which can be used as starters/warmers, fillers or plenaries (I dislike that word - warm-downs sounds better). 


Finally,  here is a pot-pourri of low prep lesson ideas. I've taken these from various blogs I've written in the past.

1. My weekend (low to mid-intermediate)

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own true/false statements. This can be further extended by getting students in pairs to recount your weekend from their notes and/or their own weekend.

2. Just a minute (intermediate to advanced)

Pupils work in small groups. Individuals try to talk for a minute without hesitating (i.e. drying up), repeating or deviating from the topic. This works well with good intermediate and advanced level students. You can give easy topics to intermediates and harder ones to advanced level students. This can be great preparation for an oral exam. I'd begin by improvising an example of your own to demonstrate as a model.

This is definitely an "output" task but one which can encourage students to speak fearlessly with an ear on fluency rather than accuracy.

3. Would I lie?  (Intermediate to advanced level)

 Students try to work out which three of six statements are not true by asking you questions. You prepare five statements about yourself, three true and two false, and write them on the board. For example:

• My brother has twin sons.
• I have three cats.
• If I’d been a boy, I would’ve been called George.
• My family was brought up in Spain.
• My favourite movie is The Sound of Music.
• My father was an extra in Star Wars.

You can ask the class how many of the statements they think are false. Then tell them there are three. Tell them they have to work out which by asking you questions, listening to your answers and watching your reaction. You can embroider your answers as much as possible, giving the right number of hints depending on how fast you think your class is.

Let the students ask questions until they have decided which ones they believe (by a show of hands). Give them the real answer. You could add an element of competition by putting the class into pairs or small groups, with each grouping coming up with their chosen two false statements.

An extension to this task is to ask students to write down similar statements for themselves – three true and three false. Divide them into groups and repeat as above with one person from the group being questioned by the others.

4. Exploiting a simple picture  (Intermediate to advanced)

This is an extremely simple, zero preparation and fun idea for creating conversation lessons with high intermediate or advanced level classes. You take a simple picture featuring a couple of people and use it as the basis for some imaginative storytelling.

What's her name?
What's his name?
Where are they? What country? What town?
What's their relationship?
Did they meet recently?
Are they work colleagues?
How old are they?
What are they eating?
What are they talking about?
What is she like as a person? What's he like?
What are their interests?
Why do they look so happy?
How did they meet? When? Long ago?
If they are married, have they been married before?
What were they doing before they met at the restaurant?
What are they going to do next?
What do they do for a living?
What do they think of their jobs?
Have they always done that?
What did they used to do?

Now, how the conversation develops depends on just how imaginative your students are. You would do well to tell the students at the outset to be as daring as possible. They may take you in some interesting directions; or you may need to prompt them to use their imaginations a bit more by suggesting some more outrageous ideas, e.g. he has two wives, she is a spy, he is an ex convict, they are having an affair, and so on.

I would probably do this a teacher-led task, but with some classes you hand out a list of suggested questions and get the students to work in pairs or small groups. This would lead to a variety of stories which can be compared later on.

When you do this type of activity students come up with different scenarios. This can generate further debate. If you are leading the lesson, you may have to lead them along what seems like the most fruitful linguistic and creative path.

It's easy to encourage the use of different time frames - past, present and future - and to go on from speaking to writing or more listening. For example, you could make up your own back story to the couple, describe it in TL to the class, whilst they take notes, then feed back the account to a partner or the whole class.

How about getting them to write an imagined dialogue between the couple, once their story is established? Or how about getting the students to find their own picture and build an imaginative story around it, either spoken, written or both.

5. Word association (any level)

Give an example of how it works, then do it as a whole class activity, either working round in order or moving randomly from pupil to pupil. Stress that students should not plan words in advance and that they are allowed to pass. With the right class they can do it in small groups or pairs. This works at all levels.

You can use the game to develop quick vocabulary retrieval reflexes and to illustrate how humans organise words in the brain.

A similar and effective alternative is to build silly stories one word at a time, moving around the class. Sentences need to be grammatical, so in this case the task develops both meaning and syntactic and morphological skills. Tell students they can say "full stop" (period) if the sentence comes to a natural end.

6.  Swap it/add it (from Kayleigh Meyrick)  (any level)

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article que j’ai lu les Français, surtout les jeunes, font de plus en plus d’achats en ligne.”

Variations might include:

“D’après un article/selon une vidéoclip/surtout les personnes âgées/en particulier les jeunes/les 16-24 ans/d’achats sur internet/de shopping en ligne/depuis leur ordinateur.”

An alternative to the above which Kayleigh describes is to begin with one word, then each person in the sequence or partner has to add another element (word or chunk) to the sentence. The sequence might go like this:

à mon école
à mon école il y a
à mon école à Leeds il y a
à mon école à Leeds il n’y a pas
à mon école primaire à Leeds il n’y a pas d’éléphants” etc

If you wanted to build a lesson plan around these games why not, as a second stage, get students to write down from memory resulting sentences and share them with the class? If you do this you may be wise to tell the class in advance that this is what they will do - this may focus minds even more.

7.  Instant QA  (intermediate)

You can lead a question-answer sequence on a topic, e.g. ‘Describe where you live’ or ‘My school’. As students give answers you can write up partial answers on the board. Students can copy these, filling any gaps as appropriate. If they do not have time they complete the sentences at home. They end up with a reasonably or wholly accurate piece of writing which they can use later for oral practice or exam revision. This makes for a multi-skill lesson with all students actively engaged.

8.  Alibi  (intermediate to advanced)

For intermediate or advanced students, play 'Alibi'. You tell the class a crime was committed last night by two suspects in the class. Two volunteers go out and prepare their alibi - something they did together last night. They then come back in and are interrogated by the class in turn. While the pair were outside you will have prepared questions with the rest of the class. After questioning the class vote on whether they were guilty or innocent; if there are significant inconsistencies between the stories they will be guilty. This is a fluency and listening task, but you can focus a bit on past tenses, offering occasional correction with recasts.

9.  Pattern drills  (any level)

With all levels, do simple transformational pattern drills. These make effective starters. A simple example is to give a sentence which students have to make one or two changes to. These could be a change of noun, tense or adjective. You could go from positive to negative too. These work well as students appreciate the simplicity and clarity of them. They are a great way to stay in the target language. Ignore the naysayers who question the value of drilling!

10.  Number games (any level)

  • Fizz-buzz. Go round the class counting up in French. When you get to a number with 5 in or a multiple of 5, say FIZZ. For numbers with a 7 in or a multiple of 7, say BUZZ. Pupils must say FIZZ-BUZZ for numbers such as 35 or 57. This can also be played in groups.
  • Play the Countdown numbers game. This is also good for practising arithmetical terms such as "multipliė par". By the way, the teacher does not have to get the answers! Good for intermediate and advanced level.
  • Play mental arithmetic bingo. Instead of just giving a number, read out a simple sum which leads to the number
  • Play "Reverse Bingo". In this game all pupils stand up. When they hear a number on their card they must sit down. Last person standing wins.
  • Do complex mental arithmetic problems. Read out a series of simple operations. Pupils write them down and winners are ones who get them right. They need to be lengthy!
  • Play original bingo. Still the best?
  • Aural anagrams of spelt out numbers. Teacher reads out an anagram. Pupils write down letters. First one to get the right number wins. You can make it harder by getting pupils to do them in their heads.


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