Tomoko & Jennifer

Back in 2012-2013, I worked with Danielle Tsumita, a talented artist.  She drew a set of four cartoon skits, and together we made them into a project for beginner ESL students.  At our school, every year we use these materials with seventh graders as follows:  Groups of three or four are made.  Each group gets a scene that has cartoons and partial dialog.  They work together to finish writing the dialog, then they learn and perform the scene as a play.  This can be done over three 50-minute classes.

Performance is a great way to learn a language for several reasons.  First, if you get the environment right, it’s fun.  Second, props are involved, and some people are fairly quick to understand the connection between the words they say and the things in their hands.  Third, when you practice for a short play, you spend a long time saying the same lines over and over again.  This gives confidence to weaker students, and it helps all students memorize their lines for both the performance itself and the long term.  Finally, when you’re doing a performance it’s natural to try to speak with and show emotion.


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World Schools

These are materials for a project I usually do with seventh graders when the topic of school life comes up in the textbook or syllabus. Students are in groups of two or three, and each group is assigned one school. Using the one-page poster, and possibly the internet, their job is to create a presentation introducing that school to their classmates.

Starting from scratch on a project like this is too hard, because students don’t know how to do the research or what materials to include, so by providing them with more than enough information on their assigned school, they can focus on understanding it and writing sentences in English that will convey the information to others.

Given a little help, students can take sentences about the example school and modify them to fit their assigned school.  Alternately, stronger students are encouraged to create new or longer sentences.

  • World Schools.  A PDF with information on seven middle schools around the world.  The information is all real, and was accurate at the time of creation (2013-2017).
  •  The posters in PDF and ODP format, plus related worksheets.  All of these are editable.

South Middle School


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Who You Are

Who You Are is a free speaking getting-to-know-you game. I saw a similar game last year and liked the general notion, but rather than spend a lot of money, here is my new and improved (and free!) alternative. You can play this with JHS students, SHS students, or even a group of adults. When this game goes well, it’s a great way for people to get to know each other better. Also, many of the questions are likely to lead to answers that naturally vary greatly from person to person. This is a low-key way of expressing diversity in a casual setting.

  • Students sit in groups of four, five, or six.
  • Each group gets as many cards as there are people. Cards have questions in both English and Japanese, and depending on the students’ abilities, either language could be used for the activity. Some example questions include: How do you make yourself feel better when you are feeling down in the dumps? and What food could you not live without?
  • One person goes first. They pick up a card, look at it, and answer the question aloud without saying what the question is. Other students take around ten seconds to guess the question. The card is then passed clockwise, and the second student answers the question. Again, the remaining students try to guess the question. Repeat until the last student, and then reveal the card. It’s cool if students can guess the question, but that’s not very important. Keep the activity moving quickly, so students don’t feel much pressure.
  • In the next round, shift one person to the left. That person picks up a card, and answer it. Follow the above procedure.
  • Repeat this for each student in the group, so everyone has a chance to pick a card, and everyone has a chance to guess the question last.

Here are the cards. Print double-sided on A4 paper, cut out each card, and laminate them for long-term use.


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Diamonds and Spades

Diamonds and Spades is a card game similar in nature to Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity we created to use in the ESL classroom in junior and senior high schools in Japan.


  1. Each player draws six spades.
  2. Player A plays a diamond face-up.
  3. Other players play a spade face-down.
  4. The spade should fit with the diamond.
  5. Player A chooses which spade fits best.
  6. That card’s player gets one point.
  7. Rotate clockwise and draw back to six.

To play the game, download and print out these two files: Diamonds and Spades. Ideally, use thick paper when printing, and optionally laminate to ensure long card life. If you want to modify the cards, grab the original ODS file and edit using LibreOffice.


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Speed Speaking

I made a collection of slides that are designed for TOEFL-style speaking.  They can be used as a pair warmup activity in class, and optionally in an interview test, according to the teacher’s interests.

Download the files from

Speed Speaking

There are several sets of questions.  Each set is a slide show with the rules followed by four example questions and eight practice questions.

The general format is to read a question, think for fifteen seconds, and then say your answer for forty-five seconds.  Speaking for that long can be quite challenging.  This gives teachers a natural occasion to introduce brainstorming and mind maps, and it’s also a good chance to review both connecting phrases like “Because of this…” or “As a result, I feel that…” and time-filling thinking phrases like “Ah, well…” or “Let’s see…” or “Also, I suppose that…“.

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Homework Objectives

What is the point of homework? I was chatting with my coworkers the other day and learned they were spending long hours grading homework. I asked them why, and we had a fascinating conversation. It turns out they were spending ten times as long on it as I was, because they felt like it was somehow proper or necessary, but on later reflection we agreed that oftentimes it isn’t.


The first and most common objective of homework is to practice something. Students studied it in class, and you want them to get some reinforcement, so they do some drills at home. Suppose they are learning to spell some words, and their homework is to write each word five times. The next class, you show up, and collect the homework. Here’s an important question: Should you carefully check that they spelled each word correctly? In my view, no. Most of the time you don’t need to check so carefully. If you’re smart, you’ll have a spelling test in class, and tests are the place to find out exactly how good their spelling is. When you’re grading their homework, you can take a quick look, see that they did it mostly correctly, and give them an A. Remember, if they were supposed to practice by doing their homework, and they did, even if they were wrong in certain places, then they did what you asked, so give them the A already.

I sometimes feel weird writing “100” or “A” on something that might have errors, so I instead draw a star or use a “Good Work!” stamp to indicate it was done well. Conversely, if students skip sections, copy, or are obviously careless, I write “0” or “25” or “50” and a note explaining why.


In college you were probably assigned to read some pages before coming to class. It’s possible to use homework as a way to preview a topic, or to get students’ minds primed so you can jump into it quickly in class, either for a project or a discussion. In many junior and senior high schools, this is probably less effective than in college, because some students don’t care about your class. You can give it a try, but have a backup plan in case things fizzle out.


Sometimes we assign homework mostly because it’s fun, or at least we hope students will feel that it’s fun. If you ask students to make an exciting video about something, you’ll be surprised how much energy they might put into it.


I don’t assign much homework, and most of what I do assign is stuff that we started doing in class and we ran out of time. By making it homework, I’m encouraging students to use class time efficiently. If Jane was focused and finished the paper in class, but Jimmy was sleeping, then Jimmy has to finish up at home. Jane feels happy because she can take it easy later, and Jimmy still learns whatever I wanted him to learn.

Check Answers in Class

Suppose your students do a homework assignment with three parts: a true/false section, a spelling section, and a paragraph writing section. In class, before you collect it, ask them to correct the first two sections themselves. You can say the answers aloud or write them on the board, and students can see what they did right or wrong much faster than if they had to wait until you graded it. Also, if they have questions about why something is what it is, they have a good chance to ask you. Since they can’t reasonably check their own paragraph writing, you’ll have to handle that later.

You might worry that students will cheat, and either they’ll write down the correct answers when you say them and pretend they finished it at home, or they’ll pretend an answer is correct even when it’s wrong. In my experience, this doesn’t happen very often. You can easily see if they are holding a red pen or pencil, and even if they grade their homework erroneously, that won’t help them when similar questions appears on the test later. Ideally, your tests look similar to your homework, and you can tell your students this, which should help them focus on properly identifying and understanding mistakes.

Don’t Fix Everything

Suppose your students did the above homework, and in the writing section they each wrote a paragraph about their favorite breakfast and why it is or isn’t healthy. You’re now grading the writing section. Many teachers have a strong urge to fix all the mistakes. This is wrong. It’s wrong, and the reasons it’s wrong are cool to think about.

First of all, you’re a teacher and you’re busy with many tasks. If you want to provide detailed writing feedback with lengthy corrections for hundreds of students on a regular basis, you probably can’t do that in your working hours. So then you’re taking things home and working overtime, for which you almost certainly don’t get paid. That makes your life suck, so don’t do it. But you might object, and you might say something like, No, no, I agree my life sucks right now, but it’s for the good of the students! I have to help out the students, so I’ll do it anyway. OK, it’s good that you care, but if you really believe that, then it’s your duty to go to the boss and tell him you need fewer classes or an assistant so you can handle all of the writing. Don’t overwork yourself on a regular basis when the problem is the lack of adequate staff. After all, whoever replaces you in the future might not put in those hours, and if you can fix the problem properly now, future students will benefit too.

Even if we ignore that, and you’re OK with doing a ton of unpaid overtime, it’s still bad to correct all the mistakes, because it destroys motivation. Imagine Joe writes his paragraph, hands it in, and gets it back with 28 mistakes noted in red pen. What will Joe feel? I imagine he’ll feel pretty damn awful, like maybe he sucks at doing English, like maybe writing is pointless because he’ll never get rid of all of those errors. Also, if he has 28 mistakes and you corrected all 28 of them, it really doesn’t help anyone, because he’s not going to read all of it. Understanding why something is wrong takes some time, and Joe might look at the homework for a minute or two, but that’s it. So don’t correct everything. Choose some mistakes that you think are the easiest to fix or the most important and correct those, and you’ll help Joe focus that minute or two on something small and comprehensible.

Sometimes you don’t want to correct mistakes at all, because you could just underline them instead. If you find five relatively simple mistakes and underline them, you can ask the student to figure it out on their own. If they already studied that spelling or grammar point, and they can do error correction themselves, it’s a great learning opportunity and a useful life skill to develop.

Depending on the circumstances, you could respond to the content and not the delivery. If students are writing about their healthy breakfasts, you could correct the spelling and grammar as described above. But instead you might want to focus solely on the content. You could read their paragraph and put a comment at the bottom such as, The example you gave of bananas with high vitamin value was great. Nice job! and be done with it. This would show the student that you really care about their thoughts, which would raise their motivation for that type of work. It turns out that writing things, even if nobody corrects the mistakes, helps people get better at writing. So although sometimes you definitely want to proofread and mark things up in detail, you certainly don’t have to do it all the time, and some of the time you don’t have to do it at all.

End at the Term End

Suppose you collect some homework in the last class of the term, right before winter vacation. You could mark it up, grade it, and hand it back in January, but why? If the term test is done, the odds of students caring much about homework they finished a month prior are relatively low. In a situation where you can’t return the homework in a prompt fashion, you don’t have to return it at all. If it’s something special, hold onto it until January, but if it’s a fairly standard assignment, just enter the grade in your grade book, drop the paper in the shredder, and enjoy the holidays.


In summary, when you’re grading, decide what you think is important. Once you know what the main objective is, you’ll get a good idea of what to look for on students’ papers. This will allow you to quickly focus on a few key areas, give students suitable feedback, and finish everything in a professional fashion.



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Aesop’s Fables

Here are a collection of one-page short stories and questions suitable for ninth grade Japanese students studying English.  These are a part of Aesop’s Fables. It is all bundled together with MP3s on

One-page stories are great because students can read them in ten or twenty minutes.  Finishing many short stories is rewarding because it feels like real progress: I read five stories!  This helps build motivation for reading more in the future.  Of course, it’s important to have interesting stories, and to match them to your students.  For long reading, err on the side of simplicity.  You can prepare two stories, and if students finish the first one too soon, assign them the second one.

Aesop’s Fables are over two thousand years old.  We don’t know who wrote (or said) the originals.  The adaptations here are ones I wrote, because I couldn’t find anything else that was the right length, level, and freely licensed.  Like most of my materials, these stories are under the Creative Commons Attribution license so that you can modify them to best fit your students’ needs. The illustrations here were drawn by Milo Winter for The Æsop for Children (1919).

You can do a slide show project using any of these stories. Suppose you already read the story and some speaking practice with it. Put students in groups of three or four. Each group gets a story and takes or draws eight or more pictures depicting the story. If it’s a human-based story, taking photographs is ideal; if it’s animal-based, drawing pictures might be better. They then overlay audio on top of the pictures, which produces a slide show story. Watch the slide shows together with the class, and use the rubric to evaluate them. Ideally, students should evaluate their own slide shows.


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