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 Archive.org.

Speed Speaking

There are four sets of questions.  Each set is composed of two eight-question slide shows, for a total of sixteen questions per set.  Set A is designed for eighth or ninth graders, and Sets B & C & D are suitable for high school students.  Although the general inspiration was the TOEFL, this type of speaking activity can also be successfully used in classrooms where students aren’t planning on taking that tests.

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…“.

Set A: Daily Life Speed Speaking

  1. What do you often do in the evening?
  2. What is your favorite style of clothes?
  3. Talk about the town where you live. Where do you often visit? What do you do there?
  4. Is there a place you want to visit? Where? What do you want to see or do there?
  5. What are you going to do this weekend?
  6. What is your favorite book or movie? Describe it and explain why it is your favorite.
  7. Where is a good place to have fun in your city? Describe it and explain why it is fun.
  8. What is your favorite kind of food? Describe it and explain why it is your favorite.

Set A: School Life Speed Speaking

  1. What is your favorite subject? Describe why you enjoy studying it.
  2. How do you come to school? Explain in detail.
  3. Talk about a happy memory from elementary school. Describe and explain why it made you happy.
  4. Describe a teacher who makes your school life better. Who is this person? What positive things does the teacher do?
  5. Talk about a happy memory from junior high school. Describe and explain why it made you happy.
  6. What is your least favorite subject? Describe why you do not enjoy studying it.
  7. What kind of lunch do you often have at school? Do you like it? Who makes it?
  8. What do you often do after school? Explain in detail.

Set B: Destination Speed Speaking

  1. If friends from another country were visiting this one, where would you recommend they visit? Why?
  2. What is your favorite place to visit on weekends? Describe it and explain why it is your favorite.
  3. Where is your favorite place to study? Describe this place and explain why it is a good place to study.
  4. Talk about a time when you experienced success. Describe the experience and explain why it was a success for you.
  5. Where would you most like to live? Describe this place and explain why you would like to live there.
  6. To get around town, what kind of transportation do you prefer? Explain why it is your favorite means of transportation.
  7. Where would you like to go on vacation? Describe the place and explain why you would like to go there.
  8. Suppose a friend is thinking of studying abroad in university. What country would you recommend? Why?

Set B: People Speed Speaking

  1. Think of a famous person who you would like to meet. Explain who it is and why you would like to talk with them.
  2. Talk about a teacher who had a positive influence on you. Describe this person and why he or she was so influential.
  3. Your friend wants a pet but doesn’t like cats and dogs. What pet would you recommend? Why?
  4. Describe a person from your country’s history. What did this person do that was important?
  5. Suppose a friend wants to start a new hobby but can’t spend any money. What would you recommend? Why?
  6. Talk about something you and your family enjoy doing together. Describe it and explain why you all enjoy it.
  7. Think of a very intelligent person that you know. Describe the person and why you think he or she is intelligent.
  8. If you have a personal problem, who are you most likely to go to? Describe this person and why they could help.

Set C: Event Speed Speaking

  1. Talk about an important national holiday in your home country. Describe it and explain why it is important.
  2. Talk about a difficulty you have overcome in your life. Describe the experience and say why it was difficult to overcome.
  3. Talk about something a friend or a family member of yours did that you were proud of. Describe what they did, and explain why you were proud.
  4. Talk about an experience in your life that made you feel embarrassed. Describe it and say why it was embarrassing.
  5. Talk about a time when you experienced success. Describe the experience and explain why it was a success for you.
  6. Talk about a purchase you’ve made that you are happy with. Describe what you purchased and why you are happy with it.
  7. Think of a custom from your home country that you particularly enjoy. Describe the custom and explain why you are fond of it.
  8. When have you been happily surprised by something? Describe the experience and explain why it was a happy one.

Set C: Past and Future Speed Speaking

  1. Describe a recent event in your country that people often talk about. Why are people interested in the event? Give details.
  2. Imagine the ways in which your country will change over the next five years. Talk about one way you expect it to change. Use details to explain your answer.
  3. Think of a movie you have not seen but would like to see. Explain why you are interested in it. Give specific details.
  4. Talk about an event from the past that you would like to relive. Describe the original event and say why you would like to relive it.
  5. Name a famous person who has inspired you. Describe this person and explain why he or she has been inspirational to you.
  6. Think of a book you have not read but would like to read. Explain why you are interested in doing so. Give specific details.
  7. What is your happiest childhood memory? Describe it and give reasons to explain why it is your happiest memory.
  8. Describe a person from your country’s history. Why do you think this person was important?

Set D: Life Advice Speed Speaking

  1. Suppose a friend from abroad is visiting Japan for the first time and wants to try Japanese food. What kind of food would you recommend?
  2. Suppose your friend has a job that pays well but isn’t fun. Your friend is thinking of working longer hours in the future. What advice would you give this person?
  3. Suppose your friend’s little brother is always following them around and causing problems. What would you recommend your friend do about this?
  4. Your friend is having trouble finding a new apartment. What kinds of things do you think he or she should look for in a new place?
  5. Suppose a friend from abroad is thinking of visiting Japan but isn’t sure when to come. What season would you recommend? Why?
  6. Suppose your friend wants to get a pet but can’t decide on what kind of animal. What advice would you give your friend?
  7. Suppose your friend can’t sleep well at night because the neighbors are too loud. What advice would you give?
  8. Suppose your friend just broke up with his or her boyfriend or girlfriend and feels very sad. What advice would you give?

Set D: School Advice Speed Speaking

  1. Suppose your friend has been studying math very seriously but is still having trouble on tests. What advice would you give?
  2. Suppose one of your friends is often late for important events. What advice would you give your friend about how to be on time?
  3. Suppose your friend wants to start doing a traditional cultural activity from your country. What would you recommend?
  4. Suppose your school wants to add a new facility, such as a cafe, study area, or game room. What would you recommend adding? Why?
  5. Suppose your friend is trying to decide what to study in university but is having a hard time choosing a department. What advice would you give?
  6. Suppose your friend wants to learn Spanish but can’t go abroad. What advice would you give your friend on how to study it?
  7. Suppose your friend is forgetful and often forgets to do homework assignments. What advice would you give?
  8. Suppose your friend is carelessly spending their money on things they don’t need. What advice would you give?
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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 Archive.org.

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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Organizing Files

As teachers, we have a lot of data, and how we organize our files impacts whether we can easily share them with other teachers in the future. Here are some organizational tips I’ve learned over the past decade that I think will help you keep your data organized so you can work smoothly with other teachers to develop excellent educational materials. Let’s assume you have a shared drive, such as a local network folder, Google Drive, or Dropbox.


If you think it’s useful, and you only have a paper copy, scan it. Some people have physical folders with copies of all the great worksheets they’ve made or received, but generally speaking, digital is better. Here’s why.

  1. You can email it to a friend or coworker.
  2. Your shelf won’t fill up.
  3. You can search for it quickly by name.
  4. You can copy/paste good parts and use them in new materials.
  5. You can easily take it with you when changing jobs.

Our school has a photocopier/scanner combo machine with a feeder. It scans stacks of papers and makes PDFs. If you have that kind of device on hand, scanning things is quick, and surely it will benefit you later.

Let’s suppose you have a bunch of documents. You might keep them on your computer in folders like this.

├ 2016
├ 2017
├ 2018
├ Amazing Plants (2).odt
├ Copy of Amazing Animals.odt
├ Letter to Parents (New).odt
├ Eighth Grade
├ Ninth Grade
├ Letter to Parents.odt
├ Seventh Grade
├ Grades (2017).ods
├ Grades (2018).ods
Oral Communication
├ 2012
├ 2013
├ Summer Slides.ppt
├ Summer Slides PDF.ppt.pdf
├ Seventh Grade Term 1 Test.odt
├ Seventh Grade Term 1 Test (Old).odt

When we start creating and organizing data, something like this seems like it’ll work. But over time, issues creep up. Here are some tips that help things stay sorted.

  1. Make the year folders top-level. If you have file names like Grades (2017).xls and Grades (2018).xls, you’re mixing last year’s data with this year’s. It makes more sense to have a folder called 2017 and another called 2018. Put grades inside those folders.

  2. Don’t use parentheses. In the above example, consider these two files.

    ├ Seventh Grade Term 1 Test.odt
    ├ Seventh Grade Term 1 Test (Old).odt

    The bottom file is apparently old, but next year, both files will be old. What should your file names be then? I don’t know! But if you sort the data by year at top level, you can avoid this whole problem.

  3. Remove pointless words. Here’s a directory worth cleaning up.

    ├ 2018
    ├ Copy of Amazing Animals.odt
    ├ Amazing Plants (2).odt

    They probably got those names because the user was copy/pasting files, and the system automatically added Copy of and (2). To make the data easy to read, we should go through and rename files, removing the extra text as appropriate. It would be much prettier if it looked like this.

    ├ 2018
    ├ Amazing Animals.odt
    ├ Amazing Plants.odt

  4. Use numbers instead of words. The example has notes for Seventh Grade, Eighth Grade, and Ninth Grade. If you sort the directory alphabetically, it shows up like this.

    ├ Eighth Grade
    ├ Ninth Grade
    ├ Seventh Grade

    That’s awkward because seventh grade comes last. If you use numerals instead, it looks much more sensible.

    ├ 7
    ├ 8
    ├ 9

  5. Don’t repeat extension information. In the above example, there’s a file, Summer Slides PDF.ppt.pdf. The file type is expressed by the end of the file name, so it should simply be called Summer Slides.pdf. Duplicate information about the format makes things hard to read, and it’s not needed.

  6. Preserve the original file. In the above example, there are two related files.

    ├ Summer Slides.ppt
    ├ Summer Slides PDF.ppt.pdf

    It looks like the user made a PowerPoint file and then generated a PDF of it. There are good reasons to do that — for example, I often copy data onto my tablet, but my tablet doesn’t support PowerPoint. As a temporary measure, it’s reasonable to make PDFs, but for archiving, it’s unnecessary. When you or another teacher is looking at the data next year, the original file is by far the most useful, because it can easily be modified to fit new situations. The PDF doesn’t help, so delete it and be happy.

  7. Use the date if really needed. In the above example, there are two related files.

    ├ Letter to Parents (New).odt
    ├ Ninth Grade
    ├ Letter to Parents.odt

    Most of the time, you don’t need both files, so you should just replace the bottom file with the top one. However, sometimes you really want a record of something. Perhaps you sent a letter, realized there was a typo, fixed it, and sent a new version. In that case, you could put the date in the file names, like this.

    ├ Ninth Grade
    ├ 2018-09-01 Letter to Parents.odt
    ├ 2018-09-05 Letter to Parents.odt

    This works well because the two files are in the same folder, and the file names tell us which was sent when. Always use the format YYYY-MM-DD or YYYYMMDD. This is unambiguous — you don’t wonder whether 9/3 means September 3rd or March 9th — and it automatically sorts in chronological order.

  8. Don’t assume course names will stay the same. The example has a top-level folder, Oral Communication. That class used to be offered in Japanese high schools, but several years ago the national curriculum was revised, and it no longer exists. Instead, there are two related classes, English Communication and English Expression. If I want to organize everything by course name, what do I do? Should I leave Oral Communication there, knowing that new teachers will never look at it? Should I rename it to English Communication, because the two courses are similar? It’s unclear what to do, but if the data were sorted by year at top level, we wouldn’t even be asking the question.
  9. Don’t assume event names will stay the same. This is similar to the previous point. My school has an event called “International Day”, but it used to be called “MECC”, and from time to time it’s called “Board Game Day”. If file organization depends on the name staying the same from year to year, it’s going fail.
  10. Video files might need special treatment. If you have lots of very large video files, perhaps you can’t just copy them to a new folder each year, because it might fill up your hard drive. You might need a separate top-level folder just for videos. In my experience, only video files are large enough where this is a concern.

    If I’m using large videos that are on YouTube, I like to keep the URLs in a notes file, and I can download the videos again in the future.

    I always take videos of students’ presentations. This lets me grade the presentations at a leisurely speed, and when students have questions about why they got a particular grade, we can watch the video together. A month or two after the term ends, I delete most of those files, saving a few of my favorite ones to be used as examples in future years.

If we apply the above rules to the initial example, we get a directory structure that’s much easier to navigate. It would look something like this.

├ Oral Communication
├ Oral Communication
├ 7
├ Homework
├ 8
├ 9
├ 7
├ Homework
├ Worksheets
Term 1 Test.odt
├ 8
├ 9
├ 7
├ Homework
├ Amazing Animals.odt
├ Amazing Plants.odt
Term 1 Test.odt
├ 8
Summer Slides.ppt
├ 9
├ 2018-09-01 Letter to Parents.odt
├ 2018-09-05 Letter to Parents.odt


I like to create materials for classroom use, and I enjoy sharing those materials with others. This is particularly important for a school like mine, where we have several native teachers on staff. Every few years, some teachers go, others come, and there’s a decent chance that we teach different grades or courses than what we taught previously.

When you’re planning for a class you haven’t taught before, or haven’t taught for several years, the first step is to ask last year’s teacher for their data. If that data is organized well, you’ll definitely appreciate the work they did to get it that way.

Some teachers are self-conscious about sharing their materials. They might refuse to upload files, or they might upload them but leave everything in a horrible mess where we can’t really tell how things were meant to be used. Perhaps they lack confidence, and they are worried that if other teachers see the low-quality materials, their poor teaching practices will be revealed. This type of concern is understandable, but if you’re feeling it, here are some things to keep in mind. First, we all make mediocre materials from time to time, and yours won’t be the worst. Even if some of your materials are mediocre, there are probably some gems that will excite your coworkers. Second, materials are only one aspect of teaching, and looking at them doesn’t give other people enough information to judge your general effectiveness as a teacher. Third, if you’re going to continue teaching in the future, then sharing your materials with others is a great way to get their feedback. If they find typos, they’ll tell you, and if they make an updated version, just ask them to send you a copy.

Be positive, share your data with other teachers, get their feedback and their data, and work together to create cool stuff.

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Three Letter Words

We teach phonics to help students learn to read and pronounce English words correctly. It is reasonable to start with standalone letters, quickly transition to consonant-vowel and vowel-consonant pairs, and then move to three-letter words.  Here are three sets of three-letter words.  Each set has twenty words.

Some of the words have multiple meanings, but there’s only one picture.  For example, “bat” could mean “a black flying mammal” or “a stick used in baseball”.  That might seem problematic, but it isn’t a significant concern.  These cards are designed for students to practice saying three-letter phonetic words aloud, not to give them a perfect vocabulary.  Also, a great many words in English have multiple meanings, and we introduce new words and meanings as they fit into the syllabus.


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