Night Walk – A descriptive writing lesson about sounds in your city

Night Walk - A lesson on descriptive writing with focus on sounds

I thought up the idea for this lesson plan one evening after my IPod battery died in the middle of my walk. In case you’re having trouble seeing the image above, it reads:

Night Walk

On summer nights, my neighborhood is mostly quiet. Crickets buzz, air conditioners whir, and my feet pat, pat, pat against the pavement. There is a low hum of traffic in the distance, and glass dishes clink against tabletops. It smells like dinnertime. Muffled chatter floats from inside of kitchens. A scruffy stray cat on a lawn meows softly, and a kid on a porch shrieks:
“A cockroach!”
“Kill it!”
“YOU kill it!”
But mostly it’s dark and quiet, just me and my shoes on the pavement: Pat, pat, pat, pat, pat.

When I was in middle school, my teacher gave us a descriptive writing exercise once a week. She would announce a one-word topic, and we would have a certain amount of time to write a paragraph with as many specific sensory details as possible. Then we would all read them aloud, and “ooh” and “ahh” over each other’s use of descriptive adjectives. That’s kinda what I have in mind for this lesson, although I have some ideas on how to scaffold it for English language leaners. I haven’t tried it with my own students just yet, but here’s what I plan to do:

Step 1:

Display the passage above on the projector, and/or print out a copy of the text for students to look at. I would recommend using the PDF Worksheet which I created to go along with this lesson. Read the passage aloud to the class, and have them underline any words that are used to describe specific sounds.

Step 2:

Make a class chart of sound words from the paragraph, and sources of each sound. For example: Sound – buzz / Source – crickets.

Step 3:

Brainstorm a list of things in your current neighborhood that make sounds. You might give students a few minutes to come up with their own lists of sources in groups. After they finish, you can help them think of descriptive verbs for each source.

Step 4:

Ask students to write their own descriptive paragraph about the sounds that they hear when they walk through their neighborhood. You could either ask them to write about their current neighborhood or about their native countries. I would give them some time to begin writing independently, and then ask them to finish and self-edit it for homework.

Step 5:

Allow students to share their work with classmates. You can deicide how you’d like to do this. You might have everyone read their passages aloud to the class, or just ask a few students whose passages are the most descriptive. Sharing could also be done in small groups. Another idea is to have a writing gallery walk. Everyone can tape their passages to the wall, and then students can walk around, read each other’s writing, and leave comments on post-it notes for their peers to read.

In case you missed it above, click here to view and download my PDF worksheet for this lesson: Worksheet


What do you think about the activity above? Do you have any ideas on how it could be improved? I may add a worksheet to this post if anyone is interested, so please let me know if that would be helpful to you.

Have you tried this, or a similar descriptive writing activity with your class? I’d really like to hear about it!

Please feel free to chime in and post your comments in the box at the bottom of the page.



A student who was about to go back to his country once told me that he loved my class because I taught him something that he’d been confused about for his whole life. I expected him to say present perfect or past continuous or some big, important thing like that, but nope.

His life-changing epiphany was when I taught a mnemonic to tell the difference between the words Tuesday and Thursday:
Tuesday sounds like the number two, and it’s the second day of the week,
so Tuesday = 2-sday. So easy!

I’m sure that wasn’t a planned part of my lesson. I probably mentioned it casually when a student stumbled over one of those words in conversation. But he was really excited about it. He said that throughout all of his years of school, he’d always had trouble with the days of the week, but not anymore! Isn’t it funny when you realize that things that seem little and insignificant to you are the things that your students end up remembering the most?

A cool thing about conditionals – When grammar meets psychology

After I teach real and unreal conditionals, I like to show my students the following example:

Speaker A and Speaker B are both entering a competition. Based on the following statements, who do you think is more optimistic about winning?:

Speaker A: If I win, I’ll be really happy.

Speaker B: If I won, I’d be really happy.

The answer: Speaker A probably is. He used a real conditional, while Speaker B used an unreal conditional.

If you teach grammar to ESL students, you know that we use real conditionals when we think that something is realistic (If it rains, I will being an umbrella), but we use unreal conditionals when we think that something is unlikely to ever happen (If I were president, I would give everyone free ice cream on Fridays.) So in the example above, Speaker A subconsciously thinks he has a good chance at winning, while Speaker B is not really so sure.

While it’s likely that neither speaker was thinking about the psychology behind their choice of words, it’s cool to think that your feelings are subtly reflected in your grammar.


What’s your favorite subtle grammar point to teach? Please share your ideas in the comment box at the bottom of the page.

Icebreaker Fails

Icebreaker Fails

My First Failed Icebreaker

I remember my first big class after finishing grad school and getting my TESOL degree. It was an Intermediate ESL course at a community college in the United States. I faced a room full of Chinese students, mostly in their 20s, who needed academic English to survive in college classrooms. I started the class with a name game.

Yes…A name game. If you have a degree in education, I’m sure you know the type. I don’t remember the details, but it was the kind of activity where the only objective is for everyone in the room to remember everyone else’s name. My students played along politely, but a lot of them had these blank stares, which I interpreted to mean, “Did we come all the way here so that this American kid can teach us how to remember each other’s names?”

Sure it’s important for students to learn each other’s names, and I know that this sort of activity can be really fun with some groups of students, but I realized right away that it just wasn’t the right way to set the tone in this particular class. I guess that was the moment when it struck me that not every great communicative activity that I’d learned in grad school would work with every class. Luckily, my lackluster icebreaker wasn’t the end of the world. The course turned out just fine, my students learned lots of useful things, and I learned to be more selective with my activity choices.

The Icebreaker I’d Never Try

Are there any icebreaker ideas that make you cringe? Ones that you’ve read about on the internet or learned about in a professional development workshop, but would never ever ever try?

For me, its that toilet paper one. You know that one that seems to show up on so many Top 10 ESL Icebreaker lists? If you don’t, here’s the gist: You casually pass a roll of toilet paper around your classroom and say, “Take what you need,” with no further explanation. When everyone has some toilet paper, you ask students to share one fact about themselves for each square that they took.

Um… Has anyone actually tried that out with real students? I imagine that if I were to begin class on a Monday morning with a roll of toilet paper in my hand, my professional adult students would take one look at me and lose all faith that they would ever learn anything from me.

I know…I know…I’m being overdramatic. But this just seems forced funny. I have a silly sense of humor, and my students are always giggling as they make grammar mistakes, but… toilet paper? What’s the point? Why don’t you just ask your students to share 5 facts about themselves? Or to roll a dice? And what if one student takes the entire roll? I’m sure that the rest of the class doesn’t want to spend the day listening to that person’s entire autobiography. Maybe it could work if you teach middle school students who find toilets hilarious, though…

What do you think?

Anyway, I like a good ice breaker as much as any other teacher, but I also love a good fail story, so please leave your comments, stories and ideas in the box below. Here are some questions for you to think about:

  • What’s your icebreaker fail?
  • And what icebreaker would you never try?
  • Have you attempted the toilet paper thing and lived to tell?

Leave your comments below. I’m listening!

Three Creative Classroom Prompts for Writing and Speaking and Describing People

Three Creative Classroom Prompts for writing, speaking, and describing people

Today I have three new creative picture prompts to help your students practice describing people. All three prompts require some imagination, and could be used to practice speaking, writing, or a combination of both. If you are an ESL teacher, they would work well after studying descriptive adjective, present continuous, or any form of past tense.

Take a look at the prompts below, and then scroll down for some lesson planning ideas to help you incorporate them into your classes.

Who owns this van? A Creative Classroom Prompt

Dog on a leash - A classroom prompt for writing and speaking

Whose shoes are these? - Classroom prompts for speaking and writing - describing people

A Collaborative Speaking and Writing Lesson Plan Idea

  1. Display the picture on your classroom projector (or print copies, if you don’t have the technology available). Look at the picture with the whole class and brainstorm a list of relevant vocabulary words.
  2. Divide students into pairs or small groups. Ask each group to come up with a list of 10 specific details about the person referred to in the prompt. Their details might include name, age, job, appearance, personality quirks, daily routine, secrets, dreams, etc.
  3. After the teams have completed their lists, ask the groups to work together to write a short story about the person who they just described. All ten details should be included in the story. (If you’re teaching a lower-level ESL class, you might ask your students to write a profile of the person in paragraph form instead of a story.)
  4. Ask the groups to read their stories aloud to the class.

Other Lesson Planning Ideas

  • If your students need individual writing practice, you can forego splitting your class into groups, and instead have students write their lists/stories independently.
  • Another idea is to write a list of 10 details together as a whole class. After you finish, divide the class into groups and ask each group to write a story about the same person. I would recommend giving them a specific prompt to work with. For example, if you used the third picture (the one with the shoes), and you came up with a character named Anne who is 28 years old and unemployed, you might ask, “How did Anne lose her shoes? Write a story.” After the groups finish, they can take turns reading their stories and comparing their ideas.


What other ideas do you have for incorporating these prompts into your classes? Please share them in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

Working Hard or Hardly Working? - a cliche worth teaching, and some grammar to go with it

I didn’t think that anyone used that line outside of comedies about stereotypical offices. But a few years ago, there was was this one guy who worked in the Sales department at my school. EVERY time I bumped into him at the coffee maker (we didn’t have a water cooler), I knew what was coming:

“Working hard or hardly working?” He would ask and grin as though it were the first time he’d made that zinger.
“Uh… Just normal working, I guess,” I would stammer, because how are you supposed to respond to that question? Is it rhetorical?

I hadn’t thought about that guy in a while, but an advanced student of mine recently made a mistake that reminded me of his favorite one-liner. On an essay about women in the workplace, the student wrote, “100 years ago, many women didn’t have jobs, but nowadays women hardly work.” 

I love that mistake because she was pretty much saying the opposite of what she meant, and she have me a great example to help illustrate the difference between “hard” and “hardly.”

Teaching Hard vs. Hardly

If your student makes the hard/hardly mistake, here’s what you need to know:

1- “Hard” can be an adjective or an adverb.

  • One meaning of the adjective is “difficult.”
    • English is hard.
    • Teaching is a hard job.
    • Life is hard, sometimes.
    • That was a hard test.
  • The adverb means, “did the action with a lot of struggle or difficulty.”
    • If you study hard, you will pass the class.
    • I always work hard.
    • Work hard, play hard. (Another cheesy line.)

2- “Hardly” is an adverb. It can mean barely or rarely.

  • She just arrived in the United States, and she hardly speaks English.
  • I hardly ever drink coffee in the evening.
  • He hardly works because he can’t find a full-time job.

Lesson Plan Tips

I don’t have a full-blown grammar lesson plan for you, but here’s a loose suggestion on how you might introduce the topic:

  1. On the board, write: 100 years ago, most women didn’t have jobs, but nowadays they hardly work.
  2. Ask: What’s wrong with this sentence?
  3. Give examples (see the ones listed above), and ask students to come up with some of their own.
  4. On the board, write: Are we working hard or hardly working? If students chuckle, you know they get it.

Ideas or Comments

Have your students made any memorable mistakes with Hard vs. Hardly? Do you have any other suggestion to add for teaching it?

What other confusing word pairs can you think of?

Please leave your comments in the box below!

Writer Me vs. Teacher Me – a conundrum over cliches

ESL Teacher Conundrum - teaching cliches

Before I started teaching ESL, I was a college writer. I carried adorable little observation journals everywhere, I lived for jotting down details, and of course, I avoided cliches like the plague (I know, I know, I can never resist that one).

Now, as an ESL teacher, it’s my responsibility to teach everything about the English language… Including the stuff you aren’t supposed to use… Including those dreaded cliches. And I admit, I like teaching cliches. They’re colorful and descriptive and funny, especially when they don’t quite translate.

Here’s my mini-conundrum: For students to fully understand the language, they need to be able to understand cliches. At the same time, I have to convince them that that it’s usually better to avoid them, at lease in writing.

To see what I mean, here’s the outline a typical food vocabulary lesson vs. a typical cliche lesson.

A food vocabulary lesson, for example, goes something like this:

Step 1: Teach new food vocabulary.
Step 2: Practice new vocabulary by responding to conversation questions.
Step 3: Students write about their favorite restaurants.
Step 4: In groups, students create their own ideas for new restaurants.
Step 5: Students role play restaurant situation conversations.

A typical lesson on cliches is more like this: 

Step 1: Teach new cliches.
Step 2: Practice new cliches by responding to conversation questions.
Step 3: Teach students to never ever ever use cliches again.

The struggle! What’s a teacher to do?

A Bunch of New Thought Cloud Picture Prompts – comics in the classroom

Last week I posted about a few strategies for using thought cloud prompts in your ESL classes. (Here’s a link, in case you missed it.) Today I’m back to follow up with a bunch of new picture prompts to help you bring comics and bubbles into your classroom. I plan to come back an update this post with specific ideas on how to use each one in your classes. In the meantime, if you have any ideas and would like to contribute, please feel free to leave a comment in the box at the bottom of the page or send me an email at

And now for the prompts

  1. Sometimes you just find yourself alone, gazing at the sunset, dressed in a bunny suit…

Bunny Cloud

2. What’s going on in this vintage children’s book illustration?

Thought Bubble Prompt - vintage love triangle

3. Did I brush my teeth this morning?

Vintage Romance thought bubbles

4. What’s wrong?

Crying thought cloud

5. How does my hat look?

In Your Country (1)

6. One day a Hollywood talent agent will walk down this block…

In Your Country (2)

7. French fry crumbs!

Bird Brain

8. My arm is tired.

Statue of Liberty's Mind

9. Is it lunch time yet?

Onion Man thought bubble

Lots of Thought Cloud Prompts for Your Classroom


If you try any of these out in your classes, please let us know in the comment box below. I’m super-interested in hearing what you did, how your students reacted, and whether you’d like to see more of these in the future.

My favorite little language teaching trick

Imagine the following scenario: I’m teaching a small group Beginner conversation class. I turn to a student and ask, “What did you do yesterday, Maria?” Maria answers, “I go shopping.”

Assuming that Maria has already learned the past tense of “go,” I don’t correct her mistake for her. Instead of saying anything, I respond with a little gesture…a simple wave of my hand, backward over my shoulder. Maria recognizes the gesture to signify past tense and corrects herself. “Oh, no…I went shopping,” she says. “Yesterday….I went!”

In my invisible bag of teaching tricks, the gesture is my personal favorite, especially when it comes to teaching simple tenses. A backward wave means past tense. A forward wave means future, and a point at the ground means present. I find that after I use a gesture once or twice, students catch on and start using it themselves, to help each other. It’s like a gentle nudge to remind them to use something that they’ve already learned.

After enough silent corrections, I generally find that students start correcting their own mistakes without any help from me. Sometimes they’ll even make a mistake, pause, gesture to themselves, and then correct themselves without me even moving a muscle. It’s adorable, and it’s like magic.

So, What’s Your Favorite Teaching Trick?

What little teaching tool or strategy do you depend on for classroom survival? Do you use gestures to give corrective feedback, or do you have another favorite method for error correction?

Please share your tips and ideas in the comment section below. I’d love to hear them!

What's Your Favorite Teaching Trick-