TESOL Connections

Quick Tip: 3 Effective English Teaching Strategies That Make Learning Relevant

by Hang T. Nguyen

When students are not motivated to learn English, especially in EFL contexts where they may not use the language regularly, it is particularly important to make the language relevant to their interests and passions. Try these effective strategies and classroom activities for making English learning relevant to your students and for creating a classroom environment that motivates and encourages them. 

I asked Thang, a student who was constantly not paying attention, to come to the front of the class and talk about relative clauses, the topic of the previous week’s lesson. Thang stared at me and said, “I’m Vietnamese. Why do I have to learn English?”

I was shocked to have a student challenge me like that, partly because it was unexpected and partly because I didn’t have a response.

This incident with Thang fueled my determination to create more effective strategies to make English learning relevant to my students. To make learning relevant to students, it is important to get to know each one personally. It’s also important to create a classroom environment that motivates and encourages the students to achieve (Richards & Theodore, 1988).

1. Survey of Interests

As it is impossible to get to know all the students’ passions and goals through interaction alone, conducting a survey is an effective way to ask them directly. The three most important things that I wanted to learn from my survey were:

  1. Which English language skills are the students interested in improving?
  2. What are their interests/hobbies/passions?
  3. What are their goals for the future?

Thang, the student who had confronted me, loved sports and dreamed about becoming a professional soccer player. He thought his passions and dreams had no connections with learning English. He didn’t realize that when he used English to explore and share his passions with others, not only was his knowledge about soccer broadened, but his excitement for learning the language was also enhanced. Thang was not the only student with such a misconception. My belief is that no matter what a person’s interests and goals are, as an English language educator, I can and should find a way to connect it to English.

My survey showed that these three topics held the most interest for all my students: movies, music, and travelling. From the results of the survey, I was able to develop the following two class activities to make learning English relevant to my students.

2. Journal of Progress

The first activity that I organized for my class I called the Journal of Progress. The journal had two basic elements:

  1. At the beginning of the week, the students wrote down a weekly goal. At the end of the week, they commented on their progress toward that short-term goal.
  2. Each week, they chose some words from the most current vocabulary list, and then they tried to use these new words as many times as they could as they completed weekly journal entries. They wrote about any topic that interested them.

From these sections of the Journals of Progress, I learned more about my class’ general interests, and I integrated these interests into my lesson plans.

3. Project of Love

The Project of Love is an interactive group activity. I divided the class into groups based on their interests. Different groups could work on similar interests and come up with different projects. The only requirements were that the projects be creative and show the groups’ passions about their topics. After working together, the groups could choose to present their interests in the form of a physical product, a presentation, or a play.

Students of different talents benefited from this activity. A play was suitable for students who were good at writing dialogues and role-playing, while a picture was more suitable for students who expressed an interest in drawing. Whatever the students chose as their final products, the project aimed to improve their communication skills. This activity helps to create a friendly environment in which all students feel recognized and valued.


Through these activities, I created an environment in which learning English was relevant to my students’ outside interests. By the end of the semester, I understood how much Thang knew about soccer from reading his journal. He had even joked using a soccer pun: He was going to meet his goals. According to him, his success in my class was thanks to keeping the Journal of Progress and working on the Project of Love about sports with his friends.


Richards, J. C., & Theodore, S. R. (1988). Approaches and methods in language teaching. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Hang T. Nguyen taught English as a foreign language in Vietnam for a year, after which she attended the University of Houston and attained her master’s degree.  


Irony in Everyday Language Use

Vander Viana and Sonia Zyngier

Try this free sample activity, "Irony in Everyday Language Use," from New Ways in Teaching with Humor (edited by John Rucynski, Jr.) to help your intermediate+ English language students learn and develop awareness about irony in different contexts. New Ways in Teaching with Humor explores the whole gamut of possibilities for using humor in English language teaching. 

This activity is from New Ways in Teaching with Humor, edited by John Rucynski, Jr.

Levels: Intermediate+
Contexts: English language school, teenager to adult

  • Learn about the differences between literal and ironic utterances
  • Employ resources that may enhance the irony of a situation
  • Develop awareness of the appropriateness of irony in different contexts
  • Identify instances of irony in everyday situations

Class Time: 30 minutes
Preparation Time: 3 minutes
Resources: Slips of paper with two sentences on each

Irony, or verbalizing what is contrary or different from what is actually meant, has always been part and parcel of human interactions and depends on the shared knowledge of the speakers for its understanding. Far from being a new linguistic strategy, its history is broad and diverse, covering a gamut of different areas (cf. Colbrook, 2004; Gibbs & Colson, 2007). Appropriate ironic remarks may help one bond socially with peers, while inappropriate use may eventually lead to social exclusion. Irony can be easily misunderstood by speakers who do not share common ground. In order to recognize ironic remarks, be able to use irony, and be understood as intended, English language learners must be aware of the cultural context. As explained by Ross (1998),

Understanding the force of irony involves awareness of the language used and knowledge about the world. Attention is brought to the form because there is something incongruous about its use in that context. The mismatch between the language use and intended meaning is often subtle, which means that irony may not be perceived as such. (pp. 50–51)

This activity is aimed at introducing students to a more conscious recognition, understanding, and use of irony in their daily interactions.


  1. Ask students to create a literal dialogue in which the sentences on their specific slip of paper (either A or B) could be said by one of the speakers.
    Group A Group B
    “Is this my grade? Fantastic!” “You look great in this outfit!”
    “This party is really exciting, isn’t it?” “What lovely weather!”

  2. Pair students from the same group, and ask each pair to compare their answers.
  3. Walk around, check their answers, and provide guidance as needed.
  4. In pairs, have students choose one of the sentences and think of a context in which the chosen sentence would indicate exactly the opposite of the speaker’s intention.
  5. Ask students to create a short dialogue and to practice it orally.
  6. Invite students to present their ironic interactions to the class.
  7. After the presentations, ask students to consider (a) how different the dialogues they acted out are from the ones they created in Step 1 (e.g., mismatch between what the sentence means literally and the context in which it was said) and (b) which resources they used to enhance the ironic aspect of the dialogue (e.g., contextual features, intonation, facial expressions, body language).
  8. Have students consider the contexts in which it would be appropriate or inappropriate to be ironic.
  9. Allow students to personalize what they have just learned by asking whether they have ever experienced a situation in which they said or were told these sentences (or similar ones). During the discussion, get them to consider the effect that the use of irony had in the interaction and/or in the relationship among the speakers.


  1. If time is an issue, each group could be given only one sentence, and you could skip Step 6. In the latter case, Step 5 could also be slightly changed so that students do not practice the dialogue orally.
  2. It is important to realize that not all students will be comfortable acting out in front of the class. Take care not to embarrass anyone. In large classes, you might want to ask for a few volunteers instead of having all the students act out their dialogues.
  3. The level of student participation in Steps 7–9 is directly related to their proficiency level. It might be more difficult for them to express their ideas in English if they are at lower intermediate level, for instance. In this case, either conduct a less detailed discussion in English or allow students to express themselves in their mother tongue.
  4. When working with more advanced students, instead of providing them with slips of paper, you could illustrate what is meant by an ironic statement and ask them to come up with their own examples. These examples could then be used as the springboard for the activity.
  5. If you are teaching a multicultural class, Steps 8–9 can be usefully enriched by teasing out the differences/similarities in diverse national groups.


Colbrook, C. (2004). Irony. London, England: Routledge.

Gibbs, R., & Colston, H. L. (Eds.). (2007). Irony in language and thought: A cognitive
science reader
. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Ross, A. (1998). The language of humour. London, England: Routledge.

Purchase New Ways in Teaching with Humor at the TESOL Bookstore

This activity may be reproduced for educational purposes only.
© TESOL International Association.

New Leadership for TESOL: Meet Christopher Powers

In this interview, learn about the new executive director of TESOL International Association and what he has planned for the organization. 

Beginning in May 2017, Christopher Powers became the new executive director of TESOL International Association. Christopher brings 20 years of diverse experience in international education to the association. In his role as director of the Education Abroad Programs Division at the Institute of International Education, he oversaw a complex portfolio of international education programs that supported language education from kindergarten through graduate school and activities that spanned 37 different countries.

Christopher answered a few questions to help us get to know him:

What’s the last book you read or movie you saw?

I’m currently reading The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, by Eric Weiner. I love the subtitle! It’s great travel writing and takes a look at how happiness is defined in different cultures, which makes it very interesting.

What is a favorite hobby of yours?

I’m a big baseball fan. I grew up a big Baltimore Orioles fan, but like the Washington Nationals, too. I’m a long distance runner and a trail runner. So far I’ve run nine marathons and one 50k.

What’s one thing that you would like TESOL members to know about you?

I have a great family with my wife and two teenagers at home along with our 3-year-old golden retriever, Maggie (she’s a trail runner too!). My mother is a retired public school teacher and my brother is a teacher too, so you could say education is in my blood; I think that being a public servant is one of the noblest things anyone can do.

What interested you in TESOL when applying for the executive director position?

I’ve been working in international education for more than 20 years, and I have always known and respected TESOL. I started my career working at an association and working with international students coming to the United States. For those students to be successful, they needed English language skills, so I recognize that English language education, and especially access to English language education, is a critical part of international education. For the last 15 years, I’ve been working on language programs, so TESOL’s work really brings all of my experiences together: my work with international students, associations, and language programs. I also see myself as a collaborative leader, with an ability and interest in working with members, staff, the board, and other organizational leaders to achieve common goals. And finally, given the times that we find ourselves in right now, the work that TESOL and its members does is more important than ever.

What are your priorities for TESOL as executive director?

Advocacy is an important objective of mine. Giving a voice to our members and helping our members raise their voices collectively in their communities and around the world is a big priority for me. Also, I’d like to build on the incredible work that has already been done around standards and professional learning, as well as building our publications and convention. It’s very important to me that TESOL continues to bring those opportunities and resources to more members around the world.

Being involved with international education throughout your career, what have been some of your most memorable experiences so far?

When I look back, what I remember most is being able to see the real impact of my work. I think education by itself, just education, is such a transformational experience. I think our members see that every single day. I’ve worked more as an administrator, so I’m a little envious of our educators who get to see that transformation daily. One memory that really stands out to me is a U.S. student, and engineering major, who talked to me after he came home and thanked me for encouraging him to go abroad and study languages. He said that his friends, parents, and even some professors told him that it wasn’t a good idea, and that he would get nothing out of it. What’s so remarkable to me is that I don’t remember our initial conversation, but I would have told him what I would tell anyone. That you can never lose what you have already gained in your home classroom, and that you can only grow as a person, a student, and a professional by expanding your experiences and going abroad. Even though this was a brief interaction, it was a day-to-day occurrence, so I loved being able to see this result but also to know that I had many, many more conversations like this with other students, which hopefully had similar results.

How do you see professional associations, such as TESOL, serving their members in the future?

Any professional association is best served by bringing its members together to do things collectively better than they could be done alone. Our objectives and initiatives are more powerful when done together, and we, all of us in TESOL, can have a greater impact when we act together. Of course, TESOL has wonderful networking, professional learning, and other services that I hope are meeting our members’ needs. But I think TESOL’s greatest strength is our membership. And everything else we do flows from here. Whether it’s the work members do when they become leaders within the association, attending and presenting at convention, becoming advocates, or strengthening their professional development. When we come together, there is so much we can do.

What challenges do you think face TESOL educators both in the United States and internationally?

I think we’re in a very interesting political environment both in the United States and internationally. We’ve seen waves of both nationalism and internationalism come together and sometimes face off against one another. We’ve seen elections go different ways, and that tension impacts educators internationally, where they have to deal with challenging legislative, political, and immigration issues that impact their and their students’ daily lives. What is also challenging is that we have to be constructive in the way we work with our colleagues and fellow citizens who may have different opinions. It is more important now than ever to educate and share our values and the value of the work that we do in international education and English language education with those who may not agree with us. It’s a big challenge, but I think we are up to it.

What are you looking forward to the most, or excited to learn more about, as executive director of TESOL?

I’m really excited to meet as many members and leaders as I can and find out what TESOL means to them and what they think TESOL will mean to them in the future. I want to talk to our members and find out how they can get the most out of their TESOL membership as English language professionals. I’m especially excited to see everyone at our convention next year in Chicago!

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Summer Professional Development for TESOL Educators

by Kristen Lindahl
Vacation is a great time to recharge your batteries and conduct some personalized professional development. Here are some ideas. 

In the United States, the summer season is upon us, and it is always difficult to tell who is happier at the prospect of a nice long vacation…the students or the teachers! Although vacation is a great way to recharge your proverbial teacher “batteries,” it is also an excellent opportunity to conduct some professional development (PD) on your own time and about your own interests. In fact, one of the characteristics of effective professional development is personalization, or the notion that PD is more effective when teachers feel it is relevant to their interests, strengths, and context (Matterow, 2015). So, if you are looking for some new ways to add some PD to your SPF for little to no cost, read on!

Book Study

Go “old school” this summer and pick up a book! Sometimes the school year is so busy, innovating your teaching practice might feel like you are trying to fix an airplane while you are also in charge of flying it. Reading during the summer break allows you to dedicate attention to new developments in TESOL education while you have the time to process new content and evaluate how it might apply to you and your teaching inventory. Some recently published books on my summer reading list include:

  • Boosting Achievement: Reaching students with Interrupted and Minimal Education, by Carol Salva with Anna Matis (Seidlitz Education, LLC). If you are working with newcomers or students with interrupted formal education, this book seeks to provide learning strategies and innovative approaches to meeting the cognitive, affective, and linguistic needs of this population. There are fewer resources out there for this particular population, so it is much needed.
  • Social Justice in English Language Teaching, edited by Christopher Hastings and Laura Jacob (TESOL Press). This new collection discusses ways that educators can identify areas of privilege in English language teaching (ELT) and address social (in)justice in a variety of TESOL teaching contexts. This timely topic may help you both evaluate your own teaching and answer tough questions from your students or colleagues about language policies and language rights.
  • Teaching English as a Foreign or Second Language: A Teacher Self-Development and Methodology Guide, by Jerry G. Gebhard (University of Michigan Press). In its third edition, this text is, in itself, a teacher development tool that can be used by pre- or in-service educators. Three sections (self-development, principles of ELT, and teaching language skills) guide the reader through his or her own pedagogical self-development in ESL or EFL contexts.
  • Unlocking English Learners’ Potential: Strategies for Making Content Accessible, by Diane Staehr Fenner and Sydney C. Snyder (Corwin). Designed for content and TESOL teachers, this volume includes strategies, examples, templates, and activities for increasing English learners’ access to the curriculum in K–12 settings. It promises a comprehensive toolbox for teachers who want a key resource they can revisit throughout their career.

Tech Exploration

Go “new school” this summer and check out a new app for your smart device that you can use in your classroom. Taking time during the summer to learn new technology and trying it out with some of your already-existing classroom materials might be more effective than trying out technology for the first time with your class. Using the new app over the summer will give you a chance to notice any challenges you might have and allow you to explore how you might use the app to augment your instruction in different ways. Some apps that I am anxious to try with my own students include:

  • Socrative is billed as a “classroom engagement” app that allows teachers to administer quizzes, ask open-ended or other quick questions, or receive exit tickets about content in a particular lesson. An impressive feature that distinguishes Socrative from other quiz-type apps is that it creates reports of your assessments and saves them to your account so you can download to Google Drive and track class/individual performance over time.
  • Plickers is an assessment-type tool like Socrative or Kahoot, but unlike these, your students do not need devices. This is crucial for classroom settings where the teacher is the only one with a smart phone or tablet, such as in working with young children or where there is variable access to technology. By printing out and using Plicker cards, teachers conduct formative multiple-choice assessments by scanning the cards as the students hold up their answers. 
  • Class Dojo is a more inclusive app that aims to build classroom community. Teachers can use it to form groups, give group and individual feedback, create digital portfolios, and share classroom moments with parents and/or students. It is a sort of positive feedback–social media platform that is privacy protected and free for teachers.


Along the lines of technology, webinars allow you to participate in a course—like professional development, but on your own schedule and in your own setting. Several organizations host webinars throughout the summer; here are a few that appeal directly to TESOL educators.

  • TESOL International Association hosts webinars on everything ELT from grammar instruction and assessment to pronunciation and academic interaction. Self-study seminars let you determine the pace.
  • Colorín Colorado posts webcasts that feature many TESOL/applied linguistics scholars and educators. Each 45-minute webcast has a discussion with the researchers, suggested readings, and discussion questions. Topics range widely and include academic language, comprehension, assessment, learning disabilities, and reading.
  • National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition (NCELA) posts webinars on all aspects of English language education. Focused more on U.S. K–12 populations, the webinars cover topics like Latino dual language learners in early childhood education, students with interrupted formal education, refugees, the U.S. Common Core, and even working with Native American students.

Planning Time

Instead of trying to incorporate 20 new ideas for the coming year into a few months, summer is an excellent opportunity to pick one or two units to innovate. You may also want to use the time to create efficiency for yourself down the line by making class sets of dice, laminating anchor activities or anchor charts, creating new vocabulary flash cards, and so on. Having those things ready before the school year begins again can save you hours of time once your students return. Websites that provide myriad teacher ideas for classroom management and planning are Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers, where you can purchase resources inexpensively, or even sell some of your own.

Regardless of the type of PD you choose to do this summer, it is important to remember to take care of yourself, too. Teaching is a rewarding, albeit emotionally taxing profession, so it is crucial to give yourself time to enjoy the outdoors, be with your friends and family, travel, or indulge in your favorite pastimes. Failing to practice self-care can actually impact your relationships, both personal and professional (Roberts, 2015). Thus, building up your own emotional reserves will enable you to be more present and energetic when school begins again in the fall.


Matterow, A. (2015). What does effective professional development for teachers look like? Teacher Match. Retrieved from https://www.teachermatch.org/blog/effective-professional-development-for-teachers/

Roberts, E. A. (2015). Why self-care is important for your mental and physical health. Healthy Place. Retrieved from http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/buildingselfesteem/2015/09/why-self-care-is-important-for-your-mental-physical-health/.

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Kristen Lindahl holds a PhD in linguistics with a specialization in L2 teacher education from the University of Utah. She is currently assistant professor of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she teaches pre-service ESL/TESOL educators at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Dr. Lindahl has taught K–12 and college ESL, and actively pursues consulting and coaching teachers of English learners in public and English language schools around the globe.

Grammatically Speaking

by Michelle Jackson
Use this activity to teach possessive adjectives to your beginning English language learners. They will produce the target language in both oral and written form. 

How to Teach Possessive Adjectives

Possessive adjectives (my, your, his, her, its, our, their) are used to modify the noun that immediately follows them. We can use them with objects to communicate possession. (E.g., Their house is on the corner.) We can also use them to communicate a relationship. For example, the sentence His bank is efficient does not mean he owns the bank, but that he has an established affiliation with that place of business.

The form of these adjectives is constant in English, meaning that they do not change to match the noun they modify. (E.g., Her dog is small. Her dogs are small.) The challenge in producing these possessive adjectives comes with selecting the correct one that corresponds to the pronoun. (E.g., I have a brother. My brother is tall.) 

Here is an activity to help beginning students produce possessive adjectives orally and in written form.

Materials Required

  • List of objects (see below)
  • List of properties (see below)
  • Doc cam, chalkboard, white board, or printed copies to display the 2 lists
  • A dictionary for each group of 3 students
  • 1 piece of paper for each group of 3 students
  • Writing utensils for all students

Timing: 30 minutes

Step 1

Inform students that you’re going to practice using possessive adjectives and that these words come before a noun to demonstrate possession. (2 minutes)

Step 2

Show students a list of objects readily visible within your classroom (e.g., backpack, pencil, lunchbox, shirt, socks, shoes). Show students a list of properties that could be used to identify or describe the aforementioned objects (e.g., color, size, shape, texture).  (3 minutes)

Step 3

Call on students individually and have them create a sentence by selecting an object and a property from the lists. (E.g., My backpack is big. Her backpack is small.) Continue until all students have a chance to participate. (15 minutes)

Step 4

After students have had an opportunity to practice possessive adjectives orally, inform them that they will now practice the same skill in writing. Break students into groups of three or four. In their group, students will work together to write six sentences that contrast one group member’s object of choice with another’s (e.g., bedroom, apartment/house, neighborhood, bicycle/moped, pet, sibling). Have students underline the possessive adjectives in each sentence and reference the dictionary as needed. (10 minutes)

Optional Extension

After groups compose their six sentences, each group could share their writing with the class. The class could then vote on the group that wrote the most creative, interesting, or grammatically accurate sentences. This would allow for more speaking and listening practice in addition to Steps 1–3 above.

While the above activity incorporates speaking and writing, it could also be used to check reading comprehension. Rather than have students speak and write about themselves and their classmates, they could contrast characters or place settings in the assigned reading. By writing about what they have read, students strengthen their comprehension and draw connections between their realities and the realities of others.

Additionally, using the reading as a backdrop for discussion and conversation provides a context in which to apply and use grammar concepts.

Happy teaching,

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Dr. Michelle Jackson is the associate director of teaching at New Mexico State University’s Teaching Academy. She designs, develops, and delivers workshops on a variety of teaching and learning topics. Prior to NMSU, she was the manager of the English Language Institute at UT El Paso. She has taught English as a second language at UT El Paso and Harvard University as well as Spanish at UT Austin.