Ideas for December lessons based on Christmas catalogues

Our letter boxes at home and at the school are being filled with store catalogues in the run up to Christmas (the writing on our “no advertising please” sign has faded in the sunlight). Rather than sticking these straight into the recycling bin, I wondered whether some of this junk mail could be used for some low-prep activities as we reach the end of term.

So, here are some ideas.  They aren’t fully fleshed out into full scale plans, but there might be something here that you’d like to work into a lesson this week to work on speaking or writing skills.

Please feel free to add some to the collection in the comments box.  The more the merrier.  Also, if you know of any published materials which do these or similar things, pass on the name of the book where they can be found.

If you decide any of these would fit the interests and needs of your students, consider what kind of support they will need to be able to do them.  Some things to think about:

  • Thinking, planning, preparation time
  • What your aims are in doing the activity
  • Useful phrases they’ll need (perhaps these could be on the board and removed as the activity runs its course)
  • Staging, structuring, timing
  • Leaving time for language feedback and possible repetition of an activity incorporating features that came out in the feedback

The Price is Right

A sure fire winner shown to me by Jan Wright at IH Palma.  Practise numbers and functional language for suggesting, agreeing, disagreeing, and reaching a decision by playing a classroom variation on the TV show The Price is Right.  You need to cut out a few Christmas catalogue items without their prices.  Keep a note of these prices on your own list.  Present these items to the students.  In teams students decide what they think the correct price is.  The team closest “wins” the item.  Works with toys, computer games, box set DVDs, food, drink, anything really!  Things to look out for when monitoring: pronunciation of numbers (clarity and rhythm/stress (e.g. where are the stressed sounds in “19.99”), language for comparison:  “I think it costs more,” “No, that’s not enough.” “It’s higher / lower.”  “It’ll be more than €10.”

Interview activities:

  1. It’s the perfect gift for…  You could make an updated version of the Christmas Shopping activity in Hadfield, Advanced Communication Games (Longman; 1987) to practise functional language for describing preferences.  Cut out some products from some brochures that fit the age group of your students.  Put them in a bag.  Students draw 5 items from the bag.  Their objective is to find someone who these items would make good presents for.  To do this they’ll need to mingle with their classmates and interview them about their hobbies, interests and tastes.  They should keep the identity of their presents secret, but other students could try to guess what they think the items might be.  Wrap the activity up with a discussion about whether students found a match for someone.
  2. Shorter variation on the above:  Students interview each other or the teacher to find out what they’d most like from a particular page/section of a catalogue.  Interviewers should see the catalogue / interviewees shouldn’t.  Swap roles / partners and repeat.
  3. 20 questions – guessing game  Practise question forms with a “guess who”-like game.  Choose an item on a page in the catalogue, ss ask questions to identify what it is.

Collaborative speaking activities:

  1. Elicit or make a list of well-known people (e.g. a pop star, actor, footballer, politician, reality show star).  Flick through a catalogue and find an ideal gift for that person. Provides an opportunity to practise functions like giving opinions, responding to an opinion, agreeing, disagreeing, suggesting, rejecting, justifying etc.  Mirrors a Cambridge Exam collaborative task.  Do a model which justifies a good match between present and person in a humorous way.  In feedback ss can vote on the funniest ideas.
  2. Come dine with us  You’ll need copies of a supermarket food advert for this one. Students use it to plan a party.  Set a budget and give ss time to work collaboratively to plan a dinner party for the class – what food and drink would they buy and serve?  You can up the challenge by giving restrictions (2 guests hate seafood, 1 is a vegetarian, 4 do not drink alcohol etc.).  Groups present ideas back to class and vote on which party they’d most like to go to.
  3. The best of 2013 Use a catalogue of DVDs, CDs, Games for students to rank their favourite films, albums, games of the year.
  4. Secret Santa on a budget  Give students an overall budget restriction (base this on the number of students in the group) and say they have to buy something for each person in the class.  They are only allowed to buy one of any item.   Feedback could be a mingle in which gift choices are revealed.  Were you happy with what you got?  Were there any duplications from different groups?

Individual turns

1)  Dropping hints / describing a product:  give students a fairly substantial catalogue each / or a page from a catalogue with lots of similar products on (e.g. lego or playmobil sets / computer games / CDs / DVDs / clothes / board games).  Get them to choose something they’d like.  They should prepare some “hints” that will guide their listener to the product without spelling out what it is.  For example, if I wanted Monopoly I might hint… “I’m looking for something I can play with my family and friends.  You know, around the table.  I’m not really into word games and I hate quizzes and general knowledge.  I like it when there’s an element of chance.  I want something that everyone’ll enjoy – I mean something that’s for adults as well as kids.  It has to be competitive.”

2)  Mini presentation  As per the collaborative speaking activity above, ss choose a gift to give a well-known person/their teacher but give a mini presentation justifying their decision.  Might work nicely as a group mingle so ss get to repeat the speaking task a few times.  Afterwards ss can vote on the best matched present/person, the funniest, oddest, most original choices.

3)  Speaking from a certain perspective / multiple-matching listening  Ss work from a page in a toy / game catalogue with lots of items on it.  Give them a role from which to speak (ideas below).  They choose an item from the catalogue and prepare a 30-40 second “turn” describing it from one of the following perspectives (choose / add as appropriate), without stating explicitly what the item is.

  • you work in a shop and you’re trying to sell it to a customer
  • you received it as a gift last year and love it
  • you received it as a gift last year and hated it
  • you’re wondering whether it would be a good present for someone in your family
  • you really want this thing for Christmas
  • it was an unwanted gift last year and now you’re trying to sell it to someone
  • you invented it and you’re talking to a group of possible investors who will help you take it to market

(These “roles” and “purposes for speaking” should be displayed for all the students to see)

Ss mingle and listen to one another.  They should match each classmate’s speech to an item and to one of the purposes above (a bit like Cambridge First listening part 3 and Advanced Part 4).

4)  Unwanted gift A simplified version of the above would be to focus on one role:  describing the gift from the perspective of someone who received it last year and now wants to sell it.  They should prepare a short radio ad. saying:  why they no longer want the item, who it would appeal to, how much they are selling it for but not naming the item. Students listen to their classmates speech and say what they think the item is.  There is a model for this in, I think, a Cambridge First course book or past paper.  It goes something like “you will hear 5 people on a radio programme called “morning market”, match each speaker to the items described…”.  Unfortunately, off the top of my head I can’t remember which book it is in.  Ring any bells?

5)  Defining  Practise the language for paraphrasing and defining something.  Student A chooses an item and uses phrases like:  “It’s something you use for…“, “You use it when…“, “You need it if…“, “It’s useful when…” etc.  Student B listens and identifies the item on the page.  You could also set this up as a role-play in a shop:   Customer:  “I’m looking for something but I don’t know what it’s called…” 

Evaluating a product / gift

A collaborative speaking activity to draw out opinions and attitudes.  Use a page/two pages from a toy catalogue.  Pairs speak together to compare the items reach a decision on (some, all or variations) of the following questions:  Which toy(s)…

  • you would / wouldn’t give a child (why not?)
  • have the most educational value (how?  what value?  what skills do they develop?)
  • are the most fun (why?)
  • have the widest appeal – gender?  Age group?
  • have lasting appeal or might just be fads
  • encourage the most imaginative play
  • are the best/least value for money
  • did you have as a child? Which do you remember most fondly?


1)  At the shops  You could use the catalogue to set up an in-store role play which could be improvised or scripted.  Some students could be customers searching for the ideal gift for a grandparent/parent/child.  Others could be shop assistants trying to advise, persuade, suggest, point out benefits etc.

2)  Pester power  Student A is a child, B is a parent.  A chooses a product he/she wants and tries to persuade their parent to buy it for them.  Parent has to say why they don’t think it’s a good idea.


Toys in the “Menina” section of the Intermarché brochure include:  a kitchen play set, a fashion and beauty play set, dolls, and a “carrinho limpeza” complete with bucket, mop and dustpan and brush.  The “Menino” section has a garage play set, lego, “Sharp shot Nerf Dart Tag.”  Hold a class debate about how products are sold according to gender (use of colour in catalogues, types of toys sold to boys and girls etc.).  Possible debate topics could go a long the lines of…

  • The way toys are sold conforms to gender stereotypes and sends negative messages to children.
  • Advertising toys as gender-specific products should be banned.

Give students time individually to come up with reasons for and against the statement. Encourage them to see the issue from different perspectives (a toy maker, an advertising executive, a concerned parent, a child etc.).  Assign sides, put them into groups and see what emerges from the debate.  Hold a vote at the end.  Could extend into an essay writing task.  Another follow-up would be to write a text selling a toy which is traditionally associated with one gender to the other:  e.g. Why boys should play with dolls / Why girls need mecano.

That’s all from me for now.  If you have any other ideas on this topic to share, please feel free to comment.  If you decide to use any of these, let us know how it went.  Happy Christmas!

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Tech tools – Making audio recordings 1

A lot of the tech tools we looked at in the October training session lend themselves nicely to creating homework activities for our students.  These not only provide alternatives to workbooks and photocopied handouts for learners but also add value to our courses, especially if the content is tailored specifically to their needs.

For grammar and vocabulary practice there are lots of sites we can direct our learners to (from ready made materials on course book publisher websites to those made by ourselves and shared online via sites such as quizlet, ProProfs Quiz Maker and the quiz application on edmodo).  However, when it comes to setting up homework practice for skills work, what tools are available to us online?

This post will look at creating and publishing audio content for our students online. Although the example we’re going to look at doesn’t lead to a proper listening-skills activity for students, it will outline a few tools that could be exploited  to record audio texts for listening tasks.

The activity that was set up is a dictation with the aim of enabling C1 and C2 students to practise spelling.

The tools and the steps:

The dictation was made using audacity, a kind of downloadable sound studio for recording and editing audio.  For a tutorial in how to use this software, check out Russell Stannard’s site, Teacher Training Videos:  Audacity 1  Audacity 2

When recording, sound quality is helped if you have a mic/headphone set to cut out background noise.

Once the dictation had been recorded, background music was added.  This is a nice touch for making the recording a touch more dynamic but by no means necessary.  The music was downloaded from  This site offers some royalty free music that can be used on condition that the name of the composition, the composer and the website are credited.

When the sound levels had been adjusted, the audacity file was converted into mp3 format and uploaded to soundcloud.  Setting up a soundcloud account is relatively painless and when you’re set up, you can upload recordings provided that they comply with the site’s community guidelines.

The link to the soundcloud recording was sent to students via edmodo with this instruction:

There are 8 two-word items (collocations) in the dictation. Get a piece of paper and a pen/pencil ready, follow the link to open the dictation on soundcloud, write down what you hear for each question, listen again if necessary. Finally, check back here for the answers on the attached document.

Answers were also shared via edmodo:

C1 and C2 Spelling challenge answer key

C1 and C2 Spelling challenge answer key

Music:  Power Pep Thumper composed/produced by Steve Lowther and CP Bryan provided by

Want to have a go?

We have audacity installed on at least two of the laptops around IHSC and a microphone for making clear recordings.

I can also help you out with a few editing tricks for getting the sound levels right and adding music if necessary.

More than just spelling dictations?

I’d be interested to hear suggestions for audio content that you think our students could benefit from and further ways to exploit tools like this.

A quicker way

The audacity / soundcloud route is not that time consuming once you know your way around the tech but there are faster ways to get audio content to students.  For example, Vocaroo allows you to record live to the web and share a link where that recording is stored.

Please leave a comment if you know of any others.

References and links

Russell Stannard,

Audacity info on wikipedia

The Audacity website


Spelling dictation activity based on Roy Norris, Ready for CAE (Macmillan, 2008) (unit 1)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment is the website of the International Teacher Development Institute.

Here you can ‘continue to improve your classroom teaching skills, as well as define your teacher beliefs and better understand the learning process’ by watching videos of teacher development sessions and then talking about them in the discussion forums.

Cost is $9 for a 60/90 min teacher development video.

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The Guardian Teacher Network


Brief description: A place for teachers to find resources, create tests, upload resources and find jobs!

What teachers can do with it: Search for resources and lesson plans by level and subject, upload resources, read about other teacher’s experiences on the blogs and create tests for students (we couldn’t try this function because it wasn’t working)

What students can do with it: Do the tests (I assume- we couldn’t try this part of the site)

Plus points:
• A huge resource bank
• Easy to search

• Not specifically for EFL teachers; there’s lots of irrelevant material on the site.
• Despite being logged in we couldn’t access the testing area.
• A lot of materials have been tagged ‘for all levels’, though they’re definitely not suitable (level or subject matter) for young learners.

Overall opinion: 5/10
I might browse this site when I’m looking for supplementary material for exam classes, it’s helpful that you can search by keywords and it would be good to use more authentic materials with these levels (where possible).

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Brief description: An online pinboard with text, pictures and video

What teachers can do with it: Make an illustrated record of vocabulary from a course (you can access images from Flikr and video from Youtube, which you can add to your ‘pins’); create boards to illustrate grammar points visually, e.g. time lines for narrative tenses; start a word formation log, which clearly shows how words from the same root are connected; set homework tasks, such as projects, by creating a new pinboard that students contribute to; do project work in class; print out the pinboards to display in the classroom, showing vocabulary/grammar from the course; create a popple with a video embedded in it and set questions for students to answer (on the pinboard).

What students can do with it: all of the above. Plus, they could create their own pin boards in order to use a study aids.

Plus points:
• It’s visual
• Clear and easy to use
• Access to a bank of images and video
• Memorable
• Fun to use
• You can build on each pinboard over time, it grows as the syllabus grows

• Students could end up spending much longer than anticipated on each task whilst they try to find the perfect picture/video to illustrate their point.
• Access to external sites (Flikr, Youtube) means the teacher has to monitor what students are searching for and looking at to ensure it’s appropriate.

Overall opinion: 8/10
We really liked this visually appealing site and think it has many uses in the classroom. We’re considering using it with younger students as a place to record vocabulary and with exam classes in order to log word formation exercises and phrasal verbs. We’ll also use it to set homework questions and as a visual aid in class.

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