“Ordinary laziness was merely the absence of effort. Victor had passed through there a long time ago, had gone straight through commonplace idleness and out on the far side. He put more effort into avoiding work than most people put into hard labour.”

Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures

I hate workshop lessons, I really do. You know, those lessons where the teacher has applied zero imagination and run off a bunch of different worksheets on different things for different learners, then takes them in and marks them at the end. Snooze. I’d hate them if I was a learner too: why not save everyone the hassle and stick it all on the VLE? Then the learners can do it in bed, and you can read the newspaper, or in fact, be got rid of altogether. It’s just lazy.

Except actually it’s not. When you do one of these hyper differentiated workshops, and do a halfway decent job of it, you need to link the tasks in some way, and begin the session with all the learners together and then end it all together, and really, that’s a LOT of hard work. Because your tasks, if they are pubished materials, probably won’t be linked, and you’ll have to find some way of linking them, and you’ll really really struggle to think of some warmer and “fun” plenary to tie it all together and make the learners feel like its a lesson, and not a “sit around and do worksheets I could do on my own without wasting my time and very possibly my hard-earned-minimum-wage money for this crap” workshop. So, in a class of 15-20 learners, or more, you’ve got to come up with about five or six different activities, possibly a couple of times over, to cover the two hours or so, then prepare it all, print it, collate it, make sure you have answer sheets and so on, set up the room into funky carousel friendly layout, then you run around like a blue arsed fly trying to manage it and explain each task several times. Sheer mind blowing lunacy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to it in terms of learning, but it’s really the worst extreme of differentiation. You see, to me, this is the wrong way round. You put all your energy into the resources, as most people seem to do, and this is the kind of crap that you put yourself through. That’s hard hard work. Once a term, if that, fine, but absolutely no more than that. No, you see, instead of spending your physical energy and wasting trees, you need to expend a little mental energy instead.

Come over here. Take the weight off your feet and sit down. Tea? Right.

This is how it works. You have a beginner-Entry 1 class, and want to teach verbs of the daily routine, recap times of the day and maybe do some work on present simple, so you start with a neat PowerPoint presentation showing a person doing things at different times of the day. Each slide has a picture, a sentence and a little clock. And not Mrs bloody Baker off the Skills for Life materials because she only does about three things all week, and that’s really rather depressing. Make your own: with practice, a little imagination, some clip art and the little clock faces in Wingdings, it’ll take you about half an hour.

Now, this is fine for eliciting but wait, before you go off and copy and paste all that stuff into Word and make tables, and use up another chunk of your life, let’s stick with the PowerPoint. For the purposes of practice, you have already got sentences to use as follows:

Print one version of the slides in full page print. Then cut this up and your beginners will sort and match the pictures and sentences. If they finish the task, they could either glue the sentences and pictures together, or have a go at copying or even writing one or two sentences on the back of the pictures. Don’t forget to save the presentation.

For some learners you delete key words and replace them with underscores: “I ___________ my teeth at 7.30” for example. Then print the slides (two to a page, four to a page?). Save the presentation under a slightly different file name. (And you might have some learners for whom saying the time is a personal target, so why not delete the prepositional phrase for some other learners?)

For another group of learners you simply delete the whole sentence and replace it with underscores (to make it clear where learners have to write) and print it again, 2-4 slides to a page, or delete the sentence and use the usual three slides to a page handout and learners write in the handy lines that get printed. Save the file again under a different name.


Now, I’m pretty deft at Word layout, so I personally would probably copy and paste the sentences, clocks and pictures into Word and do it that way: it would use less paper and require less farting about with a photocopier, but even then, it’s not exactly hard work. And what I really like about this is not only is it easy, but also that the learners, by the end of this activity, have all produced the same thing so there are no awkward “why has she got something different?” moments.

But obviously you want some freer practice, right? Some sort of production, “have a go”, hypothesis testing, phase. How about getting those pictures again and have the learners turn over a picture (no words) and say what the sentence is. Or have a little sheaf of papers, each with a different time on, and get the learners to go round the room and ask each other what they do at those times. By way of follow up here, weaker learners could then write 1-5 sentences about themselves, and the entry 1 students perhaps have a go at writing about their partner using third person singular. Wild and crazy, huh?

Got a couple of E2 learners in the mix? Go past simple: in the eliciting stage simply target your questions “What do you do at 5 o’clock, Gabor?” (Focus on the vocabulary) “What did you do at 5 o’clock yesterday, Hamza?” (Focus in the tense). Then adapt practice sentences accordingly. And you know what, while we’re on the crazy talk, beginner and and entry 1 students might actually need to talk about the past sometimes too, so a little exposure here isn’t going to hurt, because when they go off to practice on their own personal tasks you are going to make sure that they focus on the most appropriate thing: beginners/E1 do vocabulary / present simple work, E2s do past simple work.

And if you must split learners into level or ability groupings, do it on the sly. You may not say “right, you three are beginners, go sit over there in the beginners corner” but that’s basically what you want. Start with a warmer where they have to find someone with the same picture, or cut a picture, word or sentence into two and have them find the person with other half of their picture, word, or sentence. Or put a coloured dot on the handout, and learners sit together with the same colour. Or use coloured paper and watch your line manager faint when they get the printing bill. Whatever you do, you set this up carefully as the learners come in, in such a way that although you know who is getting what and why, the learners may not have a clue. (In practice, they usually do twig, but I think they appreciate the effort…)

The same principle here works at higher levels: use texts as a base for grammar teaching, and it’s quite easy to get different learners to look at different aspects of the text: an authentic text may have some nice examples of past simple and past continuous for some learners to recap, and some great collocations and idioms for others. For skills based tasks, like a reading lesson, prepare, say, twelve questions and only hand out six to all the learners, with the other six on hand to give out later (and you know who those learners are, right?). Or have a couple of more open, more deeply analytical questions for those stronger learners: “what makes you think the writer likes winter?” rather than, or as well as “Does the writer like winter?” Or ask them to write a sentences explaining why they have chosen the answer they have, or underline all the adjectives, or identify the difference between past perfect and last simple, and and and….

I could be here all day. I think the point is that differentiation needs to happen in the head, not on the worksheet. By all means do the workshop carousel stuff: hey, it’s your hours you are wasting after all. But for me, personally, I would much rather spend my hours coming up with ideas.



  1. Hi there, I like your blog. I’m generally a lurker but I have now thought of a question. I like your comments about Mrs Barker or Baker… can’t remember which anyway… what I’ve been wondering is, is there another way to introduce present simple that doesn’t involve asking people when they brush their teeth? I know daily routine is the standard route in to present simple and and an easy way to get familiar vocab going etc but I sometimes feel asking a bunch of grown Job Seekers to tell me when they have a shower is a bit… nnrrrgg. Hmm.. not very articulate there… I hope you get the gist!

    1. Hi! Lurk away: glad you like what you’re reading.

      I know what you mean though: you do get to a point where “I brush my teeth” grates for everyone!

      There’s a nice twist on this in “52” by Luke Meddings and Lindsay Clandfield, where they suggest getting learners to think about the daily routines of controversial individuals, like terrorists, prisoners and so on. Obviously this isn’t always going to float well for ESOL, but certainly fictional daily routines based on random pictures might create some interesting work? You could use fictional/mythical characters – “My name is Father Christmas…” as an alternative?

      (Or there’s “a day in the life of an object” although I used it to teach passives at high levels: “I am switched on.” )

      You could go for different “routines”: descriptions of traditional events (festivals, weddings, etc.) use the same grammar, as does the language of universal truths: “The sun rises in the east.” (Although this latter is a different use to routines.)

      With jobseekers you could get profiles of different jobs: “a day in the life of a warehouse operative”? Not very sexy or fun, maybe, but more relevant and useful. Find an outside speaker to come in and talk (with support from you) about what they do on a typical day.

      Again prosaically: students talk about what clothes they wear? This is perhaps better for adverbs of frequency (“I never wear a top hat.”) but would also link to present continuous: “I usually wear x but today I’m wearing y.” (That’s a direct steal from Inside Out Beginner…).

      I always wonder if I could use Blur’s Parklife as well: “I get up when I want, except on Wednesdays, when I get rudely awakened by the postman.” But I think that’s a bit optimistic for a low level class!

      So a handful of ideas: If I get a brainwave at three in the morning, I’ll try to add it! Hope they help.

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