How similar are these words?

Cognates are an obvious bridge to the English language and are particularly common in content areas such as Maths, Science, and Social Studies. However, many English words might also be related through other word forms or word associations.

To introduce new content-related academic vocabulary,  ask your students to group them in three categories: Cognate, Somehow Related and Different.

In the example below, my Dutch Year 8 EAL Learners completed this activity in a group of 4 to prepare themselves for the topic of Superpowers in Geography. They  really enjoyed the process and it generated a lot of conversation.



This exercise can be done individually or in language groups. As a follow up exercise you could ask your students to write a paragraph about the topic in which they have to use all the words from the different category and as many as they like of the other categories.

As an alternative, you could also use this kind of activity for grouping a series of grammatical structures, proverbs, idioms, cultural differences of body language, etc. .

Let me know how it worked in your classroom and share any other variations for this kind of activity in comments.

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Multilingual Story of Events


When you have an exercise in which students have to order certain events or tasks, consider writing a few sentences in some of the home languages of that class. As a result the multilingual students will be needed to complete the exercise as they will have to translate it to their peers. A strong international minded activity in which the EAL learners can link key vocabulary with their home language and they will feel valued for their linguistic abilities.

If you are not sure about Google’s translations, students will gladly help you correct it.

The example below is taken from a recent Shakespeare activity for Year 8 but you could do this activity with recipes in cooking, the rock cycle in Geography, the water cycle in Science, a history timeline, etc.

IATEFL final

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What is she/he talking about?

This activity originated from looking at all of the academic word of the week photos shown in an earlier post. So many words are similar, even in languages with different scripts. So now after a content-based lesson (Geography, Science, Food, IT and so on), I’ll have students play a game in which one of them comes to the front and says a sentence in their home language using key vocabulary from that lesson. The other students then have to guess what the student has said. The real aim of this activity is, of course, for the students who are listening to activate new key vocabulary in order to try and find a solution. Even though it may well be difficult to work out the correct answer as students sometimes don’t recognise any of the words being used, all students will be using the target language while guessing and, if necessary, the student at the front (or the teacher) can always give a hint. It’s such a fun activity and the learners feel genuinely happy and proud when they use their language in front of their classmates.

What is she-he talking about PowerPoint

Using activities such as these is not only about progress and linguistic ability, but also – perhaps even more crucially – about international-mindedness and creating an atmosphere of belonging and wellbeing. We should treat the students’ cultural knowledge and home languages as precious resources. Let them show off and feel proud of their language. It is the language they will connect new learning with.

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My favourite home language quotes – Part 2

Spanish grannies and Flemish elevators

In 2005 I moved to Valencia in Spain and taught ESL for 5 years in a private language academy. My two children were born in sunny Valencia and I can confirm that the Spanish absolutely adore children. People will give up their seat on the bus for young children. Children of all ages are welcomed and will be handed a slice of Jamon Serrano at every visit to the Mercadona. Sometimes it can be annoying though, like the time a Spanish grandma kept on insisting we should put socks on our baby’s feet even though it was summer and 35 degrees! So when my Year 7 Spanish student wrote the following quote I completely understood.


Pablo explained: “it is really annoying when that happens because those grannies will start talking to each other about how much you have grown and how big your cheeks used to be. It is very difficult to avoid being pinched in the cheeks in an elevator”

One reason I picked up Spanish so quickly is the fact that Spanish people are very sociable and always willing to chat: on the bus, in queues and in elevators. In 2011 we returned to my home country, Belgium, after taking a 15 month travel detour around Western Australia and South-East Asia and I took up a post as an EAL teacher at The British School of Brussels. The Belgians are perhaps not so sociable and being in an elevator in Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, is a completely different experience. The following clip illustrates this perfectly:


I challenge you all, next time you are in Belgium ……….. Did you say something?

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My favourite home language quotes – Part 1

A while ago I did a series of lessons with all my EAL learners on the importance of home languages. During this lesson the students wrote a quote about their home language. What does it mean to you? How does it feel to speak or hear your home language? How does it feel if you can’t use it?

Home languages are part of who we are, our identity.  They connect learners with their family, their home country, their culture. Not only that, they are an essential part of learning.

Over the years I have collected many quotes and they are often very useful for explaining the rationale for what we do in EAL. So, I would like to share a few and tell you the anecdotes that go with it. This is the first one:


This quote came from a Year 8 girl and I absolutely love it! The good thing was that she was Italian :-). The reason though I love this quote is that it shows that she is very confident speaking in English and feels really proud to be Italian. That’s what we are aiming for in EAL: confidence and a strong sense of identity.  Amy Chua once said,: “Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery.” Being a Belgian EAL teacher working in a British International school I have learned to be brave myself. It took a long time.

A couple of weeks ago at a parents’ evening I was talking to the mother of a Botswanian student. When I told her what a great, clear and articulate storytelling voice her daughter had she told me she didn’t agree. “Since my daughter has been coming to this school she sometimes starts mumbling with an English accent”. “I want my daughter to keep her African accent” as she went on to demonstrate it. The daughter was clearly of a different opinion. I told the mum about the quote above and what it meant to me. She roared with laughter and gesticulated towards her daughter indicating that from now on she should listen very carefully to her EAL Teacher.

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Collective Translation

Many big companies, museums and councils translate their websites in numerous languages but one organisation leads by a mile. The Jehovah’s witnesses website has been translated into a staggering 805 languages and they are still adding more. For obvious reasons that is not the site I use for the following activity but many others can be easily linked to the subject specific content language I need to prepare my students for.


A while ago at an exposition called ‘Up in the Air’ I came across the ‘Done Survival Guide’, a poster that is used in Syria and other nations that are in danger of drone attacks. The poster describes different tactics for hiding from drones. The poster itself is made from reflective material  that reflects sunlight into a drone’s camera, making this poster a useful tool to interfere with the drone’s sensors. The poster itself has been translated into many languages by the public and these translations are posted on http://www.dronesurvivalguide.org/.



Give each student or group of students in your class the same extract/paragraph in their home language and ask them to translate it into English. Students who have the same L1 can work together. Of course they can use translating devices, but the rule is that they don’t translate and copy whole sentences. Once all the students have finished  you could make two big groups and ask them to come to a collectively agreed translation. Finally students compare, discuss and reflect on the language used.

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Portraying Proverbs

A fun translanguaging activity with the more advanced language learners is to explore different proverbs in different languages. A great introduction to this is the painting of Pieter Bruegel the Elder called “Netherlandish Proverbs” in which approximately 112 identifiable proverbs and idioms are hidden in the scene.


This easily generates discussion and proverb exchanges for a whole lesson and more. For a subsequent lesson I usually ask them to draw a proverb from their home language adding a literal translation, explanation and if possible the English equivalent. These make up a beautiful and interesting display for your classroom or school.


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The Multilingual Odd One Out

Activity: Give your learners three or four target words in some of the languages that are spoken in the classroom. First ask the students who don’t speak that language whether they recognize the languages and perhaps the meaning of the words. If not, ask the students who do speak that language to clarify. At this moment, if time allows, get students to practise saying the words in the different languages and encourage them to share their own. Next, students discuss which word is odd one out and why. There isn’t really a right answer and the whole purpose of this exercise is for them to start talking about the topic. This is also a perfect moment for the teacher to listen carefully and the  assess students’ pre-existing knowledge (if used as a warmer) or assess speaking about newly acquired knowledge  (if used at the end of the lesson).


In the example above the words were translated into Polish, Arabic, Dutch, Italian, Russian and Norwegian.

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L1 karaoke

Karaoke is a great language development activity across all skill areas. Many of our EAL learners love singing, especially in their home language. Using this in class can be very powerful and motivating.


Ask your learners to find a karaoke song in their own language. There are many specialised websites (see list below) or your students will probably be able to find it on YouTube. In small classes you could ask each individual student to pick a song. In larger classes you could group them by home language and they then agree on a song.

  • Students can talk about the background of the song, why they chose the song.
  • Each student or group takes turns to come to the front of the class, plays the song and sings along (maybe you could pick the most confident ones to start).
  • The others discuss or write down what they think the song is about based on words they recognise, the tune and perhaps the video clip.
  • The song is played again but now the student pauses after every line or verse and translates it into L2.
  • The line or verse is played again and everyone sings along.
  • Continue with the next line/verse.
  • As a homework task ask the students to write the full translation which then can be displayed in the classroom next to the original version.



If you wanted to take it further, you could  ask your students to record their Karaoke song in English and  create a video clip to go with it. There is a very interesting website where students can share their recordings with other international schools: http://www.popullar.eu/index.html . The project is called POPULLAR and is run by Joel Josephson. Popular is a European Union,   funded, innovative, education project designed to harness music, the primary social interest of secondary school students, in to their language learning.

Karaoke websites with songs in different languages:

A different language is a different vision of life

(Federico fellini)

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