7 Tips to succeed in the Cambridge B2 First speaking exam

This week’s blog has been written by Elsa O’Brien, a Spain-based teacher who teaches young learners and adults at the British Council Madrid and at the University of Comillas.

Looking for useful tips on how to get a good result in the Cambridge B2 First speaking exam? Well, look no further. Instead of poring through thousands of books and websites on this topic consider these top tips to help you get the best possible score. Whilst there is no substitute for working hard to improve your English level, we should bear in mind some basic strategies and apply them when rehearsing for the exam in order to make them second nature.

In this post I’m going to summarise some key tips that will help you succeed while you prepare for the exam and during the test itself.

Before the exam:

Find out what the speaking part consists of

You can do this in many different ways  but I recommend two very straightforward ways:

Go on to the FCE Cambridge website, download a sample paper and read about the different parts of the speaking tasks.

The Cambridge B2 First speaking is relatively short. It is about 14 minutes long and it consists of 4 different tasks. The speaking test is taken together with another candidate. However, although you will need to pay attention to what your partner is saying at all times, the main collaborative task is number 3. You will mostly work individually on tasks 1, 2 and 4. Find more detailed information of each of the parts here.

Once you’ve become familiar with the structure of the task, it would be very useful to watch several YouTube videos of candidates doing the speaking exam.

Read success criteria and examiners’ comments

Reading the examiner’s comments posted underneath the videos is a quick way to become aware of what a desired answer sounds like.

During the exam:

Keep it relevant

Showing that you can use phrasal verbs and sophisticated language is important, however, you must keep your contributions relevant. Time is limited so going off topic will mean that you might not have time to answer the main question. Practice will help you get used to fitting what you want to say into a few minutes.

Use the language at your disposal

Don’t let stress get hold of you. Models of good language will be at your disposal in the examiner’s questions and the ones on the paper sheets. Use this language in your answers and don’t try to change it unnecessarily.

Apply language feedback and tips

As obvious as this may seem, very often students will forget to take note and apply tips and feedback received from their teacher or text books. These tips are usually strategic summaries of what the student is expected to know (phrasal verbs, agreeing and disagreeing language, grammar points) –so don’t waste them!

Be collaborative

During the collaborative task, the examiner is trying to find out whether you are able to have a natural conversation in English. This also means:

  • Including your interlocutor by referring back to something they’ve said earlier.
  • Asking for their opinion.
  • Respecting their turn and leaving time for them to speak.
  • Showing signs of active listening by nodding, smiling and using some useful minimal responses such as ‘that’s right’, ‘hmmm’, ‘I see’, ‘absolutely’.


Practice makes perfect. As many times as you might have heard this before, practice will really make a difference in your final performance. A lot of different aspects of your speaking will be evaluated in a very short time so rehearsing plays a big role in getting each of them right – at the same time!

Check out your understanding of the FCE speaking test by taking this quiz.

Author Bio

Elsa started off her career in market research but slowly, and almost unwittingly, drifted into the world of business English teaching. In 2016 she decided to become a full-time teacher. She has worked in Ireland, France and Spain and is currently pursuing a master’s in English Applied linguistics. She enjoys teaching as much as she enjoys learning through research, reading and teacher sharing. She also has a side project singing in Backdrop Music. Follow them on Instagram and check them out on YouTube too.


Top 10 tips for staying motivated when studying English

This week’s guest blog has been written by Kevin O’Donovan. Kevin has many years teaching experience having taught EAP at The University of Manchester and other universities in the UK and EFL in schools in Spain.

Studying English or any language can be difficult. Yet, it is important to know, that with the correct approach you will be able to accomplish your goals. Here are 10 tips to help you stay focused.

I may not be there yet but I am closer than I was yesterday.

Find out what you can realistically do in an allocated space of time and use this as your blueprint for competing a task or job.

Leaving it to the last minute is not necessarily bad, in fact, some people find that the concentration of energy and stress is enough for the task to get done.

Good intentions that motivate us to complete an action are hard wired; we get up in the morning to eat, we put clothes on and to have an interest in the world around and to get out from our homes we get a job; we need money to eat and to support a basic longing/need to be clothed and feel warm by investing in a shelter and the right clothes. We also meet people and make friends.

1. Find inspiration and let that guide you

Do one thing and do it to the very best of your abilities- what connects you to the world? Relationships? Animals? Helping others? Find and believe in inner strength to keep you energised and positive. What gives you meaning?

2. Two’s company

Great minds think alike. If you have a buddy or a friend with the same interest and ambition as you, make the journey together. You will be helping someone, which is good for the mind and you will be able to inspire and find alternative solutions to maintaining and achieving what you wish to do.

3. Little by little

You have a piece of work to give in by the end of the month-thats 4 weeks away. Some people have last minute burst of energy and live on coffee 2 days before the cut off date. That’s fine, yet you will achieve burnout and that’s not something that will set a good precedent.

Therefore, break it down. Say: ‘By the end of the week I get 500 words out of the way’. ‘Before that I’ll find a reading list’. ‘Before that I’ll ask some classmates what they know about the work at hand’. ‘Before that I will look at may class notes to see if there are any pointers’. You have already broken it down into attainable results that you will experience and see. That way 4-5 days before the deadline you’ll have you work nicely finished and you could get someone to proof read it for errors and slips that you may not have noticed. Give yourself a pat on the back. Where’s the chocolate?

4. Celebrate good times-come on!

Related to last point…so you’ve achieved your little goals- well done. Share this success with others, be proud that you’ve kept on top of things. It’s the little things in life that count.

5. You will get it wrong – so what!

“ Stop worrying about what can go wrong and focus on what can go right”

“ There’s nothing wrong with getting knocked down, as long as you get right back up” Mohammed Ali.

“Today is a new day. Even if you got it wrong yesterday, you can get it right today” Dwight Howard

Getting it wrong is ok- it proves you’re human and you are learning.

6. Get into a habit on a daily basis

For language learners this could be reading in the target language, listening to a radio station or a documentary – doing a crossword, playing  game, singing a song. Make it fun, get someone to join in with you.

7. Take a leaf out of someone else’s book

There will always be someone who’s better than you- but what makes it this way? How can they help you what is their secret? Use class time to get to know how and why from those around you. Take risk and get to know someone who does things differently , you may just open up your mind and find out something new about your abilities. But remember you are unique and have ideas and abilities to offer also. Don’t over compare  when sharing is a better option.

8. Imagine, visualise and realise.

Take some time to be grateful for your opportunities . Reflect and relax and think about your dreams and how you are going to accomplish them- how can you overcome obstacles?

9. Give me a P, “P” give me an A “A” give me a T“T”…ok !…

…patience is a great skill to have and is related to doing things one step at a time as in point number 3. We can get excited and drawn into the emotional rush of wanting to do something ASAP. We are bombarded with info in a screen obsessed culture, learn to navigate successfully by being selective with what you do. Being patient is a skill worth cultivating more than intensity. “Patience is not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting” (anon).

10 Heard the one about…

 A sense of humour is a great part of being human and its contagious! Tell a joke and you’ll get another one back.  Being able to keep things in perspective and telling a joke from time to time will help us keep our plans and intentions in perspective; laughing will help you relax and keep you happy.

“Nothing is impossible. The word itself says ‘I’m possible!”

“Why was the M&M excited to get to school on Monday? He wanted to be a Smartie!”

For more info


Inspirational Quotes

Motivational Songs

Good News

5 Tips to improve your academic IELTS listening score

1. Familiarise yourself with the listening test

Sounds obvious but nothing should be a surprise. This is basic exam technique. The key points to be aware of in the IELTS the listening exam are:

Timing: Approximately 30 minutes (plus 10 minutes’ transfer time).

Questions: There are 40 questions. A variety of question types are used, chosen from the following: multiple choice, matching, plan/map/diagram labelling, form completion, note completion,table completion, flow-chart completion, summary completion,sentence completion, short-answer questions.

There are 4 sections: Each section is heard ONCE only which differs from other official exams. You can expect the listenings to increase in difficulty and spelling is also important. You may have the correct answer but spelt it wrong, which means that you don’t get any marks for that question so you should practice saying and listening to the alphabet and spelling out words.

A variety of voices and native-speaker accents are used so if you can only understand your teacher and a particular variety of English then you will not score highly as you won’t understand the dialogue.

Marking: Each correct answer receives 1 mark.

2. Become an active listener

Expose yourself to spoken English. Including different varieties and accents. You need to listen to different genres of English too. Meaning, films, TV shows, podcasts, news, Ted Talks, university lectures, webinars and YouTube videos. Ensure that you are listening to different registers of English i.e. both informal and formal.

You need to develop good listening habits and listen to English everyday as part of your daily routine. You may have a favourite YouTuber that you like to watch which is fine but you also need to listen to academic material too.

Don’t watch with subtitles on the first watch as this won’t develop your listening skills. It may be difficult at first but persevere and with this type of training you will notice that you comprehend more each time you listen to something.

3. Focus on keywords

It’s unrealistic to think that you will understand everything you hear. Learn to recognise keywords and content words. They are usually nouns, verbs and adjectives. Also, study about intonation, word stress and sentence stress. You should learn about connected speech and changes in sound and pronunciation when words are next to each other in a sentence or utterance.

4. Use predicting skills

Read the instructions and questions before the recording starts and try to predict the scenario, and what the speaker may say. Also synonyms for the words you hear in the recording as different words may be in the answers. Remember, this is a test of your English comprehension and ability.

5. Beware of distractors

If the answer is too easy or obvious it probably isn’t the right answer. The first thing you hear may not be the right answer. Sometimes the speaker says something to then go on and negate it or change their mind. The speaker may say all the options with minimal differences in meaning. Stay focused for the full 40 minutes and pay attention to small details.

For more tips and dos and don’ts for the IELTS listening test visit the Official IELTS Website

How to engage students in the socially- distanced classroom?

This week’s blog has been written by Elsa O’Brien, a Spain-based teacher who teaches young learners and adults at the British Council Madrid and at the University of Comillas.

Over the last year, we’ve all seen our lives change unimaginably. For most of us, the way we work now is also totally unprecedented. EFL teachers have had to adapt their lessons. Shifting from wholly-communicative, super-interactive ones to ones in which, both teachers and students are wearing masks, desks are placed at a safe distance from each other and students are not allowed to leave their chairs or share materials. This is in the best of cases, of course, as many countries still only allow online teaching.

The flip side is that these times are as challenging as they are exciting. A whole year of online teaching has kept teachers on their toes, but a whole range of new teaching possibilities have also been presented to us. Every major institution has put together free materials and training sessions to make the transition smooth.

Communicative teaching has changed, that’s for sure. But can we still motivate our students with engaging interactive activities? I would dare say the greatest challenge at this point is choosing from the myriads of free low-prep resources that are available.

I recommend trying out a few and picking your own top-ten resources that can be adapted and recycled throughout the year. You might be surprised at how much you can enjoy challenging your teaching style with new resources and strategies and how quickly your students will get used to them.

The socially-distanced classroom

In online lessons, we very quickly become aware of what activities we can carry on doing as usual and which ones we need to adapt. However, going back into a classroom can be doubly challenging, as we are back in the old setting but with a whole new set of rules.

As frustrating as finding out in the middle of a lesson that something you’d planned cannot be done might be, we must not despair.  The whole new set teaching skills acquired during online teaching are totally transferable to the physically-distanced classroom.

Teacher-friendly online resources

These are some top games and interactive activities that can be used both online and offline, with any age group, when technology and Internet connectivity in the classroom allow:

  • TV-like quizzes with Wordwall: easy-to-make quizzes to review vocabulary. Students can play as a team, taking turns, or individually. This website offers a number of resources but my favourite are the gameshow and the regular quizzes. The uncertainty generated by the random wheel makes it an ideal tool for picking out topics. What’s in it for the teacher? Seeing how students go crazy about choosing a speaking topic!
  • Bamboozle offers the same kind of easy and ready-to-use quizzes. The advantage of this website is that it automatically splits the class into two groups. Competing for points adds to the fun of the game.
  • Hangman Words allows teachers to create hangman games in less than one minute. You might be wondering, what’s the use when I can just play a regular hangman on my board? You got me here. You’ll have to ask your students why it is they love anything that comes on a screen. The main real advantage of online hangman games is that you can share them with other teachers and with your learners for home practice. This can be especially useful during online-teaching periods.
  • Peer-correction of written activities can be one of the most challenging areas to adapt to the physically-distanced classroom. Padlet is a great tool for this purpose. Among its many uses, Padlet proposes virtual boards where students can share their written work in real-time. A great activity during process-writing lessons is for students to share a first draft of their introduction to, let’s say, an essay. Students can do this anonymously, using their phones while each of the paragraphs will be visible to everyone on their phones and on the main interactive whiteboard. A next step would be peer-correction and the creation of a final model as a class. 
  • I guess this wouldn’t be a proper online teaching post if I didn’t take a moment to mention Kahoot and Quizlet. Although these have rapidly become old classics, we shouldn’t forget their utility when it comes to reviewing vocabulary. Why not take it a step further and get students to make their own quizzes using the unit’s materials? They love being in command and the process of creating their own activities is an invaluable way of receiving feedback from their teacher and consolidating knowledge.

Movement activities

As much as all learners love quizzes and competitions played on a screen, younger ones  also need chances to move around and get it out of their systems. If you’re wondering whether movement brain breaks are still possible in the distanced classroom, check out my top 3 favourite movement games for primary students:

Strike a pose: play music and get students to move to it. When the music stops they have to come up with a pose. It could be an animal, an emotion, a letter… There’s room for language feeding while you’re trying to guess what their pose is. You can use it as a way of reviewing class vocabulary if, instead, you shout what the pose must be out of the words recently learned.

Jump the rope: students draw an imaginary rope in the middle of their desks. Then you tell them what each of the sides mean (i.e: left=yes/true; right=no/false). You run a series of questions by them and they have to jump left or right of the rope to answer. This can be adapted to any topic and it’s literally zero-prep for the teacher.

Baboozle Simon says: it’s basically the old Simon says but you won’t have to come up with the orders and, once again, the digital version only adds to the excitement.

The online classroom

All the resources shared can be easily used during online lessons as well. What is more, teachers must not forget a few of the resources that we discovered during lockdown and can only be used online. Most video-call apps offer the same basic functionalities that can be a true ally to the online teacher. Online activities can be used with any age group although you’ll probably find that younger students will have a slower tech-learning curve than adults and teens. 

Breakout rooms: they allow for much richer and varied interaction between students. Exploit them as much as you can! Bear in mind that students won’t be able to switch partners once they are back in the physically- distanced classroom.

The chat: is a great tool for competitions. It can be used as a way for students to share their answers as quickly as possible once you ask or show a question on the screen.

Polls: are a great conversation opener if you launch a poll and share the results with the students. They can also be used to quickly check general understanding of a concept and to gage whether further feedback is needed. You can set up a poll in two minutes and some apps like Zoom will allow you to save them for future lessons.

The interactive whiteboard: students might not be allowed to touch the board and markers in the classroom anymore. However, they can do so in the online classroom if you hand over the board’s control to them. This way they can enjoy leading games like pictionary and hangman. This means online lessons can be student-led too.

The students’ home!: during lockdown, I found this was one of the greatest resources with students from all age-groups. Scavenger hunt is a great game to play with early years and lower primary students. You can link this game to literacy by asking them to look for objects that start with a certain sound or letter. Show and tell can be done with students of all ages. This comes especially handy after Christmas holidays when students can show and talk about their favourite present. It can be adapted to most topics (favourite books, item of clothing, talk about your pet, etc.).

Although the current teaching situation is far from ideal, most of us will agree that, despite being challenging, we have managed to make do with what we have. It’s been a great opportunity for innovation and teacher sharing and collaboration. Please share your comments and ideas below!

Author Bio

Elsa started off her career in market research but slowly, and almost unwittingly, drifted into the world of business English teaching. In 2016 she decided to become a full-time teacher. She has worked in Ireland, France and Spain and is currently pursuing a master’s in English Applied linguistics. She enjoys teaching as much as she enjoys learning through research, reading and teacher sharing. She also has a side project singing in Backdrop Music. Follow them on Instagram and check them out on YouTube too.

Fancy teaching English in a foreign country?

This week’s blog is brought to you by guest blogger Heather Collier, EFL teacher and qualified yoga instructor zenyourenglish Heather has taught in many different contexts: the UK, China, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Mexico.

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to travel the world and work at the same time? I did consider it but as I already had a good, stable job, I was not prepared to risk security for adventure. It was just a dream. However, in 2010 I became redundant due to the financial crash of 2008 and then had nothing to lose.

What Qualifications Will I Need?

If you suddenly become ‘free’ from previous work commitments or fancy a career change, How do you go about it and what qualifications do you need? Some people can actually find jobs that do not insist upon a degree, but these opportunities are becoming rarer and would probably not include health insurance, a contribution to your travel expenses or a reasonable salary. Increasingly, foreign English Language Centres require an undergraduate degree first, they prefer English but very few of my teacher friends have English. I had Zoology, of all subjects!  The reality is, they will accept any degree discipline as there are not enough English-speaking teachers with an English degree. What you do need, as a minimum, is an English language teaching certificate.  The two most readily recognised are the Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) and Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL).  You may also see teaching English as a Second Language (TESOL) referred to, but you can research more online. If you want to teach in the Middle East particularly, or pre-sessional courses at UK universities, a masters in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), Applied Linguistics or DELTA (Diploma of English Language Teaching to Adults) is usually mandatory.

Where can I do the Necessary Qualifications?

The truth is you can become qualified almost anywhere in the world. If you love travelling and experiencing different cultures, why not start becoming qualified in a different country?  Nearly all countries that you might fancy have a centre(s) for taking an English language teaching certificate.  I chose to do a one-month CELTA in Barcelona rather than the same course in England; this way it was my first experience of actually living in a foreign country and the challenges I might face when working abroad.  It was also a taste of the wonderment of experiencing different food, amazing landscapes and making new friends from different cultural backgrounds and traditions.  Once you get the ‘bug’ for living and working abroad, you will never regret it. You might even decide it’s the ideal opportunity to learn a foreign language, if you ever wanted to.

Where can I Find a Teaching Job?

There are many websites advertising teaching jobs for people with CELTA/TEFL qualifications. If you have a degree too, the jobs offer more money, heath insurance and for me, accommodation was almost always free with the job.  This gives you the chance to save, as the cost of living is usually much cheaper than the UK, and/or travel within the country and surrounding countries.

What countries are best to start your English teaching career in?

I’m not entirely sure. I started off in Mexico at an English Language School, at the time, they did not require a degree, just a CELTA. The payment was poor, there was no health insurance and no free accommodation, but it was a good place to ‘cut my teeth’ in the profession. I began to learn how to teach.  I was told by my CELTA tutor that ‘for the first 2/3 years, your students will know more grammar than you do!’  This, I found to be true. Of course, as a native speaker we do not ‘learn’ English, we acquire it. Most of us did not learn much grammar at school.  Maybe its different now but at school, I only learned what a noun, verb and an adjective was. I learned most about grammar when challenged by students ‘why is that teacher?’ In the beginning, I politely thanked the student for the question and bought some time by saying ‘good question, we will cover that at the end of the lesson if there is time, or tomorrow if not’.  I would then research the grammar behind the question and prepare a mini lesson with examples for the start of the next lesson. I particularly remember being asked by a student why he could not take ‘some wines’ with him in a spaceship (as I had asked him to tell me 5 things he would not want to leave behind).  I then found out about countable and uncountable nouns. Naturally enough as a native speaker I had never come across these terms before. I have also taught in Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and China.  My most enjoyable time was in Vietnam where I lived in a hotel apartment and there were yoga classes all-round the clock.  I have heard that South Korea and Japan are good countries to start working in, where the pay and conditions are also good.

What Types of English Teaching Establishments are There?

I had no knowledge of how diverse English language teaching could be. I have taught in an English language school which is perhaps the most common setting for English learning both overseas and at home.  I then taught preparatory English for taking a degree in a university in Saudi Arabia. After that, in a ‘College of Excellence’, which was primarily vocational English to help Saudi women enter the jobs market. I went on to teach in another English language centre in Vietnam and another university in China. Lessons varied according to local needs. I have taught general and business English, IELTS (a qualification to enable students to emigrate or enter a foreign university) and conversation classes. I now specialise in English for Academic Purposes (EAP), which enhances a student’s writing, reading, speaking, listening and study skills before undertaking a degree or masters at an English university.

For me, being made redundant from my safe, ‘stable’ job was a blessing in disguise. I was able to realise that dream. I have now travelled the world, seen some fantastic places, eaten the most amazing food, met the nicest people and made life-long friends, learning so much from them about their country and their culture. I have now ‘learned’ English and in turn, love to help people get better at it in order to fulfil their dreams.


Inspirational women from Manchester’s past

International Women’s Day 2021

To mark International Women’s Day, 8th of March 2021 this week’s blog will highlight some of the inspirational women in history that hail from the Manchester area, have studied at the University of Manchester or have connections to Manchester. You may be surprised to learn that some of the amazing women you may have heard about in history or popular culture were born and bred in Manchester, U.K. I have chosen women whose legacy remains imprinted on Manchester and recommend places you can visit to learn more about these great women.

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928)

Emmeline Pankhurst was born in Moss Side, Manchester in 1858. She famously fought hard for equal voting rights for women. Unsurprisingly, she believed that women should have equal rights to men. She formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPV) with her daughters. They became known as Suffragettes, suffrage means to vote and by adding “ette” makes the word feminine. The Suffragettes were proponents of direct action in order to make their case and provoke the powers that be, at the time, to listen to them. As a result many of them were criminalised for their beliefs. Some women died in the fight for democracy. Mrs Pankhurst’s motto was, “Deeds not words”.

In 1914, campaigning was put on hold due to The First World War. In 1918, after the war had ended, some women were given the vote, in that it was limited to women over 30 and various property qualifications remained. In other words, these were privileged upper class women and it was not all women that had the right to vote. That came in 1928.

Whilst in Manchester you can visit The Pankhurst Centre next to The Royal Infirmary and learn more about the life of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters and other Suffragettes. In 2019, finally a statue of this great woman was erected in Manchester so go and seek it out. The only statue of a woman prior to this is of Queen Victoria in Piccadilly Gardens. What does that say? You can also watch the film Suffragette to learn more. Watching films in English is another great way to improve your English. You can watch them with English subtitles.

Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947)

Ellen Wilkinson was born in 1891 in Manchester. She was a Labour politician and a lifelong socialist, feminist and politcian. As a child she was an avid reader and her family instilled the value of education in her. As a teenager she supported women’s suffrage, took part in socialist activities and joined the Independent Labour Party (ILP). In 1909 she won a scholarship to attend Manchester University where she studied history graduating in 1913. She was highly influenced by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and joined the Communist Party in 1920. In 1923 she was elected to Manchester City Council very soon after in 1924 she entered parliament, representing Middlesbrough East, Yorkshire. Aged 33 years old she was one of only 4 female members of parliament. In parliament she campaigned for votes for women and in 1926 she supported the general strike and subsequent miners’ strike.

In 1936 she famously took part in the Jarrow Marches. 200 men set off from Jarrow to march all the way to London (300 miles) to highlight the plight of the poor and unemployed. Ellen Wilkinson joined them in the South and addressed the crowd as they gathered in Trafalgar Square, London. There are famous photographs of her with the lions of Trafalgar Square in the background.

She was known as Red Ellen because of her hair colour and political persuasion. She died aged 55 in 1947 and continues to be a great inspiration for women entering politics to this day. She wrote a number of books such as, Clash which is a novel and The Division Bell Mystery.

In Manchester you can find her old school in Ardwick though it isn’t a school anymore. There is also an Ellen Wilkinson Crescent and an Ellen Wilkinson High School. There is also a building named after her at the Quadrangle at The University of Manchester. A blue plaque records the site of her birthplace in Brunswick. Ellen Wilkinson’s life story is a great advert for the role of education in girls’ and women’s lives.

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–1865)

Elizabeth Gaskell, if she were alive today would be an honoury Mancunian. Us Mancunians are a welcoming bunch and are very accepting of talented individuals who make Manchester their home. Elizabeth Gaskell was born in Chelsea, down South. She was a writer of great repute. She wrote novels, biographies and short stories. Famously, she wrote a biography of another great female writer Charlotte Bronte. Some of her best known novels have been adapted into TV series such as Cranford, North and South and Wives and Daughters. This was long before Netflix and Bridgerton were a thing.

Mrs Gaskell settled in Manchester after her marriage to William Gaskell who was a minister. In 1850 the Gaskells moved to a house at 84 Plymouth Grove. This house is open to the public and you can learn so much about Elizabeth Gaskell’s life and literature by visiting this beautifully restored house. The volunteers are a wealth of knowledge and tell you interesting snippets about Mrs Gaskell’s literary friends such as the Brontes and Charles Dickens. You can see correspondence between Mrs Gaskell and Mr Dickens. Fascinating!

Mrs Gaskell’s writings were hugely influenced by the industrial backdrop in which she was living, namely the industrial powerhouse that was Manchester at that time. Her novel Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life (1848) documents the difficulties faced by the Victorian working class.

Why not pay Gaskell House a visit next time you are in Manchester, it’s a short walk from The Pankhurst Centre. Elizabeth Gaskell House has a shop, tea room and a nice garden.

Sunny Lowry (1911-2008)

Ethel “Sunny” Lowry was born in Longsight, Manchester in 1911. She was a long-distance swimmer and teacher. It is claimed that she was the first British Woman to swim the Channel.

A keen swimmer from an early age, she joined the Victoria Ladies Swimming Club of Victoria Baths, Longsight, Manchester. She also used to train at Levenshulme Baths, also in Manchester.

Opened in 1906, Victoria Baths closed its doors in 1993 and was left to degrade. Fortunately,  a multimillion-pound restoration project began in 2007 and is on-going.  The building is once again open to the public (though not for swimming) and has been partially restored. It is well worth a visit to learn the history of this amazing building and the story of Sunny Lowry another inspirational woman and Mancunian. Visit it and find out for yourself http://victoriabaths.org.uk

Enriqueta Rylands (1843-1908)

One of my favourite buildings in Manchester is The John Rylands Library on Deansgate with its stunning interior. I have Enriqueta Rylands to thank for this philanthropic gift to the people of Manchester. Born in Cuba, Enriqueta  came to Manchester when she was 20 as a companion to Martha, John Rylands 2nd wife.John Rylands was a wealthy Manchester merchant. Sadly, Martha died in 1875 but Enriqueta married John Rylands 8 months later.  The latter died in 1888, leaving Enriqueta a sizeable inheritance. She didn’t go on a wild shopping spree and cruise, but built The John Rylands library in her husband’s honour.

The library was opened in 1889 and Mrs Rylands was given the keys to the city of Manchester. The first time the honour had been bestowed on a woman. On visiting the library you can see a full-length statue of the great woman herself in the reading room of the library. She died in 1908 but her legacy lives on in this phenomenal library. It is an impressive neo-gothic building which was 10 years in the making. Drop in next time you are in Manchester, it is truly awe-inspiring. http://library.manchester.ac.uk/rylands/about

Reading about things you are interested in in the language you are learning is a great way to improve both your knowledge of the subject and your knowledge of the language. This approach is called CLIL, meaning content learning in language.

Further reading

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst


Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist , Feminist, Internationalist by Laura Beers


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The benefits of extensive reading in EFL

As it is World Book Day on Thursday 4th March, this week’s blog will look at extensive reading (ER) in the context of the EFL classroom.

Firstly, let’s consider what extensive reading is. Well, put very simply it is reading for enjoyment. Compare this with the intensive reading that is often done in class, where a short text is read slowly and carefully and dissected for comprehension, grammatical structure, vocabulary and discourse. A fixed amount of time is alloted to this reading task in the class. When students are encouraged to read outside of class they can read at their own pace which gives them more autonomy. They can choose what they read themselves and it can include different genres such as, magazine articles, blogs, newspaper articles, graphic novels, poetry, non-fiction not only books in the conventional sense.

Day and Bamford, influential writers on the research and promotion of ER in second language (L2) contexts, produced a list of 10 principles that they felt summed up its key tenets:

  1. The reading material is easy.
  2. A variety of reading material on a wide
    range of topics must be available.
  3. Learners choose what they want to read.
  4. Learners read as much as possible.
  5. The purpose of reading is usually related to
    pleasure, information and general understanding.
  6. Reading is its own reward.
  7. Reading speed is usually faster rather than slower.
  8. Reading is individual and silent.
  9. Teachers orient and guide their students.
  10. The teacher is a role model of a reader.

Bearing these 10 points in mind I won’t be recommending Ulysseus, War and Peace, anything by Salman Rushdie or any classics. Unless of course the students express an interest in such works of literature. Again, by knowing your students and their likes and dislikes and building up rapport you can recommend books that will appeal to them personally. As a teacher you could always have a book in your bag and talk about it at the beginning of the class. Students can ask each other about what they are reading at the moment. It could be a show ‘n’ tell session held regularly. Sometimes students struggle to know what to talk about so the regular discussion of what the class is reading provides another speaking topic for class. Talking about a book you have read is also a common theme in many official exams such as the IELTS speaking exam.

There are many benefits to ER. Day and Bamford (1998) list the benefits as improvements in reading and writing proficiency, oral skills and vocabulary, an increase in motivation and positive affect.

Setting up an ER programme should not only help your students to improve their reading skills (invaluable for higher education study), but it will also allow them to enjoy reading for pure enjoyment. They could join Good Reads https://www.goodreads.com/list/tag/uk which can provide them with recommendations. They can also write book reviews of what they have read, thus practising their writing skills. You could even encourage them to join a book group or set up their own. ER is great way to Foster learner autonomy also.


Day RR & J Bamford (1998) ‘Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom’ Cambridge:CUP

Watkins, P. (2018). Extensive reading in ELT: Why and how? Part of the Cambridge
Papers in ELT series. [pdf] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Top 10 films set in Manchester

If you are thinking about coming to Manchester or Salford to study English and then a university degree, then you should familiarise yourself with the culture of the area. A great way of improving your English is by watching films, or if you are a lower level you could watch film clips. There are a myriad of films based in London. However, you are planning on studying in Manchester so it would be a good idea to watch a few films that are based in Manchester and Salford. You can impress your classmates and teachers with your cultural knowledge and you can seek out the locations where the films were made. You can also observe how Manchester and Salford have radically changed over the years or not as the case may be. You may even spot a statue that is still standing to this day and walk the same path as a famous figure from Manchester’s past. In a recent survey people were asked what they thought the second city in England was, some people said Birmingham. Mancunians said London. In the words of the late, great Tony Wilson, “This is Manchester, we do things differently here.”

1. A Taste of Honey (1961)

This black and white film is based on the play written by Shelagh Delaney when she was 19. This film is a prime example of the genre, British Realist Cinema or kitchen sink drama. These films dealt with gritty, often Northern issues set against an industrial backdrop. A Taste of Honey was set in the 1950s in Salford and deals with highly complicated issues such as motherhood, racism and homosexuality not to mention other social issues such as poverty, poor housing and teenage pregnancy. Issues not tackled on the screen at that time and highly controversial. The story centres on Jo played by Rita Tushingham aged 18 and her mother Helen played by Dora Bryan. Their relationship is complicated to say the least. The film begins with the pair moving into a squalid flat in Salford. Imagine a time before indoor toilets, central heating, hot running water and IKEA.

My favourite part of the film is when Jo takes a bus journey through Salford to Stockport, along The Crescent and past Salford University up to Salford Royal hospital. There’s a statue which you can still see there today, opposite what was the old Transport and General Workers Union offices. They pass through the centre of Manchester and you can see Albert Square with the statue of William Gladstone to the right of the centre. They also go on a trip to Blackpool. When Jo meets her boyfriend Jimmie, a black sailor then we can see how the docks and quays in Salford operated in their heyday.

By watching this film you will learn so much about the history and industrial heritage of Salford and Manchester. Notwithstanding how ordinary people lives have changed and certainly how attitudes have changed. You can see first hand how the urban landscape has changed. You may even be living or staying in a converted mill, warehouse or in Salford Quays. This film offers a great chance to improve your English by being exposed to different accents and the fact that people spoke differently back then together with taking a historical look at back at Manchester and Salford’s industrial roots.

2. A Kind of Loving (1962)

This is another kitchen sink drama directed by John Schlesinger. It is based on a book by Stan Barstow of the same name, published in 1960. The film follows draughtsman Vic (Alan Bates) and typist Ingrid (June Ritchie) who both work together in a Lancashire factory in the 1960s. Filming locations include, Preston, Blackburn, Salford, Manchester, Radcliffe and St.Anne’s-on-Sea. Ingrid accidentally falls pregnant so the two are forced to wed, though Vic isn’t as taken with Ingrid as she is with him. Vic finds himself trapped as a young man who has to contend with an interfering mother-in-law. He becomes disillusioned as his life has not turned out exactly as he had intended.

The film also gives us an insight into the world of the working class man in the 1960s. Many of the films of this genre and from this era centre around an angry young man who is disillusioned with traditional British society. Vic is a fine example of this. This film has great accents to be savoured and enjoyed. Thoroughly enjoyable and a window to a past way of life.

3. Raining Stones (1993)

Fast forward 31 years. Raining Stones by the award winning and highly acclaimed British film director, Ken Loach. I love his films which tell the stories of ordinary folk and their various struggles. His films are modern day kitchen sink dramas in my opinion. They also highlight modern social injustices and inequalities. Many of Loach’s films feature unknown actors with regional accents. He posits that working people’s struggles are inherently dramatic.

This film tells the story of a man devoted to his family and his religion. It is set in Middleton, an area of Manchester. Proud but poor the main character Bob, played by Bruce Jones, wants his little girl to have a beautiful (and expensive) brand new dress for her Holy Communion. His mission to raise the funds gets him into trouble as he turns to more questionable and dubious measures to raise the cash. Remember Crowdfunder and the like didn’t exist in 1993. In his desperation to get the dress he almost loses the family that he loves so much.

4. East is East (1999)

This film is a comedy-drama set in Salford in the 1970s. It is based on a stage play of the same name. Starring Om Puri, Linda Bassett and Jimi Mistry, it takes a wry look at a Pakistani chip shop owner’s efforts to raise his kids amid cultural tensions in 1970s Salford.

George Khan is a Pakistani Muslim who has lived in Britain since 1937. He has a wife in Pakistan. He and his second wife Ella, a British Roman Catholic woman of Irish descent have been married for 25 years and have 7 children. They run a popular chippy in Salford.

The film is a great insight into mixed marriages and the effect it has on children. George expects his children to follow his strict Pakistani Muslim ways. However, his children with an English mother, born and brought up in Salford, Britain, increasingly see themselves as British and start to reject their father’s rules on dress, food, religion and living in general. An enjoyable and thought-provoking film.

5. There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble (2000)

It would be quite impossible to find a film set in Manchester that is not football related. Given that the city of Manchester boasts two Premier League football teams.

Jimmy Grimble, played by Lewis McKenzie, is a 15-year-old misfit living in Oldham, Manchester. His life isn’t great, he’s being bullied at school and at home he has to contend with his mum’s new boyfriend.

Jimmy is an ardent supporter of Manchester City and he goes to the match with his Mum’s ex boyfriend. Jimmy loves playing football too. He’s not a bad player but when an old woman gives him a pair of boots that once belonged to one of City’s greatest players, his skills and fortunes on the pitch begin to change.

A real feelgood film starring some great British Actors too, Gina McKee, Robert Carlyle and Ray Winstone.

6. 24 Hour Party People (2002)

This is one of my all time favourites. I am a massive music fan and really proud of the Manchester music scene. This film takes it title from a famous song by The Happy Mondays. The film is the story of Factory Records, a defiantly eccentric independent record label based in Manchester. You can still visit the offices and see the iconic doors. Factory discovered world famous and critically acclaimed artists such as Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays, Durrutti Column and A Certain Ratio. It also charts the rise of House Music and the Rave Scene in the UK.

It is shot in mock-documentary style and narrated by Tony Wilson wonderfully portrayed by Steve Coogan. The film charts the rise and fall of the Factory label and even features cameo appearances by various Manchester faces from the music scene. The film is a dramatisation based on reality, rumours, urban legends and the imaginings of the scriptwriter. It is not a rock biopic.

The story of Factory Records and the rise and fall of The Hacienda is in itself an amazing true story. It brings to mind the phrase truth is stranger than fiction. By watching this film you will gain an insight into the world of Manchester music. Impress your new friends by sharing your new found musical knowledge. You will also be exposed to more wondrous dulcet tones of the North. Music to your ears on two levels, musically and in terms of accents.

7. Control (2007)

This is the tragic story of the late lead singer Ian Curtis, of Joy Division. It is directed by Anton Corbijn in black and white who photographed the band when they first appeared on the Manchester music scene. There is an iconic shot of the band on Hulme Bridge. Go there and recreate that classic black and white image. The film is based on the book, Touching from a Distance, by Curtis’ widow Deborah.

The film is set in Macclesfield, Salford and Manchester as that’s where the members of Joy Division are from. Starring Sam Riley and Samantha Morton as Ian and Deborah Curtis, the film documents the couple’s lives from 1973 to 1980. It focuses on their marriage, the formation of Joy Division, Ian’s struggle with epilepsy, his affair with Annik Honore and his suicide in May 1980. This happened as the band were on the brink of touring the US.

The film’s title is based on the Joy Division song, She’s Lost Control. Sam Riley’s portrayal of Curtis is impressive and he can mimick the trademark Ian Curtis dance.

Basically, you need to watch this film and listen to some Joy Division to begin your journey towards being an honoury Mancunian.

8. Looking for Eric (2009)

This is another film with a football theme, though this time time The Red Devils aka Manchester United. It is directed by Ken Loach and centres around the life of postman Eric. He confides in a poster of the famous number 7, French Man Utd player,Eric Cantona who then goes on to offer him life coaching skills in the pre Instagram era. Eric Cantona plays himself in the film.

Eric is struggling at work and at a single Dad. His chats with Eric Cantona give him advice and escape from his problematic life.

This is a brilliant film and shows us that friends and family may be able to help us more than celebrities. It also offers the chance to hear some thick Manc accents and of course Cantona’s wonderful French English accent. Ooh aaah Cantona.

9. Spike Island (2012)

Another film with a musical connection. This time a comedy centring on The Stone Roses’ gig on Spike Island in Widnes, Cheshire, England in 1990. The Stone Roses are a band from Manchester that jumped to fame in the second summer of love between 1988 and 1989 which such the explosion of acid house parties and rave. The Stone Roses were big on this scene with their version of psychedelic rock.

The film follows a group of friends who are massive fans of the band and try to get into the gig, but they don’t have tickets or transport. The group of friends have their own band Shadowcaster.

Spike Island is a fun, coming of age, British indie flick and a great trip down memory lane before phones at gigs and YouTube.

10. Peterloo (2018)

Last, but by no means least is a historical film that charts the very roots of the values that many Mancunians hold. The quest for justice and fairness and workers rights.

Directed by Mike Leigh, starring Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Neil Bell and Philip Bell. This film documents events leading up to the story of The Peterloo Massacre where British forces attacked a peaceful pro-democracy rally in Manchester.

The site of this massacre is opposite Central Library. You may catch a tram from St. Peter’s Square and feel the past beneath your feet and think about the ordinary people who on that day with their families and children assembled in St Peter’s Fields to demand parliamentary reform an extension of voting rights. There was a crowd of 60,000 people. This was a peaceful protest and a great orator of the time, Henry Hunt spoke at the rally. In their attempt to arrest the leader of the meeting the yeomanry panicked and charged at the crowd hacking away at them with sabres. 18 people were killed and up to 700 wounded. In its aftermath there was a crackdown on reform.

Much of the dialogue in this film is in traditional Lancashire dialect so yet more exposure to the rich variety of English accents and dialects.

What can language schools do to become greener?

When looking for a prospective language school students are quite rightly advised to choose one that has been accredited by the British Council and English UK. Why? Well, because this is the hallmark of quality covering the areas of management, resources and environment, teaching, welfare and (where applicable) care of under 18s. A lesser known accreditation is the GSS which stands for Green Standard Schools and awards accreditations to providers of language education that can show that they maintain high environmental standards. The first stage is for the language school to register with GSS https://greenstandardschools.org/ and then to complete a self-assessment questionnaire which asks about the school’s current environmental policies and practices. It then offers advice about how a school can work towards becoming greener and gaining accreditation. Also, how can the school offset the carbon footprint obviously caused by its students taking international flights to attend the school and study English.

Traditionally, English schools and indeed English teachers use a great deal of paper. On the admin side obviously and of course in the classroom. Teachers spend countless hours photocopying, fixing photocopiers, queuing for photocopiers, cutting up pieces of paper, folding pieces of paper and carrying around huge bags of paper. (Maybe that was just me, surely not.)

Rewind a year. The course is going online and you’ll be using Zoom. Great! Wait a minute, what about my lever arch file bursting with fail proof activities and lessons not to mention the hard copy coursebook. Mmmmmm, well you can just digitise all that, after all been meaning to do that since forever. Yikes, that’s a lot of mind numbing work. Houston we have a problem. This may all need a rethink. The move to online and blended learning has definitely meant that paper based lessons take a back seat. I love books and I mean real paper books. However, over the last year I have warmed to ebooks and found that they have many interactive features which are great for learners. I started using the Cambridge Empower series together with their LMS and presentation tool for online classes. Brilliant, I was impressed. I am also toying with the idea of paperless face to face classes (when they return), where the students use tablets exclusively. I am now down to 3 lever arch files, halved from 6. I have an abundance of scrap paper as a result. The first way that schools, teachers and students can become greener is by radically reducing their use of paper. No more heavy bags to cart around full of books and paper. I just need a tablet and an ebook now.

Want to find out more? Watch this video from the GSS. https://youtu.be/GJFkxN_fip8

Top 10 tips for studying online

Studying online, once the exception has now become the rule for the vast majority of students. The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we live our daily lives, not least how we study. Distance learning used to be an option for studying, the Open University has been around for decades, and was another option for studying a degree. Currently, it has become the norm as universities have suspended their face to face classes and moved to online teaching. This is a new concept for many students. How can both language students and university students alike get the best out of online learning. Here are 10 tips.

Create a designated study space

1. Create a dedicated study space

Where possible, set up a study area or separate room. Have everything you need to hand, laptop, paper, books, journal articles, pens and water to drink. Make sure the water is in a closed bottle. You don’t want any spillages on your notes or laptops! This is not good at all. You also need to set up your laptop so that you have all materials for the class open and easily accessible, your notes, homework, journal articles etc We need to know where our files are on our laptop. I struggle with this, sometimes I can’t find documents I need as I have multiple storage clouds so get organised before the class starts. That way you can focus on the lesson content not scrabbling around searching for files and documents.

2. Familiarise yourself with the platform the class will be using

There are a number of VLE that universities use, familiarise yourself with the one your institution is using. Many language schools use Zoom or Microsoft Teams so practice with friends and classmates using them before classes start. I recently joined a course on Edmodo and I wasn’t familiar with this platform, at first I felt a bit confused and nervous and maybe a little silly. Turns out that most of my classmates were in the same boat. Here’s a tip, don’t assume that people know more than you and don’t compare yourself to others in terms of digital literacy. Be honest, say I don’t have much experience with this platform, can you help me, please? Your teacher and classmates can help you and probably somebody else in the class is struggling too and they will be so pleased that you asked.

3. Take care of your physical and mental well-being

OK, so you have a designated study area, that’s great. However, you need to check the set up, paying particular attention to your desk and chair. Make sure you have a comfortable chair with good back support. As you are going to spend many hours sat on it it may be worth investing in an office chair. If you aren’t sitting comfortably then your concentration will wane and you will lose your focus. You don’t want to have back problems later on in life either. Think about your posture and avoid hunching over your laptop or slouching in your chair. Make sure your legs fit under your desk too while seated. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and take regular screen breaks between classes. Get up and walk around or stretch.

Amid all the online studying, it’s important to make some time for relaxation. Why not arrange a virtual happy hour/brunch session with other students, on a weekly/monthly basis? It could be a while until you next see them in person. It’s a good opportunity to provide support to each other during your time as students. 

Make sure you keep in touch with your loved ones and friends too. As well as regular calls you could organise a family quiz, game night or watch party. It’s a way of feeling more connected with people albeit virtually.

All study and no play makes Jack a boring student. Don’t forget to make time for hobbies and down time. Join some of the societies at your uni. They will be organising virtual activities and events at the moment so you will be all set to join in with their face to face activities when they start again and you will have met some of the people virtually so won’t feel as shy when you meet them for real.

4. Actively participate in your course

Switch your camera on in lectures and classes to show that you are participating and keen to learn. If there’s a problem with your camera or Internet let your teacher know. Make sure you have dressed appropriately for the session, don’t roll up in your pyjamas! You won’t be in the zone. Sticking to a routine is good so get up as you would normally and get dressed ready to face the world and study and learn.

Outside of class engage with your course. Use the discussion boards, contribute as much as you can. In class ask questions and use the chat facility. Make a study group with classmates and study and collaborate together. Group work is an important aspect of 21st century university study and something that prospective employers value highly.

Contribute in tutorials and lead discussions when asked. It can be daunting at first but this is part of academic study in the UK and a great learning experience. Don’t let it pass you by.

Make a study plan

5. Manage your time effectively

Master time management and watch your stress levels subside. Choose whatever method suits you best, wall planners/calendars, electronic calendars, a diary, a study planner or an app. The choice is yours. Be sure to factor in some down time and be flexible sometimes life throws us some things that we hadn’t planned. We need some space in our schedule for things like that. Effective time management will mean that you meet deadlines and keep on top of your work. Your organisation means that you will have time to devote to your hobbies and interests. Remember to factor in study breaks to your plan.

6. Ask for help when you need it

This can be easier said than done. We we are all individuals and learn in different ways. Firstly, ask your class mates and peers. Secondly, learn from the feedback you are given from your tutors and act upon it. Thirdly, approach your tutor by email or having a quick word in a tutorial. Language schools and universities provide a lot of support and it may be something not necessarily academic that is affecting your ability to study to your full potential so you should speak to someone.

7. Be kind

It may sound obvious but people can sometimes act differently online than they would in a face to face situation. Online communication is different as it can be difficult to read others’ body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. This may lead to misunderstandings which cannot be resolved after class in the cafeteria over a cup of tea as the class is on online. Also different people are at different stages of their digital evolvement. Don’t get frustrated, be kind. Be kind to yourself and others. This moment in the world is unprecedented for us all. We need to be kind and support each other.

Spare a thought for your tutors. They have been thrust into this online learning world too. They are humans too there is a person behind the screen. This is new for them too so be kind and patient with them as they are having to adjust to this new situation as well.

8. Limit distractions

My main distraction is looking out of the window and staring into space. Before I know it half an hour has elapsed and no studying has been done. Your distraction maybe social media. A good idea would be to log out of your accounts or silent notifications thus avoiding the temptation of checking your feed. Your reward after a hard day’s study would be to log in and reconnect with all your friends. This could be part of your down time.

9. Take full advantage of all the online resources available to you

One of the amazing things about being a student is having access to your institution’s library. Obviously we cannot access physical books at the moment but the modern student has access to ebooks, online journals an other digital resources. The library will also have lots of other resources available about essay writing referencing and criticality. Before choosing a language school check what online resources it has available to supplement your studies and how you can access them.

10. Keep motivated

Set goals and break down tasks into manageable chunks. Focus on what you can do not what you can’t do. Focus on what you have achieved not what you haven’t. Give yourself rewards for things that you have achieved. This could be as simple as some chocolate or if you make progress on your assignment then you can watch an episode of your favourite series. A study buddy who checks up on you and who you work with is a great motivator and this is usually reciprocal. You motivate them and they motivate you.

Good luck everyone and happy studying. You can do it!