'Twas the Time of the Teacher

Over the past few years, I have published some of the worksheets I use as part of the So Far So Good distance learning project (talk about mouthfuls). I will continually update (and hopefully improve on) these and republish them above. But in the meantime, here are the original versions.


There are certain combinations of tenses that English likes to use ("I have been working all day, but I haven't really done much," would be a super boring example of that.)

My big insight is that practicing these combinations—ie. coming up with their own lines within the framework of a story we are working on—will help students. Somehow. Maybe.


There are phrases that we need to be able to use on a split-second notice or else they are of no use to us. Some we internalize pretty quickly, examples being "You're welcome," or "Oh my God!" Others are a tougher nut to crack, examples being pretty much everything else. Here's a handy list that I will try to pound into your brains over the next few months.


One thing students need to work on continuously continually are questions. And by questions I don't just mean What is your favorite color? and What happened? I mean questions with meat in them. Here are some hints.


Yes, a lot of stuff happened in the past and we mostly know to describe it. (Five years ago, John went and bought a goat. He didn't feed it so the goat kicked him in the nuts and ran away.) Also, a lot of things just sort of are a certain way, and we generally know how to describe those, too. (Mary likes kale and hates the prison industrial complex and majors in gender studies, obviously.) But students also need to practice describing events that are unfolding right in front of their eyes. Hence this cheatsheet.


There are grammar points in English that we keep getting wrong or getting mixed up, and for good reason. I have concluded that it's time we tackle them head-on, explain the hell out of them, and let the chips fall where they may.


Student enjoy telling stories. Alex did this and Ellen did that and then something else happened, the end. What they don't enjoy quite as much is describing hypotheticals or emotions accompanying the narrative. Well, tough titties, students, oce again I got your number.


Each story is basically a set of actions and/or feelings. One way to tell a story is to list those actions/feelings and be done with it. A much better way is to raise your flag at each of these points and stay a while, expanding on those ideas, adding to them, rephrasing them, seeing how many different takes there are. Naturally, it doesn't hurt to have a guide to ease you into this uncharted territory.


There are certain constructions in every language that pop up time and time again that students would do well to familiarize themselves with and practice using. Except it's not the students' responsibility to identify these constructions. It's yours.

WHAT'S A ...?

Czech students don't really know how to ask what a word means that they're not familiar with. What is it familiar?What means familiar? Here's a sheet to help them get better at it.


At some point, your students will get tired of telling stories in the past tense over and over again. (Or they should.) That gives you an opportunity to mix things up a little: teach them how to construct extended relative clauses using THAT, distinguish between direct and indirect questions ("What does she mean by that?" vs. "I didn't know what she meant by that"), and pretend to be investors in a movie. Fun all around, IMHO.


One of the most underrated conversation skills is the ability to attach a WHICH clause to what you just said in order to express how you feel about it. Another useful skill is adding a conditional sentence, suggesting how things would have been different if whatever happened hadn't happened. Now, these conditional sentences may be completely pointless, but you should throw one in every chance you get nonetheless. I mean, what's more fun than a completely gratuitous conditional sentence?


Students generally avoid using precise time specifications because why would they? Make them.

Above you'll find a pretty comprehensive list of time indicators that all students need to be able to use. They can be applied to most scenarios you come up with, sometimes with a bit of tweaking. Just pick one section, go one line at a time and make your students come up with story-related lines that would make sense in that particular context. They'll tell you they can't. They can. They'll cry. Let 'em. Then, press harder.


One grammar rule that should be taught in our schools and isn't is the ING FORM AFTER A PREPOSITIONS rule. We have become quite adept at avoiding these constructions (I'm mad at you because you didn't tell me the truth) and it is the teachers' job to fix this.


There are basic tenses and structures that students have very little trouble using (although I can't think of any right now) and then there are those that they need to be pressured into using and made to practice over and over again. This sheet could help you achieve just that.



You know how sometimes you hear a student say something and you think, This sentence could go a lot longer and it could end up being really amazing and precise and a joy to hear? But it hardly ever does and it hardly ever is. Students typically have a hard enough time putting together short sentences that make sense. They don't want you breathing down their neck all the time, telling them how to make things more complicated. Well, tough luck, students, this here will make you do just that.


Sometimes it’s kind of hard to get students to use the kind of fine language that you want them to use. (By “sometimes” I mean “most of the time.”)

I’m talking about the grammar that they hired you to teach them that they just won’t ever actually use because… you tell me. The phrases that they adore and wish they actually used, but it just never occurs to them that they actually could.

Basically, you want to go beyond “It is a very big problem for me because in my opinion I think it is very hard,” and you don’t know what could get you there.


Say you have the transcript of a fun conversation and you want your students to be able to report that conversation without using direct speech. First off, you need to explain about the shift tense. Then you need to take them beyond the say/tell territory. Then you need to point out what mistakes they are likely to make. Then you wake them up. Preferably by hitting them over the head with a heavy Random House dictionary.


There are phrases that your students studiously avoid using (such as “no matter” or “even though” or “had better”). There’s grammar that they won’t touch with a ten-foot pole (conditionals, for one thing). How do you make them? Here’s how:

Have them grab a pen and just randomly stab it down. Whatever phrase it lands on, they have to come up with a nice sentence based on the story you’re currently working on that contains that phrase. The beauty of it is, you can use this sheet with pretty much any part of any story at any point in any class. (You’re welcome.)


You know how students like to talk in short sentences? Make them stop doing that. Have them expand everything they say using one of these. They’ll tell you it’s impossible. But it isn’t.


Test your student’s familiarity with auxiliary verbs. Read these lines to them and have them respond (quickly) in one of three ways:

a) ALSO, using So / Neither
b) NO/YES, negating whatever you said like a sulky teenager
c) REALLY? without using the word “really”


Here’s one that I’m really proud of. One that I have spent years polishing and chiseling and embellishing. It’s basically a more advanced version of a sheet that I presented earlier.

Here’s what I had to say about that one: “There are phrases that your students studiously avoid using (such as “no matter” or “even though” or “had better”). There’s grammar that they won’t touch with a ten-foot pole (conditionals, for one thing). How do you make them? Here’s how: Have them grab a pen and just randomly stab it down. Whatever phrase it lands on, they have to come up with a nice sentence based on the story you’re currently working on that contains that phrase. The beauty of it is, you can use this sheet with pretty much any part of any story at any point in any class.”

Also, if you try to practice your own English by coming up with little soliloquies in those rare moments of solitude (I can’t recommend that highly enough), these are the phases that you should purposely try to use.

Anyway, here goes.


The thing about conversation skills is that students need to have those pesky little phrases at their fingertips at all times. When someone apologizes to you for a minor inconvenience, you don’t have the luxury of delving deep into your knowledge set to come up with the most appropriate response. You need to come right back, with “Don’t worry about it.” (rather than “Never mind.”) Not easy, that. One conversation skill you need to learn right off the bat and then keep fresh in your mind is making requests and responding to ones.


There are moments in an English teacher’s life when they can’t help but think to themselves, “If I hear one more SOME, Imma go medieval on someone’s ass.” Here’s a handy guide on to how to avoid overusing this particular pest and others like it.


You know how students like to tell stories that are nicely wrapped up with a bow on top, as opposed to non-story texts that describe rather than narrate? Well, tough. How often do you tell stories in your native language, anyway? Not all that often, that’s how often. Mostly you comment on stuff, ask questions, express confusion, what have you.

Still, it’s difficult to persuade students to take detours from straightforward storylines and dip their toes in alternative realities: what might have been, how people feel about what is happening, what other developments there could be, what this or that person should have done or said instead of what they actually did. Stuff like that.

“But we never know what exactly you want us to say,” the students cry.

Well, from now on you will.


Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to make students switch between tenses (or use the passive voice, or modal verbs) while telling a story. It’s not easy and sometimes it’s pretty much impossible, but hey, that’s life. How else are you going to get them to use the present perfect tenses, semi-spontaneously if not quite spontaneously? (Baby steps, remember.) Would they ever use the passive voice unless they were made to? I think not. Stick this piece of paper in front of them, put on your sternest face and let the good times roll.


Here’s a handy guide to how conditionals are actually used in today’s English. It’s not strictly by-the-book three-types-of-conditionals stuff that you are used to, as that has been proven to scare students off. Instead, I attempt to boil this grammar down to the basics and keep it real.


Here’s another fun thing to do in class: make students come up with relative clauses based on whatever story you happen to be working on. Students hate relative clauses. The word order, the no-”what” rule, the preposition-at-the-end rule, the inserted “I think” bits. Oooo-la-la. So much to enjoy there.

First, though, an explanation is called for. Hence: