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  • Writer's pictureJames

Bridging the Gap: Linking Lessons to Your Students' World.

TESOL Conference, Madrid March 2023

Kids and teenagers often walk into our classrooms engaged in lively debate and eager to share their opinions. However, once the lesson starts it can be hard to recreate this enthusiasm. The focus of this talk is on recapturing the communicative desire that exists outside the classroom and bringing it into the lesson.

So, what are the topics that had learners so animated before we ruined it all by asking them to speak in English? My younger students are mostly interested in the here and now - what happened last night and what happened in their house/school/town, neither of which will be covered in the coursebook.

Although they include important issues, the generic topics covered in text books such as the environment, crime and types of transport are rarely if ever the source of spontaneous debate. Of course students will talk about these things if you tell them to, but it feels like school and they may go through the motions of speaking and responding without wanting to offer more than the bare minimum or demonstrating any real interest in what their partner is saying.

If we want real joyful communication, we should make space to talk about their world.

....So, how can we bring the here and now into our lessons?

Keep it Local

Pictures of local shops, schools and parks are an invaluable resource in the classroom.

They turn abstract topics into something tangible that your students have personal experience of and opinions they genuinely want to share.

Getting images from google maps street view.

To take a screenshot

On most modern browsers, just right click and it’ll give you the option. Failing that type “snipping” into your computer search bar and use the Microsoft Windows tool.

Google Street View is a great tool for getting images of local places.

To take a shot with no irritating labels

Google “clean street view” and the name of your browser (firefox/edge/chrome, etc.) and you'll get a link to download a free extension. Once you've downloaded it, when you are in google maps, you will see an icon next to the search bar. Click it to take away the irritating labels. (see image)


Once you've got your images, there are lots of things you can do with them.

Teach places in town and prepositions of place (next to, opposite, etc.)

I gave adult learners images of every shop in our local high street and they had to work together to put them in order. We got loads of discussion along the way about which shops they went to and why.

Make sets of restaurants, bars, parks, supermarkets, clothes shops, etc. and get them to compare and contrast or rank in order of preference.

Most primary books have a unit about school near the beginning of the book. Obviously this is far more interesting with images of students' own school. Especially if they attend different places as this creates a genuine information gap.

Create journeys using images of local streets.

Give students images of 5 places (parks, streets, squares, etc.) and get them to locate them on a map. Students then tell a story in which they walked through these locations and something happened at each one. Generally, I use this with a specific function for example:

  • First, I went to the square where Shakira was throwing eggs at Pique.

  • Then I went to Calle Isilla where Messi was riding a tricycle.


  • First, I’m going to go to the square to play football with my friends.

  • Then, I’m going to go to Calle Isilla to rob La Caixa bank.

Because the sentences are tied to a journey around town they will be much more vivid and memorable. Students will be able to retell complex sequences of events and, more importantly, they will remember the language that was associated with it.

Step 1

Students are given 5 images and work in pairs to find them places on a map (see right).

Step 2

Each pair creates a story which includes all their places (in a logical order).


pair 1 pair 2 pair 3 pair 4

Step 3

Students then change pairs and share their stories.


Step 4

Students return to original pair and retell the story they’ve just heard.


Repeat steps 2-3 students have shared all the stories, or it gets tedious.

When the activity has finished, or in a subsequent class, show students the pictures. It will probably surprise you how much they remember and how much of the language is retained.


Music is a wonderful source of real English that students are keen to learn. I check what’s in the charts (In Spain that’s Los40) and look for a catchy song with useful lyrics.

The focus is always on a short section with a useful phrase or two. The idea is that students can drill the phrase and then hear it on the radio when they leave class.

This activity takes up no more than 10 minutes of class time but it'll get used with several groups.

I tend to put the relevant section of the song (probably the chorus) on a Powerpoint and create a simple gapfill exercise like the one you can see on the left.

The next step is to drill, so students practice "chanting" the language. I sometimes down the volume and students have to be in the right place when I turn it back up.

Click on the Tips and Tricks image for a detailed post on why and how to use pop music tags in the classroom.

Famous Faces

Do you have Flashcards with famous people on them? If not, you and your students are really missing out.

Give students a stack of card face down and get them to practice any given structure as they turn over each one.

  • Bad Bunny has never sung well

  • King Charles has never ridden a dinosaur

  • Rosalia has never swum across the Atlantic

You can also use them to play cards:

Students each have 5 cards and have to lose theirs by comparing them to the previous card played:

  • Bad Bunny

  • King Charles is older than Bad Bunny

  • Rosalia is more creative than King Charles


  • Bad Bunny

  • King Charles and Bad Bunny both have lots of money.

  • Rosalia and King Charles both enjoy classical music.

Here are some famous faces to get you started. I recommend you have them printed in colour and laminated because, if you have teenage students, you’ll probably end up using them a lot

Famous faces
Download DOCX • 41.14MB

Computer Games

These days the number of different platforms available (Disney, HBO, Netflix, etc.) means it can be tricky finding a movie or tv show that everyone has seen. But the kind of mobile-friendly games you can play for free are almost universally known by older kids and teens. I've made a separate post showing how you can tap into that enthusiasm in class. Basically, a PowerPoint that slowly reveals images from different computer games and students have to guess what it is. This is then used as a springboard to discussion: "Do you like it?", "How do you play it?", etc.


Sporting events are often a source of interest to kids and teens, the trick is to know your audience. If half the members of a class know about an event, they can be paired with students who don't and there is a genuine information gap (the Real Madrid fan really wants to explain to their partner exactly why Vinicius' goal was fantastic). Of course, if less than half of your students are interested then you'd probably better talk about something else.

Any major sporting event tends to be covered by teams of top photographers and you can almost guarantee they'll be some interesting images. I often ask students to describe the pictures as it tends to require a lot of vocabulary to describe position and postures.

Option 1

Student A describes the image to student B who has to draw it without looking. Board some language they can use. I always make it clear that the goal is not art, but accuracy - stick men are great if their arms and legs are in the right postion!

Option 2

Student A describes the image in as much detail as possible to student B. Then reveal a series of lexical items and student B gives their partner a point/poker chip for each one that they said.

Obviously you can include things visible in the pictures, but I almost always include intensifiers like "incredibly" and linkers like "because". Students feel smug when they start to correctly predict these, when in fact I've tricked them into using the kind of complex sentences that I normally have to beg for.

Once students have described an image from the event, this can then be a springboard to discussion. What happened? who played well/badly? was it a surprising result?, etc.


Here's a copy of my PowerPoint presentation (Click here), or download the pdf version below:

Linking Lessons to your Students’ World
Download PDF • 8.51MB


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