Exam Prep Meets Reality: Dear Mayor Bernabéu…

During my “Making Writing Real” webinar presentation at the SkyEng online conference in March, I discussed five ideas to make writing in lessons a more motivating activity by writing for an external audience (not just the teacher!) and doing useful, everyday tasks.

I received several comments in the live chat box that this philosophy is all well and good, but it can’t apply to exam classes. After a few weeks of reflection, I must respectfully disagree.

In fact, the added motivation beyond satisfying exam criteria is a real boost for the learners, and reminds them of the practical application of the exam skills. The exam topic might be boring, but the preparation doesn’t have to be. Motivation problems for writing don’t disappear just because an exam is standing over the students like an ogre, and two I mentioned in the webinar are applicable: having no real reader, just the teacher and a lack of interaction.

So in my Year 9 exam preparation class here at IH Riga, Latvia, I recently coupled an exam task (writing a short letter) to reality (sending the letter to other people). The topic was an Easter drum festival we’d looked at in Tobarra, Spain, which I attended five times while living nearby. After editing the letters together, I sent them off to Tobarra’s mayor Pio Bernabeu, as well as Jose Luis, the Head of Studies at the local high school, whose students had provided us with an excellent informative video we had used in class:


Here are some extracts from the letters I emailed over to Spain:

I cannot understand how it is possible to play drums for 104 hours.” – Kristina

It is very unusual and I have never seen anything like this.” – Fredrik

It was a really interesting video in which we understood how this festival starts and traditions of this festival.” – Veronika

I consider that it is very interesting when cities have their own traditions, and features, which are observed by every citizen.” – Ilya

…although people who are sleeping or relaxing at home might become very annoyed by loud drums.” – Eriks

I and my friends want to learn the melodies from the video like ‘la zapatata’.” – Vlad

If I could, I would like to visit this festival in Tobarra village, because it would be a new experience for me and I think I would not spend my time in vain.” – Daniel

I want to know something new about it, not by reading sites on the Internet, but by asking locals. Also, I want to make international friends.” – Polina

Real readers, not just the teacher (me)CHECK (Mayor Pio, Jose Luis, his students).

Many levels of interactionCHECK (with me to correct the letters, with the village of Tobarra and its English learners – see next section)

The responses

1. Mayor Pio left a long thank you message on his official Facebook page on 24th April (in Spanish – but Google translate gets the basic message across!), thanking the learners and extending an official invite to the festival next Easter:

‘I want to express that we await you next year with open arms, Tobarra’s doors are open to you, and I’m sure you’ll be made welcome by all of Tobarra’s citizens, as we would love to show you our traditions.’

This provoked many comments from Tobarra locals, welcoming the idea of a Latvian visit and thanking the Latvian students for their words. Several of the students have added Mayor Bernabeu on Facebook to be able to read through the comments (via Google translate!)


2. Jose Luis, English teacher in Tobarra and a great friend, shared the letters with his class who had created the mini documentary for my learners.

What happens next?

1. My students take the Year 9 English exam on 24th May. They may choose to forget most of the information once the papers are handed in, but I hope they remember that writing letters/emails is a life skill that can connect them to people all over the world.

2. Student trips to Tobarra for the Tamborada 2018 and beyond? Mayor Pio and the village are keen to welcome them, several students are keen to go, and I’m keen to join the two together. So WATCH THIS SPACE.

3. Although both mine and Jose Luis’s students are busy with exams in the next month or so, we’ve left the door ajar to further email communication between the two groups of learners. We’ll be exchanging email addresses next week.

How could you link exam tasks to reality in your classroom? Please leave a Reply!


Horsham School Search

Practising what I preached at the Skyteach webinar conference a fortnight ago about making writing real

A few weeks ago I took over a class of low-int 10-11 year olds who are pretty errrm…energetic and fidgety (90 minutes last a while!) On our voyage through Islands 5, the topic of school came around, and using the IH Riga computers, they each researched one of the four main secondary schools in my hometown Horsham, using YouTube, Wikipedia and the school websites. I explained about the idea of a blog post, and although ‘enthusiastic’ isn’t the right adjective, they moaned less than in previous lessons. 

Two main reasons for their motivation:

1. In the UK they’d be choosing and moving schools at this age, so could relate to the topic.

2. They are nosy about my life outside the window of 3.20pm-4.50pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so they were interested in my town. I could show them pics of my own school days at Tanbridge House. 

The final project was to type up their findings in pairs and then express a preference individually. Disclaimer: there a several ‘alternative facts’. Enough preamble. Their work is below…


The school we researched is only for girls. There are 1500 students. They have school clubs in football and tennis.They have good food. FUNNY FACTS:millais fire

One time the school was on fire. They have a SPA. They have uniforms, skirts and sweater. – Edgars and Marcis

The Forest School

The school we researched is The Forest School . This school is the special school . There are only boys in this school. In this school boys make their own food themselves. In this school they play sports games like football, basketball, rugby. 1100 pupils study in this school . That’s alot!!! forestIn The Forest School there are some clubs too: lots of sports clubs, I.T clubs, Drama Club, Art Club. They were winners of a National Cup. It began work in 1957. In 2006, the caretaker murdered his wife and left the body in the school grounds. – Jurijs and Artems.

Christ’s Hospital

CHThe school I researched Christ’s Hospital is a private boarding school. It is a mixed school. At Christ’s Hospital there is a swimming pool, football pitches, rugby pitches, tennis courts, cricket pitches and more. A bit of Harry Potter was filmed there. At Christ’s Hospital there is perfect food. Students like food at school. – Alisa

Tanbridge House

Tanbridge House School is a community school. It is mixed. There is a good canteen and 90% of ingredients are fresh. In Tanbridge House School there are 1420 pupils. Also there is golf, gym and fitness centres. There are P.E. clubs, electric guitar lessons, Duke of Edinburgh and homework club. Happiness rating is 98%. – Nikita and Arturs.


Where would you choose to study?

Nikita: I would prefer to go to Tanbridge House school, because it`s mixed and a community school and James went there.

Alisa: I would prefer to go to Christ’s Hospital because this is a very good school. Students say that Christ’s Hospital is a normal school and there is a good education.

Artems: I want to go to The Forest School because it’s cool.

Marcis: I would like to go to none of these schools because my school is better.

Artur: I would prefer to go to Tanbridge House School because it is a mixed school.

Edgar: I would prefer to go to the Forest School because it’s like a camping (*James – “hahahahaha”)




Would President Trump meet the English language requirements of an international student?

President Trump’s speech to mark Black History Month on 1 February was, as with most things he does, quite a spectacle. Historical, institutional, racial…but let’s focus on the linguistic show on offer.

Learners of English are taught to focus their arguments to the task and master coherence and cohesion, and these two criteria feature in marking criteria for most reputable exam bodies, like IELTS, Trinity and Cambridge. So I sent a transcript of Trump’s speech to my advanced 17/18 yr olds and had them edit it on a Google doc, then give a mark for Task Response and Coherence/Coherence using public IELTS writing criteria.

Here is what a few of my students had to say…

ScreenshotTrumpScore2.pngScreen Shot 2017-02-11 at 12.53.23 PM.pngScreenshotTrumpScore1.png

IELTS Task Response Average Score: 4

IELTS Coherence and Cohesion Average Score: 4

Some have been a little harsh, but I’m sure he wouldn’t get over 5 on the 9-band scale (a high B1 according to CEFR). Trump caused quite a storm in 2011 by being a loud voice in the birther controversy, claiming President Obama was ineligible for office because he was born in Kenya (actually a lie/alternative fact). Being born abroad can disqualify a presidential candidate. But why not English level? Could we measure suitability on an IELTS test? Fordham University, which Trump himself attended for two years, does so for the much less important role of undergraduate, and requires candidates to get an IELTS score of at least 7. This isn’t a blog about politics, but linguistically, perhaps Trump isn’t setting the best example to the world of English learners.

I started to correct the text on google docs myself to model it for my students, and this is what it looked like:


It would only be fair to note that they were marking based on written language standards and not spoken, but if you take a look at the IELTS speaking criteria, his mark for ‘fluency and coherence’ would also be relatively low.

Here are a few more screenshots of a student’s insightful comments on different parts of the speech:


Analysis of his speech in a transcript draws attention to the level of inconsistency and incoherence that seems to fly under the radar. This is easily explained: a research study in nonverbal communication suggests that “55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words spoken“, so the gesturing and tone easily drown out the actual words.

While it depends on the unique circumstances of each interaction, it could explain why Trump has gained such a strong following who feel like they can really relate to him – some even specifically referencing the way he speaks.

So to answer the question in the title (I aim for coherence), based on this single sample, President Trump would not meet the English language requirements of an international student. We can only hope his presidency is much more focused and coherent than his speech on Black History Month.


A Beginner’s Guide to Latvian Culture

The following is a collaborative effort from my C2 teenagers (17-18 years old), as a final project to crown our study of culture over the last few weeks. Each student contributed a section about an aspect of Latvian culture, although we agreed to keep the authors anonymous to prevent comparisons.


Despite the fact that the only official language in Latvia is Latvian, in the east of the country people can easily find places where very few people speak Latvian and the overwhelming majority speak Russian. Another interesting fact is that more Russians can speak Latvian better than ethnic Latvians can speak Russian.

In the city of Riga, most people are used to dealing with people who do not have official language skills. Moreover, the majority of citizens (particularly youth) speak or at least know some basic phrases in English, so tourists can easily ask locals to help if needed.


Latvia as a country was established on 18th of November 1918. In 1940 Latvia was incorporated into the Soviet Union (allegedly occupied). On August 21st 1991 Latvia restored its independence.

De jure, Latvia is a democratic parliamentary republic. There are two major political parties who have full control over the country: Unity (Vienotiba) and National Alliance (Nacionala Apvieniba). alien-passport

Former USSR citizens were given “Alien’s” passports (genuine example on the right), which basically means that a person doesn’t have a citizenship. People with those passports don’t have a right to vote, nor can they travel freely around the European Union, although they can take an exam to earn full Latvian citizenship. Two thirds of non-citizens are ethnic Russians, who have lived their entire lives in Latvia.

Tax rates in Latvia are extremely high. Residents of the country are required to pay for almost everything, even for rain water. With minimal salary of just over 380 euros and an average salary of 623 euros, people have to pay 21% VAT and a 24% income tax, as well as other miscellaneous taxes, while offering almost no social security.


The main religion traditionally practiced in Latvia is Christianity. As of 2011, the largest religion in Latvia is Christianity (80%), although only about 7% of the population attends religious services regularly.  Lutheranism is the main Christian denomination among ethnic Latvians due to strong historical links with the Nordic countries and Northern Germany, while Roman Catholicism is most prevalent in Eastern Latvia (Latgale), mostly due to Polish influence. The Latvian Orthodox Church is the third largest Christian church in Latvia, with adherents primarily among the Russian-speaking minority.

St Peter's church Riga.jpgThe Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia has 708,773 members. Roman Catholicism in Latvia has 430,000 members. Historically, the west and central parts of the country have been predominantly Protestant, while the east – particularly the Latgale region – has been predominantly Catholic, although Catholics are now common in Riga and other cities due to migration from Latgale. Historically, Lutherans were the majority, but Communist rule weakened Lutheranism much more than Catholicism, with the result that there are now only slightly more Lutherans than Catholics. The Latvian Orthodox Church is semi-autonomous and has 370,000 members; orthodoxy predominates among the Latvian Russian population.


Being a student myself, I can review Latvia’s education system from the inside and, in my opinion, there isn’t a lot of things it stands out for. Like any other system, it has its own flaws but, at the same time, it’s being improved. Nevertheless, here are some general facts and personal opinions regarding education in Latvia:

1) Education in Latvia is free and compulsory.

2) Compulsory education includes 2 years of preschool education and a further 9 years of elementary education.

3) After elementary school, students may wish to acquire a profession or continue their studies in school (3 more years), after which they choose a university to acquire they tertiary education at.latvia-uni

4) Latvia’s Medical University (Strādiņa Universitāte) is considered to be one of the best in Europe, which is why many students come here in hope of getting a place. The average chance of getting a grant in this university is 3-4%.

Tolerance towards immigrants

Not long ago Latvia began accepting immigrants; local citizens have different opinions about them.

1) Some people think that due to exposure to foreign cultures Latvian culture will disappear. That’s why some people aren’t satisfied with them.

2) The host population doesn’t always want to think about the reasons why refugees are coming to their country; they tend to think that immigrants unfairly use the benefits of the country.

3) Because of past events like 9/11 people have biased opinions of foreigners and they are scared of terrorism.

4) It is claimed that immigrants don’t wish to assimilate indigenous traditions but supplant them with their own.

But the main thing is that this points aren’t seen very often in Latvia simply because we haven´t yet accepted as many immigrants as we should have. Instead of 700 there might be only 100 of them and this amount means there is very little cultural diversity.

Tolerance towards homosexuals

Latvia, being a post-Soviet country, has been known for it’s conservatism and unwillingness to accept something that is slightly different. Homosexuality is no exception. Being called “gay” in our country is considered to be an insult and homosexual people rarely declare their orientation in public places, since it will only cause them harm. You don’t express your feelings towards your significant other in public, otherwise you might be beaten up by some Latvian (or Russian) ‘heroes’.

For instance, we have a homosexual minster, Edgars Rinkevics, who publicly declared that he is gay (on Twitter by the way). Reactions were ´precious’: people posted insulting comments, recommend that he killed himself etc. Latvian society found it to be insulting to have a gay minister and the majority thought that it was a national disgrace.latvia-edgars-rinkevics

However, I think that majority of those judgemental people are rather old, aged 35 and up. Youth (16-25) are more accepting and base their opinion about someone on their actions, rather than orientation, although young boys tend to be quite judgemental towards homosexuals sometimes (maybe it’s a way of hiding the fact that they are gay themselves).


Every country has their own list of holidays and, more or less, they are the same here as in the rest of the world. These holidays are Christmas, New Year, Independence Day and others.  latvia-traditional-holiday

But here in Latvia, there is one special holiday: this special day is Jāņi or Ligo. It’s an annual Latvian festival celebrating the summer solstice. On this day people weave wreaths out of oak leaves which symbolize the sun. People eat Jaņu cheese, made of caraway seeds, drink beer, sing a lot, and leap over fires to bring luck and health throughout the coming year.


Traditional Latvian food mainly consists of products that Latvians grow. Staple foods consist of potatoes, meat and fish. Due to Latvia’s location on the coast of Baltic Sea, it has a lot of fish. For example, some time ago Latvia used to produce many sprats.

latvia-peas-and-baconSome traditional dishes include rye bread soup, grey peas with bacon, cheese with cumin seeds, and Sklandrausis (a sweet pie, made of rye dough and filled with potato and carrot paste and seasoned with cumin). Latvia is also famous for its delicious rye bread and Riga Black Balzam liquor.


A few years ago the Latvian Ministry of Culture officially declared that Latvia is a ‘country which sings’ and there are some reasons for the appearance of this motto. First of all, Latvia has a very well-developed choir culture. Several years ago we even held World Choir Olympic Games where some Latvian choirs also participated.247-baltics-singing-latvia-tourism-618-pixels1

Another reason to consider Latvia as a ‘singing country’ is the Baltic song festival. It is the biggest amateur traditional dance and music festival in the Baltics which happens once every 4 years. It is an absolutely massive event which usually involves about 30,000 participants. The festival has a huge influence on Latvian culture and is included in the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List.

Film and Television

In Latvia, we don’t make many movies or TV series just because we can’t afford it, or we do but the government chooses not to give money to movies. At least really good ones that actually make sense. The best ones from Latvian movies are the old ones, like, ´Vella Kalpi´, ´The Child of Man´, ´Limuzīns Jāņu nakts krāsā´. I really suggest watching them.

From the new ones, ´Mother, I love you´ and ´Modris´ are the best ones, in my opinion. This year, a movie called “Svingeri” came out which is basically kind of a sex comedy.

I don’t suggest watching any of the TV series, to be honest. Especially not ´Ugunsgrēks´. It doesn’t even make sense and most of the characters should be old and dead right now but their age hasn’t changed since Season 1.


The greatest works of Latvian artists are represented in the Latvian Museum of Contemporary Art. Latvian artists are interested in exploring artistic landscapes and pushing the boundaries of art. For example, Latvia can be proud of works created by Mark Rothko and Maris Bishofs, who are both popular all over the world.

Mark Rothko was a Latvian artist who painted abstract expressionism (like the piece . Although he moved to the USA in 1913 at the age of 10, he was born in Daugavpils in southeast Latvia. Maris Bishofs is a living Latvian artist who is most famous for his drawings between 1984 and 2003 featured in publications like Time Magazine, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.



CYC260p class, International House Riga – Satva, Latvia.

Trump Acrostics

Some of my C2 teengaers gave their opinions on the new President of the USA by creating acrostics – poems with each line starting with the letter of a word. In this case, T R U M P.

Terrible for some,
Realist for one.
Ugly, cuz he ain’t about that ‘unreal’ tan.
Made in the asylum, for real!
Pornography is his key to feel.
– Margo

Truly troubled
Reasonably ridiculous
Unpredictably unpredictable
Millionaire with a “small loan of million dollars”
Pointed Kevin to a hotel lobby in “Home Alone 2”
– Maks

Terrible president
Rude and not polite
Unable to govern the country
Man with lots of ambitions
Pumpkin-skinned person
– Maria Magdalena

The American people will know how
Reckless Trump is
USA will have a hard time
Many will have their lives ruined
Politics is doomed
– Armins

Raucous president
Unbelievable results of election
Mexicans should leave
Putin is best
– Alexandrs M.

– Anon

Haikus: Learning English

Haikus, which originated in Japan, are 17-syllable poems: 5 in the first line, 7 in the second, 5 in the third. So they don’t take long and work on learners’ awareness of pronunciation. Enough from me; these are what my C2 teenagers came up with…

I started learning
English seven years ago
I very leik trains.


The English and I
Seeing truth with my own lies
Under the full moon.
– Margo


I feel very nice
That learning English makes me
Go here even twice 🙂
– Alex


Learning it is fun
Cos I can see two meanings
A C2 level
– Anon


Students nowadays
Are often reluctant to
Memorise spelling
– Maks


Speak louder please
I couldn’t hear the topic
Do not make me hurt
– Roman