Homemade Materials Issue – Barb

Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!   – Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Course Director

Turns out, the same principles that are good for Mother Earth are also an excellent way to teach.  I don’t mean simply giving milk cartons, bottle caps, or plastic bottles a new life as classroom resources, although anything that keeps items out of landfills has got to be a good thing. I mean that we should apply these three principles to all that we do in class.

Reduce the amount of new language in lessons

Reuse language, games and activities

Recycle familiar language with new


Reduce! It isn’t how much you teach, it’s how much students can do with the language they learn.

In workshops, I often meet teachers who are pressured by administrators (who are pressured by parents) to teach as much as possible in each class, to move as quickly as possible through each coursebook. The classes in which I see students making the greatest progress are those in which the teachers introduce relatively little new language in each class, recycle previously learned language in order to introduce the new, and then spend the majority of class time reusing both new and familiar language in new contexts.

There are certainly times when you will choose to throw students into the deep end of the language pool – when asking them to work at understanding the gist of a listening or reading task, for example. But, it should be a choice that works toward your lesson goals, not the standard approach. If you need to spend most of your class explaining the language on your coursebook page, then students are unlikely to remember much for the next class, and you end up teaching the same things over, and over, and over again without much feeling of progress.


Reuse! Once students have learned something, you can re-use without having to re-teach

Once students have learned new language, they ought to be able to use it (although they may need to be reminded that they do already know the language). The increases the amount of time available for practice, and learners, especially young learners, need to use language repeatedly, in new contexts, in order to really “own” it. The same is true of activities. If you repurpose a game students are already familiar with, your students can spend more time playing with language and less time learning the rules.

My students enjoy a game with cubes made out of recycled milk cartons. They first learn to play in kindergarten, and because the game becomes more sophisticated as their language grows, it continues to be a favorite throughout elementary and even secondary school. We begin with three cubes for phonics practice, with all six vowels and 12 consonants of their choosing. A turn consists of three chances to toss the cubes, the goal being to form a word. After each toss, students can keep any of the letters rolled, so if they’ve rolled an A and a T, for example, they might keep those letters and roll the final cube, hoping for a B, C, or H. If students make a word they get a point. If they haven’t made a word after three tosses, the next student takes a turn.

When students begin working on word order in sentences, and collocations with verbs, vowels are replaced with verbs, and students now have three tosses to form a sentence. Laughing at sentences like I am cake (and not accepting them as point worthy sentences) means that students are deepening their understanding of language and how it works.

When students are ready for longer, more complicated sentences, we increase the number of cubes to five and work with a mix of nouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and the conjunction and. Students make a list of words that fit each of these categories (searching through their coursebook, browsing through other games and picture cards, and asking for translations). From those, they choose which words to include in their game and write them on the cube sides. My students, at least, prefer the words that have the greatest potential to make silly sentences. They have the same three tosses, but now the goal is to make a sentence that is exactly five words long. While having a lot of fun, students are also discovering that there is more than one correct way to form a sentence, depending on the luck of the toss: Funny rabbits and elephants dance, Funny and furry elephants dance, Funny rabbits dance and sing. They also discover the value of conjunctions more clearly than I could probably explain otherwise.


Recycle! Students can use what they know to figure out what they don’t

There’s no way we will ever be able to teach our students everything they need to know of the English language, so let’s instead teach them how to use what they do know to figure out what they don’t. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to introduce new language in the context of familiar. Another way of looking at this is to make sure you maximize the value of any language your students spend the time learning. Here’s one simple example of how teachers mixing familiar and new language can actually help students learn more by teaching less in each lesson.


It’s green.  
It’s windy. Familiar pattern, new adjectives
It’s sunny today. Brenda is eating green grapes. Familiar language, new context (reading)
It was sunny yesterday. Familiar adjectives, new pattern
It’s going to be cool. Familiar adjectives, new pattern
The dolphin was amazing. Familiar pattern, new adjectives.


A simple guideline is to teach one new thing (new pattern or new vocabulary, but not both) in each lesson, or for longer lessons or older students, in each section of a lesson.  Reducing the amount of time spent on introducing new language creates more time for students to use language – to use it in games and activities that provide the repetition necessary for memory, to add it to their language repertoire in order to talk about new things, to learn to read what they can say and understand, to use language they can read to write about their own unique lives and experiences, and to use language to connect with other students in order to share their own and learn about others’ lives and experiences.

By making efforts to reduce the new language load, to reuse both language and resources, to recycle language in ways that support learning we can make the most effective use of limited class time and set our students on an empowering course to becoming language users rather than just language learners.

For more reading:

Lexical Scaffolding in Immersion Class Discourse (PDF)

Scaffolding English Language Learner’s Reading Performance


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Homemade Materials Issue – Naomi

Naomi Epstein

New Uses For Old Calendars  – Naomi Epstein


Many teachers around the world have recently replaced their classroom calendar with a new one for the New Year. Seeing a calendar hanging in a classroom is a common sight. Calendars are useful, every teacher knows that!


However, calendars have a hidden quality – they continue to be useful, particularly for an EFL teacher, well after the calendar-year has ended.  So, make sure to ask everyone you know to save their old calendars for you, because once you begin using old ones, you can never have too many!

Here are a few things you can do with old calendars. Even better, try the following suggestions with your students. While some lines may end up crooked and the lettering of the signs not uniform, involving the students is greatly beneficial.

1)     Liven it up!

Decorating the classroom with pictures cut from old calendars is a great way to begin. Liven up unattractive surfaces such as old doors:

or ugly binders:

2) Visualise Prepositions!

Calendars tend to portray –

* pictures of places (in, at, on)

* pictures related to the weather (seasons – “in”),

* pictures of sunsets and nighttime shots (“at night” “in the evening”, etc.)

* names of months (in) and days of the week (on)


(our classroom cupboards)


3) Utilize the Paper!

* Many calendars are made of good quality paper. Some are made of thicker paper, resembling (to varying degrees) construction paper. The parts of the calendar that have been written on, crossed out and marked, make an excellent backing for pages/worksheets (paste them on!) that need to be laminated or hung on the wall.

* Students often prefer to create their own personal set of flashcards. Many schools limit the amount of construction paper they will supply. All the empty white spaces around the “date section” of a calendar make great flashcard material.

4) Destroy and Enjoy!

Have the students practice following instructions by cutting out corresponding words and pictures from the old calendars. The instructions can be simple or complex:

  • Paste something blue here.
  • Paste the name of the month after March here.
  • Paste a picture of a person. Then paste pictures of three things you could give this person.

Remember! The sky is the limit so save those old calendars!


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Homemade Materials Issue – Christina

Turning Personal Experiences Into ‘Homemade’ Classroom Material –  Christina Markoulaki 


Homemade… The word itself brings pleasant images to mind. Anything that is homemade is supposed to be of a much higher quality than ready-made stuff. This is a presupposition that seems to have comfortably established itself in our brains. What about homemade EFL materials, though? Can they be as ‘delicious’ as an ordinary course book? As much as I love using an all-inclusive course book, I would definitely argue that self-made materials have a lot to offer in the foreign-language classroom.

The main incentive for devoting personal time to prepare additional classroom activities is that they allow the teacher to cater for students’ individual needs. In a digital era, however, there are more things to consider. Personal materials are directly related to personal ownership. The latter further means that those materials can be used or disposed online in the exact way the teacher wishes them to, without having to face any copyright issues. This is utterly important, in my opinion, especially to the teachers interested in the infamous EdTech.

Turning to EdTech, most teachers, nowadays, are eager to create their own Web 2.0 activities. But when they seem to lack inspiration or the appropriate resources, what constitutes a better springboard than their own experiences? Photos and videos of hobbies, travels, personal belongings, to name but a few, could form the perfect extra activity that will attract students’ attention and ‘sting’ their curiosity, since we all know how interested they are in learning about their teachers’ personal lives.

Here are just a few ways I have turned my experiences into EFL material:

1)     Having to teach the Cambridge FCE (B2 level) every single year, this is what I decided to do to spice the speaking section up a little: I chose photos from different trips I have been, all of which depicted places, this being the word group I wanted students to learn and practise using. Subsequently, I uploaded them on my blog together with nouns and adjectives commonly used to describe places. I have used this blog post with many different student groups since then and I have to admit that it forms the basis of one of my most successful speaking classes, since discussion never stops only at describing the pictures. Students then ask me about my travel experiences in each of the countries, share their dream to travel and sometimes wish to go to the exact places I have visited. If all this discussion is done in English, then it is what can be called a ‘win-win’ situation: students utilise new vocabulary, but also maintain their interest.                                                                                            

2)     Once again aiming at teaching speaking for the FCE exams, the target word group being animal vocabulary, I uploaded a photo of my cat named Giant in an unexpected sleeping position and a photo of two fierce lions I was lucky enough to admire when I visited the Barcelona zoo years ago. Students had to compare and contrast the two (not-so-similar!) photos, also expressing their opinion on animal treatment nowadays. Of course, all students had fun with the task and responded successfully, but most importantly, they took the liberty of talking about their pets in the end, asking me a thousand questions about naughty Giant and daydreaming a little about beautiful Barcelona. They finally left written comments under my post, practising formal writing apart from speaking. I need to point out that if the discussion takes place in English and in such a positive atmosphere, then it is a glorious victory for everyone involved in the lesson.

3)     The most difficult, and therefore most intriguing, athletic activity I have tried is cycling a lot of kilometres. By live streaming photos of such moments from my mobile devices to the television screen, I have managed to sparkle conversations on sports gear, weather, nature and, needless to say, students’ own pastimes. Furthermore, they always grab the chance to ask further questions concerning cycling (how often I do it, with whom, how it all started, whether I prefer mountain biking, city cycling or road cycling and so on). Therefore, whatever a teacher’s hobby may be, a couple of related photographs can sparkle intriguing conversations in a real-life context. 

4)     Reading books is every teacher’s favourite free-time activity, so why not transmit the wisdom obtained to the learners? For instance, as the issue of tolerance is always among the speaking and vocabulary goals during a C2-level course, I blogged an extract from Victoria Hislop’s excellent book ‘The Island’ which illustrated the concept and ignited discussion. The same blog post contains a slideshow with explanations, questions, key words and all the ‘tools’ every teacher uses, but the book extract admittedly did the trick.

5)     Speaking of reading, here is some food for thought: Doesn’t a text become much more interesting if you find the person who wrote it interesting? Readers’ psychology does work in mysterious ways sometimes. Based on that, part of the online texts I suggested to my advanced learners was Barbara Goodison’s article about New Zealand, where she has moved. Barbara used to work in my school and was one of my childhood’s favourite teachers. Consequently, I had a lot of beautiful stories to share with my current students about Barbara, encouraging them to read her article and exchange opinions on it.

6)     Back to teaching speaking with personal material, here is a collection of photos of animals in different zoos I have been, which can be shown on the projector or television screen for all the class to see.

7)     The final link I am going to present is this Voice Thread with family scenes I often use with students to elicit their holiday news. After Christmas, to their surprise, I was willing to share private family moments (excessive food, games and a visit to the village, which are all very typical of Cretan people) in slides accompanied by questions urging learners to put their own holiday reality in words.

The logic behind all previous seven ideas is the same: sharing personal experiences in visual form can work (learning) miracles! Have you ever done a similar activity in your classroom? I would really love to read about it in the comments below.


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Homemade Materials Issue – Pravita

Homemade Crafts & Teaching Aids For Kids
– Pravita Indriati

Pravita Indriati

Making teaching aids and kids’ crafts out of recycled materials has been some kind of tradition for a preschool teacher like me. Besides easy to find and cheap, this helps to teach children to recycle and reuse things for our environment. Students’ parents are usually our main source of the raw materials we use. From used milk boxes, cans, to tissue rolls, and more, since students’ households usually have more of these things around than the school does, we don’t hesitate to request these materials from them, and neither should you.  They’re generally glad to pass these things on to their children’s school and enjoy seeing what we create from them.

Crafts Ideas for kids   Here are a bunch of craft ideas, made from recycled materials, that tie in with themes often covered in schools that work with young learners, and these are just some of the ideas I’ve used with my students in my own classes. They can also be used as teaching materials, like the homemade musical instruments that you can use while singing with your students, or the homemade animal and building crafts for storytelling. The higher the level, the more complex the steps involved.

Crafts on A Music Theme

Bottle Shakers: You can make shakers out of used mineral bottles filled with materials like peanuts (be careful to kids with allergies), macaroni or beans, then have kids decorate the bottles with colorful papers or fabrics. They can even paint the outer side of the bottle.

Can or Tissue Roll Shakers: another idea for making shakers is using a small can filled with rice, or dried beans. Then, cover the topside or both sides with paper and attach it using cellotape.

Guitars: To make guitars from used milk boxes, you may need to cut a circle shape on one side of the box as the hollow part, or tissue boxes will make it easier. Then ask children to stretch rubber bands on the boxes. This activity can help enhance fine motor skills as well.

Drums: Using used milk cans, you can also make drums. Cover the open side with fabric and attach it with rubber bands. Then you can use chopsticks or your hand to hit and play.

Crafts For Animals Themes

Caterpillars:You can go to stores or supermarkets to ask for used egg cartons. They will come handy to make animals crafts like caterpillars, alligators, ants or anything else, depends on your creativity.

Spiders: Using tissue rolls you can make spiders. Just add pipe cleaners as the legs, and have them painting the tissue rolls, paste the googly eyes and attach a string as the cobweb.

Octopuses or Whales: I once made octopuses and whales by using paperbags. Just stuff them with crumpled papers and tie a rubber band or a string and cut the bottom part as the legs or tentacles or fins.

Crafts For House or City themes

Houses or castles: Kids love pretending and they love hideouts! You can make houses of children size by using TV or refrigerator cardboard boxes. Help them to cut some parts as the windows and doors. Then encourage them to decorate using paints, colorful papers, fabrics or other materials.

Transportation: By combining some used materials, you can make cars, trains or even trucks. Collect different sizes and types of boxes, from milk boxes, cereal boxes, milk cartons, to biscuit and medicine boxes. You can use tissue rolls or bottle lids as the wheels.

Buildings: From those used boxes I mentioned above, you can also make them into buildings. Wrap them with colored papers and cut small square shapes as the windows. Try combining boxes of different size and types to make it more interesting.

Teaching Aids These teaching aids are easy to make and even more fun for kids to use than using a ready-made one. You can also combine them to use with any skills you want to teach and develop, for example: fine motor skills, language, and more.

Math materials: Ice cube trays, egg cartons, yogurt, mineral water or ice cream cups can be used as counting device, or for sorting colors and shapes and lots more. Decorate them as attractive and as catchy as you can, depending on your need. If you want to make these for your students to sort colors then you just need to color them according to the colors taught or covered. If you use them as counting materials, then just write numbers on them — as many as the numbers taught or covered. Then put some counters on which you want your students to explore counting and sorting with – things like buttons, pom-pom balls, or even beads.

Reading materials: You can teach letter recognition, letter sounds or sight words and make the teaching aids for free. Collect lots of bottle caps of different colors, tissue rolls, and also used yoghurt cups to make them. Decorate and write the letters or sight words taught and put the objects you want your students to match.

Why not try some of these ideas in your classes? I’d love to hear how they work for you and would be very happy if you shared some ideas of your own in the comments below. It’s great when we share and learn more from each other.


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Homemade Materials Issue

By sharing how they reduce, reuse, recycle and in the process create some fabulous homemade materials for their classrooms, Naomi Epstein, Pravita Indriati, Christina Markoulaki, and Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto show you how you can do the very same thing in your classrooms.

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Naomi Epstein
Naomi Epstein
Christina Markoulaki
Pravita Indriati
Pravita Indriati


Connect with Barb, Naomi, Christina, Pravita and other iTDi Associates, Mentors, and Faculty by joining iTDi Community. Sign Up For A Free iTDi Account to create your profile and get immediate access to our social forums and trial lessons from our English For Teachers and Teacher Development courses.

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