A web site for the developing language teacher

Teaching Tips 67

Keeping to the limit
Human Computers

pen & paper
to the limit

Just as there are advantages in giving time limits with reading tasks, there are also benefits in giving word limits with writing tasks. The writing section of examinations give a task & a word limit but here we are looking at very reduced word limits, for example fifty words. This reduced word limit helps students to think very carefully about the organisation of the text & the language they choose.

'Process Writing' by Ron White & Valerie Arndt give 'mini-sagas' as an example. The idea came from 'The Daily Telegraph' newspaper competition which invited readers to submit texts of exactly fifty words, with a maximum of fifteen words for a title.

A quick search on Google came up a surprising 12.900 results, proof of the popularity of this type of writing. Here are a couple of mini-sagas:

There are lots more on the page.

Saving Money
Michael Chang (China) 12th June, 2002. Planning to study for an MBA.

"I have saved 70 pence today" David said to his wife, excited and breathing deeply as he arrived home. "I followed the bus back and earned 70 pence for us." "You stupid fool, you should have followed a taxi! Don't you realise that you could have earned two pounds instead?"

Wind (Taiwan) 13th June, 2002. Planning to study for an MBA.

A fisherman had a nice family and lived happily near the beach, fishing only for their daily needs. One day he met a businessman who said "catch more fish, buy more boats and run a successful business". The fisherman answered "then what?" "Start a family and live by the beach."

Here's a procedure you could use:

1. Handout the texts & ask the students to quickly read them & decide which they like best.

2. Students compare ideas >> Class feedback

3. Ask the students what they all have in common - 50 words - & then tell them they are going to work on producing one - elicit how they might go about writing one - what kind of procedure & organisation will they need.

4. Ask the students, in pairs, to choose two texts they like & identify the situation, the characters, the events & the overall message.

5. Feedback - drawing out common themes that could help them with their own mini-sagas.

6. Ask the students to either write an original mini-saga or take a known story & reduce it to its essence in fifty words. This could be a pair work activity as they will need to negotiate what to put in & leave out, making it a productive speaking activity if taken seriously - you might want to feed in some language they will need for this negotiation.
Alternatively, instead of getting straight into the production of a mini-saga, you could hand one out with gaps in, or with a bit missing that needs completing, to bring it up to fifty words. This might ease them into it better.

7. Swap the mini-sagas around the class so all read each others & then you could vote on, for example, the most imaginative or the most accurate. Also discuss the processes they went through as they were writing the mini-sagas, picking up on interesting ideas.

This could be developed into a school competition, a project for the school magazine or website. However you use mini-sagas, they provide variety to the usual writing tasks as well as preparing students better for those very tasks.

Back to the contents

(Acronym Awareness

Do you know what the following mean?


Acronyms are everywhere & not to be ignored when they crop up. We may assume that they are clear enough but our students might have no idea as to what they mean as the equivalent acronym in their language may be completely different.

Here's a way of introducing acronyms & having a bit of fun at the same time.

1. Put the following acronyms on the board:

On the board
Reference for you
North Atlantic Treaty Organisation
International Federation of Football Associations
Uniform Resource Locator
United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organisation
Surface-to-Air Missile
United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
Unidentified Flying Object
Weapons of Mass Destruction
Personal Computer or Politically Correct
Over The Top
Frequently Asked Questions
British Broadcasting Corporation
Member of Parliament
Prime Minister
World Wide Web
as soon as possible
English for Specific Purposes
Master of Arts

2. Ask the students in pairs to work out what they mean & what the acronym would be in their language - eg. in Spanish NATO is OTAN. Some might be tricky so give the context you might find them in, or even one of the words in the acronym. Language to express them: It stands for... , It means... etc eg. EC stands for European Community.

3. Feedback - clarify any unknown ones.

4. Ask the students to analyse the different words used in the acronyms. eg North (adjective) Atlantic (noun) Treaty (noun) Organisation (noun)

5. Feedback - clarify.

6. Mix 'n match - get the students to use different parts of the above acronyms to make up new ones eg. NEWEQ North English Weapons of Emergency Questions

7. Using the patterns discovered earlier, ask students to invent their own acronyms, the wackier the better. You could set the theme for this - eg. new organisations to help would peace or things that bring technological improvements to our lives eg. RWTP Remote Wrist Television Phone

8. Feedback - all voting on the most imaginative ones.

A fun way of becoming familiar with some well-known acronyms & practicing word order.


A few acronym search sites:
The Acronym Liar
Acronym Server
Acronym Finder
Acronym Search


The acronyms from the beginning stand for:

English Language Teaching, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, English for Specific Purposes, English for Occupational Purposes, English for Professional Purposes, English for Academic Purposes, English for Business Purposes, English for Science & Technology

Back to the contents

Human Computers
Human computer

I first came over this idea in the 'Dealing with Grammar' section of the excellent book 'Learning to Learn - A Course in Learner Training' by Ellis & Sinclair (CUP). The teacher becomes the human computer in order to give the students non-judgemental feedback on utterances. The students formulate sentences & say them to the computer. If they are correct, the teacher repeats the sentences. If it is incorrect, the teacher says the correct version.

Student: I go to the cinema yesterday.
Teacher: I went to the cinema yesterday.

Student: She should've gone to the meeting.
Teacher: She should've gone to the meeting.

Student: I've been to the cinema at the weekend.
Teacher: I went to the cinema at the weekend.

Student: The mechanic repaired the car.
Teacher: The car was repaired by the mechanic.

This can be used as a game at presentation & practice stages, & all ages & levels respond to it. You can also hand it over to the students, one becoming the computer, & others 'reprogramming'/correcting the computer if it goes wrong.

This activity helps the students play around with language & test out their ideas. The first time will be a bit stilted but once the students feel comfortable with the activity, you can use it again & again. Try it.

Learning To Learn - Ellis & Sinclair (CUP)

To buy this book at

To buy this book at


The 18th May is International Museum Day

'International Museum Day has been celebrated all over the world since 1977. Each year, a theme is decided on by the Advisory Committee. The event provides the opportunity for museum professionals to meet the public and alert them to the challenges that museums face if they are to be - as in the ICOM definition of museums - "an institution in the service of society and of its development".
The chosen topic is also discussed in ICOM News, a review of the related activities is produced and made available to members of ICOM.

It has been recommended that this celebration be held each year on 18 May (Given that each country has its own specific traditions and conditions, we recommend that members organise their events around 18 May), in the spirit of the motto: « Museums are an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, co-operation and peace among peoples » '

2004 - Museums and Intangible Heritage

A lesson around this? Local museum information in English? Or from one of the big museums from the net? Lots to do - museums, art....

Back to the contents

To the Past Teaching Tips

Back to the top

Tips & Newsletter Sign up —  Current Tip —  Past Tips 
Train with us Online Development Courses    Lesson Plan Index
 Phonology — Articles Books  LinksContact
Advertising — Web Hosting — Front page

Copyright 2000-2016© Developing