The Value of Daily Classroom Journals

I start every lesson with my younger and beginner-to-intermediate students with a brief journaling activity, depending on student level:

  • Little ones who are still learning how to read and write circle a sight word related to feelings, and then draw a picture of themselves.
  • Slightly older ones who have mastered reading and writing but are still low level in English write about one thing they did and one thing they want to do, complete with picture.
  • Older students, or ones who are already at a more advanced level, have four brief prompts without pictures: what they did last week, one thing they wish they could change, what they hope will happen, and what will probably happen

They’re basically a formalized version of the little ceremonial warm-up chat that I have with my more advanced students. By making that small talk part of the lesson in a more official way, it makes the lesson more about them. It can be a great shortcut around any resentment younger students might have since they’re often (but not always) engaged in lessons at the behest of their parents. Journals don’t really feel like work, and it lets students write or talk about themselves, which is everyone’s favorite topic!

A silver pen in a blank, open journal.

The luxury of private instruction is that I’m not crunched for time or beholden to a particular schedule, so I can spend as long on journals as works. I think this is especially important within the context of private lessons, since they’re taking precious free time away. I’m not a proponent of the idea that teachers need to be clowns or entertainers; rather that the value of language in terms of self expression needs to be emphasized in certain contexts. Rather than declaring X amount of minutes for journals, the same amount every time, I let it go as long as it needs. Sometimes a student had a really exciting week at school and they have a lot to talk about; sometimes there’s not much to say at all.

While they’re writing (or talking), I make a deliberate effort to ask as many questions as I can think of to elicit more details. I also make a note to ask follow-up questions in the next lesson, such as inquiring about how a test, project, or sports game went. I seem to have a natural memory for these things, but if you don’t, you can keep a little daybook of students and their activities, where you can make notes about their plans right after lessons and what you can refer to right before a lesson for a refresher.  This is important not only for generating more material to “exploit” (to use a piece of jargon), but for more altruistic reasons. Over the long term, it’s much easier to connect to a teacher who demonstrably cares about you than one who’s only interested in what you accomplish during your hour or two of instruction every week. Likewise, when you get to know students, you become even more invested in their success, in language and in everything else.

This can also apply to self-study. It might not always be possible to find someone to talk to (native speaker or otherwise), but whether or not you can carve out the time for a little journaling is fairly easy to control. And now with the Internet, it’s trivial to find someone who can correct your work and provide feedback, whether it’s for free (on something like Lang-8) or for minimal cost (on something like Ediket). The first step in being able to talk about anything else is always being able to talk about yourself. So get journaling!

Take This MOOC: Inside IELTS: Preparing for the Test with the Experts

My schedule was fairly hectic in 2017, so while I found room in my schedule for a good MOOC (Mindshift, from the same people behind Learning How to Learn), I didn’t find time to review it here. This year I’m managing my time a little better, and so I can sit down and give you my thoughts about Inside IELTS: Preparing for the Test with the Experts.

This course is offered on another MOOC website, FutureLearn. Like Coursera, FutureLearn offers courses for free but provides the ability to “upgrade” your participation, which includes a certificate of completion. Unlike Coursera, standard FutureLearn MOOCs aren’t available after their time runs out, even if you successfully complete them; for that, you need to purchase the upgrade. So a FutureLearn course is a little more time-sensitive than a Coursera course.

Inside IELTS is a well-organized, easy-to-digest look at the IELTS Academic test, one of the premiere international ESL tests. Many universities and employers use an IELTS score as part of their evaluation. (If you’re studying English to get into a university, this probably isn’t news to you!) Inside IELTS is a five-week program featuring video interviews, lectures, reading, and practice question. The material includes an explanation of the different assessment criteria and bands that the test evaluators will use as well as going through the test structure itself. The actual lessons break down into:

  • Academic Writing
  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Listening
  • Putting It All Together

Inside IELTS is presented only in English; the course organizers recommend an English level of B1 or so to be able to understand the bulk of the material. However, all the videos are subtitled, and transcripts are also provided. The target audience is obviously EFL students, but instructors might also find it useful to go through to familiarize themselves with the IELTS test structure and format (if they aren’t already). Inside IELTS also goes over some test-taking tips that can be applied generally to any English test, rather than just the IELTS.

There are quizzes throughout, but they are low-stakes and aren’t tied to your completion of the course. You’ll also have the opportunity to evaluate sample responses yourself to get a feel for what the standards are.

Inside IELTS is five weeks long and, including the practice assignments, consists of three hours of work per week for a total of fifteen hours of instruction. The first week is already up, but it shouldn’t take long to catch up! Otherwise FutureLearn will send you an email when the course is ready to repeat itself.

Anki Pronunciation Deck: Short “I” and Long “E”

It’s been a while but I’m happy to bring out another pronunciation deck for Anki! This is a minimal pair deck that focuses on short “I” and long “E.” If you’d prefer IPA notation, that’s /ɪ/ and /iː/.  (The difference between “hit” and “heat.”)

I originally put this deck together for a Spanish-speaking student, but I’m sure this will be of interest to a number of English students. These two vowel sounds can be tricky for many English students.

I’ve shared this deck publicly, so you should be able to download it from its main page: English Pronunciation Deck: /ɪ/ and /iː/.

If you already have Anki installed on your desktop, simply download the file and open it on your desktop (not on your phone!). Once you’ve opened it with desktop Anki, hit the “synch” button to add the downloaded deck to your cloud. Now you can practice it on your phone as well as on your computer.

A Caucasian child with a buzz cut yelling into a complicated, professional micorphone setup.

Jason Rosewell

I used the terminology “short ‘i'” and “long ‘e'” instead of the phonetic symbols because it was easier to type something like “short ‘i'” in a standard keyboard layout instead of futzing around with special characters, and also because not everyone is familiar with IPA. I’m very much in favor of English students learning IPA and I think it’s genuinely helpful, but I also recognize that its use among teachers is hardly universal or standardized. This is also not a vocabulary deck, so the words come without pictures or definitions.

The minimal pair examples are taken from a list at, with some modification on my part. The sound files are all from Forvo, and I used American English speakers whenever possible (since I’m American and obviously use/teach American English with my students). I used Gabriel Wyner’s “pronunciation” note format for this deck, specifically the “minimal pair” category.

You might also be interested in this initial “H” pronunciation deck, while you’re knocking around my shared decks on pronunciation. I plan to share more in the future. Hopefully they help you with your studies!

Thoughts on TinyCards: The DuoLingo Flashcard App

Students of mine and readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of the flashcard app Anki. It’s powerful and flexible and can be a huge help in memorizing new vocabulary or grammar patterns.

The one drawback to Anki is that it can be a little overwhelming to make your own decks. (This is why I’ve offered a few ready-made ESL ones here: phrasal verbs with “get,” a pronunciation deck with initial “H,” participial adjective practice, and phrasal verbs with “do” and “make.” More soon!) If you’re not the kind of person who’s already comfortable with markup language in other contexts, the card-creation interface might seem overwhelming. Even downloading pre-created decks can be a bit difficult if you don’t have good computer instincts.

The team behind DuoLingo has filled in that niche and set up TinyCards, which originally launched in iOS-only form in 2016. An Android version came out in April 2017 of this year, and I finally got around to trying it this week.

What is TinyCards?

TinyCards is a flashcard app from the same team behind DuoLingo. It’s available for iOS, Android, and in a web-based version. DuoLingo has released official flashcard decks for many (but not all) language trees on DuoLingo. (Availability might be tied to whether or not a particular tree is out of Beta.) You can also create your own decks, either for private use or to share with others. If you opt to share the deck you created with others, they’ll be able to see that you made it because your name and a small portrait of your user picture will turn up next to the deck when they search. (The official DuoLingo decks will have a picture of their mascot, Duo.)

Pictured are three official DuoLingo decks (Swedish, French, and Russian) and a user-created Korean one.

What do I like about it?

It’s very easy to create relatively flexible and information-dense cards. On one side you can include a word or picture; on the other side you include the target word and, optionally, extra information (referred to as “facts” in the creation tool).

TinyCards deck creation interface
Here are all the ways you can put together flashcards in TinyCards.

You can upload your own images, or you can search (in multiple languages!) a vast library that comes ready-made with TinyCards. I’m not sure what the source is: images uploaded by other users? Getty Images? whatever DuoLingo already has? An unexpected but very thoughtful feature is that within the card creation tool, you have the option to crop an image. That’s perfect if you don’t want to clog up your loading time with huge high-resolution pictures but also don’t want to manually resize images before you upload them.

It’s also easy to browse other decks and add them to (or remove them from) your own library as you like.

When you’re actually reviewing and using the decks, you have the option of selecting the “I was right” option to use if you get a technically incorrect answer, or of skipping a card you already know. The official DuoLingo decks also include the sound files from the DuoLingo course, so you get listening as well as reading. You also get hints if you struggle with a particular word (though who knows if that’s helpful or not). You also have the ability to report a card if it’s incorrect or inflammatory.

Since TinyCards is an offshoot of DuoLingo, it’s based on the same spaced repetition model, so it will visually signal to you how well you know a deck so you can decide when to review.

I’m doing pretty good in Korean Word Builder 1, but I need to work more on Korean Word Builder 2. And I’ve barely touched Russian.

That also means that TinyCards is free to use!

What don’t I like about it?

If you’re making your own deck, your only options are images and words. You can’t upload any of your own sound files (yet?), so if you want to study something outside one of the supported DuoLingo decks, you won’t be able to include audio. This is probably my biggest criticism. I find it immensely helpful to hear new vocabulary alongside seeing it.

To a lesser extent, if you want to use a deck that isn’t an official DuoLingo deck, you’re relying on the other user to actually know what they’re doing. It seems like an obvious statement, but it bears repeating. While you can easily report cards or even entire decks, I’m not sure what the protocol is on addressing reported cards or decks, especially since there’s no option for specific feedback or corrections. You can’t report decks on Anki at all, but shared decks can be reviewed and rated, so you can find out if a particular deck is broken or comes with mistakes.

The graphic for the spaced repetition review and learning new vocabulary (pictured above) is also ambiguous. I’ve studied all of the cards in Korean Word Builder 1; the yellow bar is telling me that I need to review. I haven’t studied all of the words in Korean Word Builder 2; the yellow bar is a progress bar. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to have those two metrics combined into one graphic like that. Memrise, for example, will show you how well you know each lexical unit in a lesson, whether on the web or on mobile. TinyCards only addresses the “lesson” level, and each lesson can include multiple lexical units.

One of the most important features of Anki is that you can deliberately set how easy or a hard a vocabulary word was, which affects when it turns up again in the spaced repetition queue. The more difficult something is, the sooner you see it again. There’s no equivalent option in TinyCards: you either get it right or wrong. If you get something wrong a lot, you’ll repeat it in a practice session (and maybe even get hints), but I haven’t noticed words that I fail a lot repeating more often over the long-term. If there’s a secret sauce for bringing up the more difficult vocabulary more often, then it’s not working too well.


For people who are too busy for Anki’s steep card-creation learning curve, TinyCards is an acceptable substitute. The simple, intuitive GUI makes it easy to create your own decks or to add other people’s decks to your own library, so you can get started right away. For people studying through DuoLingo, the official DuoLingo decks will feature the vocabulary from the lessons and help you retain the vocabulary that DuoLingo tends to brush over too quickly. But if you’re not using DuoLingo, or you’re already comfortable with Anki, TinyCards doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.

Big Words in English: Sesquipedalian

In honor of paraskevidekatriaphobia, I like to talk about long words every Friday the 13th. This Friday’s word is sesquipedalian.

It’s perhaps an especially appropriate word to discuss in a recurring segment on long words, as that’s exactly what sesquipedalian refers to. “Paraskevidekatriaphobia,” for example, is a sesquipedalian word: a unusually long word. You can even make sesquipedalian a little longer by turning it into a plural noun: sesquipedalianisms.

The emphasis is on the fourth syllable: ses/qui/pe/DAL/i/an. And there’s something fun about saying it, isn’t there? Maybe it’s that “qui” sound in the middle (“qui” like “queen” or “quite,” not like aqui). Or maybe it’s the hypnotic, lilting rhythm of the stress pattern.

You might have noticed ped/pedal in there, and recognized it from the classical stem word for “foot.” You’d be right; the sesqui– prefix is a combination of “semi” (familiar, hopefully, as meaning “half”) and “que” (“in addition”). Together, sesqui means “a half more again.” Together, something sesquipedalian is “one and a half feet long.” Its use in Latin dates back to Horace, who complained of sesquipedalia verba: words that were one and a half feet long. (Too long, in other words.) And while it can literally refer to anything that’s a foot and a half long, it’s mostly used to describe long words (perhaps thanks to that initial usage by Horace.) It can also refer to an overly and needlessly verbose writing style, rather than a particular word.

Language that describes language: it’s turtles all the way down!

Greek and Latin Suffixes: F, I, L, O, and P

This is the third and final installment in the last part of my classical English affixes series. This is basically all of the Greek and Latin suffixes from “F” onward. That’s it! We’re all done!

Here is the previous installment in this list of suffixes:

For prefixes (morphemes that get attached to the beginning of words) and base words, you can refer to the rest of the series using the “affixes” tag.

Prefix Meaning Example
ful full of bountiful, plentiful
icle, cule small icicle, molecule
ify to make beautify
ist one who does scientist
less without tireless
let small booklet
ly in a (adjective) way slowly
ologist studier of, expert in hematologist
ose, ous, eous, ious full of verbose, populous, aqueous, spacious
phobe one who fears arachnophobe
phobia fear of claustrophobia

Board Games and Learning English: DixIt

I was taken by the whimsical art and semi-cooperative game play of Dixit since I saw it reviewed on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop YouTube series. (Video at the link is nearly 30 minutes long; if you’re in a hurry, save it to watch another time!) I put off getting a copy for years—we don’t have room for enough guests for a proper game—but I finally relented and accepted it as a birthday present this year. My reasoning was that it would be a great tutoring supplement, and it turns out I was right!

I mentioned in a review of the graphic novel Light that having a collection of whimsical, kid-friendly imagery would be a huge boon for tutoring young learners. Dixit brings the same kind of advantage, with the wrinkle of completely non-sequential, unrelated images. It’s not better or worse than having a thematic set of images from a story; it’s just different.

Eight sample images from Dixit
Image courtesy Libellud / Marie Cardouat

First of all, students respond really well to the art (from my admittedly small sample size). It’s worth having a deck on hand just for that. Taking a break from staring at words and thinking about words and manipulating words to just drink in some visual art is relaxing, but you can also put that art to good (and fun) language practice.

I’ll admit that some of these cards lend themselves better to some activities than others; I take a specially curated Dixit deck to my lessons, with the images that seem (to me) the most interesting and dramatic, as well as the ones my students really respond to.


Choose a card from the deck and give the student a few seconds to look at it. Take the card from them and ask them to describe as much as they can from memory. (If they’re lower level or if you’re feeling kind, you can ask them simple questions instead.) Switch up the roles to have students practice asking questions.

Writing Prompts

There’s so much dramatic tension and otherworldliness in so many of the cards that they lend themselves to creative writing practice! Beginners might want to start out just describing  a scene, but more advanced students can tell the story behind an image, or offer a prediction.


Ideally, you’ll need space to lay out all of the cards, but in a pinch you can allow students to go through the deck in their hands. Name a category (“food” or “winter”), and their job is to go through the cards and find all of the options that fit. You can be as concrete or as abstract as you like (more advanced students can try to convince why an anchor in the middle of the desert might be “empty,” for example).

Sketch Artist

One person has a card, which they describe to another person (who has to draw it).

Two-Player Dixit

The minimum number of people you need for a regular game of Dixit is three, but it’s surprisingly easy to adapt the game for two players. No one holds any cards in their hand; instead, the “storyteller” either goes through the deck or draws three random cards from the top and places them face-up. The storyteller then chooses one of the cards (privately) to be the winning card and gives a hint to the other player. If the other player guesses the winning card right away, they get two points; if they guess it on the second try, each player gets one point. Otherwise, no points. Play can continue until the deck runs out or until a set number of points.


Greek and Latin Suffixes: C and E

This is the second installment in the last part of my classical English affixes series. Today’s suffixes all start with the letters “C” or “E.” (There aren’t really any that start with “B” or “D,” so I’ve obviously jumped over those letters.)

Here is the previous installment in this list of suffixes:

For prefixes (morphemes that get attached to the beginning of words) and base words, you can refer to the rest of the series using the “affixes” tag.

Prefix Meaning Example
cracy rule by democracy
crat ruler; one who believes in rule by auotcrat
ectomy surgical removal, “cutting out” tonsillectomy
el, il, le small morsel, codicl, scruple
ella ella umbrela
er more bigger, faster
er,or someone who does, something that does teacher, instructor
est most noblest, smartest

Greek and Latin Suffixes: A

This is the last installment in my classical English affixes series: suffixes. Suffixes are morphemes added to the end of a word stems, and rather than changing meaning, changes function. For example: change is a noun, but add the suffix -less and you get changeless, an adjective.

Today’s suffixes all start with the letter “A.”

Prefix Meaning Example
able, ible can or able to be done portable, audible
ance, ancy, ence, ency the state or quality of importance, hesitancy, patience, fluency
ant, ent having the quality of flagrant, potent
arch rule monarch
arium, ary, orium, ory place, room aquarium, library, auditorium, laboratory
(as)tery, (e)tery place monastery, cemetery
ate to make or do equate
ation the result of making or doing incarnation

Greek and Latin Prefixes: T and U

With “T” and “U,” we’re closing out all of the English prefixes derived from Latin and Greek.

Here are the rest of them:

Reminder: prefixes are morphemes that you can attach to word stems. (You can browse that link for previous posts on classically derived word stems.) Generally speaking, prefix changes word meaning, not word function. That happens with suffixes, which I’ll be starting in the next post in this series.

Prefix Meaning Example
tele far; from afar telephone
trans, tra across, change transpose, travesty
tri three trinity
un not unruly
uni, unit one unique, unite