TESOL | Numbers

I find that numbers are always something worth reviewing and practicing, and they can be practiced alongside many other topics. This post will include several very different activities.


Javanese numerals

Meaningful Numbers

This activity can be used as an icebreaker, but it also works with groups that are already well acquainted. Students choose three numbers that are significant to them (e.g. age, height, birthdate, number of siblings, number of pets, etc.). In small groups, they take turns trying to guess the meaning behind each number by asking, “Is it your height? Is it how many siblings you have?” etc. Once the groups are finished guessing, the teacher can ask for volunteers to challenge the whole class with their meaningful numbers.

My students get very creative, both with their questions and their answers. They also get a little sassy, making guesses that are obviously wrong, but usually very funny. This activity is about a lot more than numbers, because the students are thinking about all kinds of vocabulary the whole time.

Counting Together

This exercise does practice numbers, but it’s probably more useful as a gauge of the group dynamic. Students try to count to a certain number (or as high as they can), which may sound easy enough, but believe me, it’s not.

Everyone stands in a circle and either closes their eyes or looks at the floor. One person begins the counting with ‘one’. The tricky part is that any student can continue, but no two students may say the same number at the same time. Numbers can be called out in quick succession or with long pauses in between, but only one student may say a given number. The first time I did this activity was with 42 students (and 2 teachers), and we got as high as 16.

Perhaps not the best activity if you want to practice higher numbers, but you can alternatively have the students count in intervals, i.e. by fives, tens, etc.

Classroom Inventory

If the topic du jour is classroom vocabulary or school supplies, why not throw in some numbers as well? Have students take an inventory of objects in the classroom. They can work together in small groups or individually. Have them compare their results at the end, the perfect time to practice ‘there is / are‘. If it’s feasible, the teacher can assign different groups to different parts of the school, e.g. the library, front office or cafeteria. If you’re short on time, limit the number of objects to be inventoried; perhaps let each group choose a certain number of items from a list. If you have time to kill, let the students go wild.


Lastly, make your students do math! Whether young, old or somewhere in between, everyone can benefit from a little extra math practice, be it basic arithmetic or everyday problems using basic measurements, prices or time. For large numbers, look at populations, area measurements or numbers of language speakers. Compare different countries to one another to practice geography while you’re at it.

As always, have fun and let me know how it goes!

One year

I’ve been trying to come up with a way to acknowledge passing the one-year mark in Indonesia—just over a year in country and just under a year at site—but I’ve had trouble figuring out how. I started writing a blog post about first experiences and personal records during my service, but a list of moments—though I treasure them—somehow seemed inadequate. I’m still here, still looking forward to tomorrow, and I’ve decided that that is acknowledgment enough.


Indonesia has stretched and squeezed me, pushed and pulled me, awakened intellectual muscles in me I didn’t know I possessed. The best tribute to this description defying experience that I can think of is to continue. I have one more year to teach and learn, make and do, shrink and grow.

Every day, I feel smaller in this big world, but every day, I also grow more rooted in my community. I’ve had to relearn things I thought I knew about myself and about how the world works, but I’ve had many willing teachers. Aspects of life in East Java that I haven’t adopted, I’ve learned to tolerate; the few that I cannot tolerate, I’ve learned to handle.

I came to Indonesia with few expectations, knowing that in time, I’d be reimagining the handful of goals I did have. Over the past year, I’ve continually reflected on those original goals, scrapping some and adjusting others, aligning them with those of my colleagues and students, and I’ve made many new ones. Thinking about them now, I know I have a lot to look forward to, as well as a lot left to learn. So let my salute to Year One be an amazing Year Two.


TESOL | Five Things

This is one of my favorite warm-up activities. It’s quick, easy, versatile and usually elicits a wide variety of results. It’s good for reviewing old vocabulary as well as setting the stage for new material. Asking for ‘five things’ can also help determine what the students already know about a given topic.

The Concept:

The teacher writes a category on the board. The students must write down five words that fit the category. For example:

Five things that are GREEN

– grass
– leaf
– bamboo
– apple
– pear

Adjectives are a great conceptual link (cold / round / sweet), but verbs are just as good.

Five things that can FLY

– bird
– airplane
– helicopter
– bee
– dragonfly

If you’re about to review one of the ‘perfects’, warm up with five irregular past participles* (eaten / gone / made / seen / written). Ideally, you’ll get a lot of responses, which you can use in your lesson.

Categories can be virtually anything: plants, animals, places, even words that start with the same letter, if you’re focusing on spelling or pronunciation. They can also be individual: five things you cannot do / may not do.

When it comes to some words, I set limits. Yes, notebooks can be green, but are they typically green? Is coffee always sweet? (Actually, in East Java, it usually is; I might let that one slide, at least while I’m here.)

There is so much to choose from and play with. Try to keep track of the categories you give your students, especially if you use this activity on a regular basis. That way, your examples will stay fresh.

Give it a try!

*In Germany, my students called past participles the ‘third form’ and in Indonesia, they say ‘verb 3’. EFL dictionaries often include a table of irregular verbs, the third column of which lists past participles, e.g. go / went / gone.

TESOL | I’m a marker looking for some ink

Some activities are so versatile that they demand to be adjusted and tweaked again and again. This is one of those. I’m going to describe the simplest version first, before I add a few possible adaptations.

Regardless of the variation, the teacher needs to prepare one slip of paper for each student. For a simple vocab activity, the teacher writes two words on each slip:

a teacher > a marker

a marker > ink

ink > a bottle

a bottle > a shelf

The words can be related or unrelated. The first word indicates what the student is during the activity and the second indicates what they are looking for. The slips of paper can also include the phrases the student will need:

I’m a teacher. Are you a marker?

Otherwise those phrases can be written on the board and explained to the class as a whole. You can practice any number of phrases, but you’ll want to be consistent.

am a marker. Are you ink? Who is ink?

I have a marker. Do you have ink? Who has ink?

Once a student has found what they were looking for, they should ask what the next student is looking for and follow suit, keeping track of the chain in a list.

teacher, marker, ink, bottle, shelf

The first person to complete the list is the winner.

Instead of finding single vocab words, the task could be to complete a story.

to the store. > They didn’t

They didn’t > have what

have what > she was

The first person to find the complete the story (and correctly identify the beginning and the end!) is the winner.

A story could be replaced with instructions or any other sort of written text.

Large classes could be split up to save time or make the activity more manageable. Students could complete the task in pairs, taking turns to ask for and give information. Another option would be to split the class into two larger groups, each with a separate puzzle. For example, students in one group could gather the ingredients of a recipe, while the others compile the instructions.


Simplify preparation for this activity by compiling a list with enough words, or finding a text that can be broken into enough pieces, before you make the cards. Remember that the first word or phrase will also be the last.

Keep in mind:

This activity gives everyone something to do. It requires individual as well as group work. However, I was forced to remind my students several times that their task was not to copy their friends’ work, but rather to complete the task (the list, story, etc.) on their own, the only help from their friends being the next clue.

Give it a try, and let me know how it works for you!


Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, I’ve had to move from one great host family to another great host family. In the end, it just means I have two!

Moving in the middle of my service has had its pros and cons. On the one hand, I’m much better equipped to communicate with my new host family than I was during training or at the beginning of my service. On the other hand, I haven’t stopped being a foreigner that needs to be babied and worried over. In fact, that process has started all over again: reminders every five minutes that I should eat and reminders that I should help myself. The only trouble is, with being reminded to eat and even being handed snacks around the clock, I barely have an opportunity to help myself. Recently, I (gently) reminded my new bapak that it’s guests he should be pressing to take food, not his “family”. He laughed and admitted I was right.

Another pro has been getting to know my new family and their neighbors. My ‘host aunt’ and ‘uncle’ live next door with their two sons. The other night, I pulled out my ukulele and sat on their porch with them. I sang a few songs in English as well as the one I’ve learned in Javanese, all the while being reminded to eat finish the plate of fried bananas next to me.


After six weeks, I’m feeling pretty settled. I’m used to the way things work around the house, and my family is used to my inherent strangeness. I’ve started teaching the neighborhood kids English after school. I’m where I need to be for the year that I have left!

Can I have your shorts?

I went for a long walk today. Not sure how long, but really long. As per usual, I had very little idea of where I was headed, which baffles Indonesians. One woman said, “But how does that even work?” when I told her I didn’t have a destination in mind. I told her I was following my nose; if my nose turned left, I turned left; if my nose turned right, I turned right. “All alone?” is another comment I always get. “Yes,” I admitted, “but actually not really. There are people everywhere!”

Everyone asks if I get lost, wandering around like that. Even if I didn’t have an interactive world map in my pocket, it would be pretty difficult to get lost. And even if I didn’t have a smartphone, there are literally hundreds of people who would be more than happy to tell me where I am and how to get where I’m going.

I tend not to use my phone or ask for directions unless I’m going somewhere by bike, i.e. going somewhere farther away. I do like to ask people the names of the villages I pass through though. Google doesn’t always know those, and my bapak and ibu always want to know where I ended up.


But that’s not even what I wanted to write about. My walk was not uneventful. I had barely left my own house this morning before I was whisked inside someone else’s. After a hello and a handshake, a smiling older neighbor grabbed my arm and steered me straight toward his home. My great-grandmother would have have said parlor for the sitting room where Indonesians receive their guests. That’s where we sat for a few minutes, while he fired off questions. Then a customer came looking for a haircut. It turned out my host was a barber.

I continued my walk down my old street* at the end of which I was rerouted by a young guy with a cigarette in his mouth. We sat on his stoop for a few minutes, while he fired off questions, one of which was, “Can I have your shorts?” Now, I’m quite attached to my shorts, so I had to disappoint him, but he didn’t give up that easily. He asked instead about my faded, old T-shirt. I tried to convince him that he didn’t really want it, but he did, and since I was far less attached to my worn-out T-shirt than I am to my shorts, I didn’t mind trading it for a bright red soccer jersey. I definitely think I got the better deal, especially since it’s an Arema jersey, my area’s favorite team.

After the trade, I set off again. I walked along the route of my last long run and chatted with a family for 10 minutes in front of their house. I enjoyed some of the most beautiful scenery my site has to offer. Then I entered uncharted territory. I took a new road that might as well have led back in time. Village is almost the wrong word to describe the houses I found scattered throughout the woods and rice paddies. People there were a bit more suspicious of me, too, but I know the Javanese magic word, so I was allowed passage.

Finally, I left the woods and began to see denser collections of houses as well as stores again. Along the way, a man on a motorcycle looked at me and put his cupped hand to his lips, the universal sign for drinking. This was an invitation to have a cup of coffee at his house, which wasn’t far away. The woman on the back of the motorcycle jumped off and led me there on foot. A sip and a half into my coffee, I was told it was time to eat. I was handed a plate and told to help myself. I took some rice (but not enough, apparently), some cooked young jackfruit, a fried egg and some spicy green chili sauce. A visiting nephew joined me in my meal, for which I was grateful. I don’t especially like when offers of food turn into bule feeding (and watching) time at Mr. Liam’s Traveling Circus.

After about a dozen invitations to take seconds and a dozen assurances that I was already full, I returned to the parlor. More family members had sprouted out of nowhere. We had a good chat about why people, who live and work in one place for two years, aren’t really tourists, even if their skin is white. We talked about what we do and don’t have in the US, a favorite topic of Indonesians. They always try to stump me with different fruits, vegetables and snacks. “Do you have snake fruit in the US? Cassava chips? Corn?” I tell them that a lot of things like snake fruit aren’t grown in the US, but that they can be found. I tell them that the US is a country of immigrants, who often bring their favorite kinds of food with them. After the interview and after a few photos, I took my leave.

I love my long walks, even if most Indonesians don’t understand why. I might not know where I am or where I’m going, but I’ve rarely felt less lost.


*I know…I still have to write about my move.



The other morning I went for a long run. I had set out to retrace an old route, but I decided pretty quickly to try something new. Where I normally would have turned right, I went straight ahead, down a steep hill, across a bridge and up a steeper hill on the other side. When I made it to the top, I was breathless for two reasons, the second being the absolutely beautiful panorama before me: rice paddies, lush and green; palm trees all around them; ahead of me a majestic volcano. The sun had barely risen, so everything was bathed in a very gentle half-light.


I rarely have an opportunity to forget that I live in a very densely populated part of an already densely populated island, but tucked between the sprawling towns and villages are many of these vast swathes of tranquil green, and if you go there at the right time of day, there are hardly any people. On this run, my imagination turned the few humming motorcycles into buzzing insects. I stopped for a moment and soaked up the scenery. When I set out again, I felt that those moments of peace and quiet had given me an extra 10 minutes of patience for the day.

I didn’t know where I was, so…I just kept going. Eventually, I left all signs of habitation behind, running down another hill and across another bridge. Then I made a turn I won’t call right or wrong. I followed a track that ran parallel to the river I had just crossed. The track got narrower and narrower, but it didn’t disappear…for a good while. At one point though, the road did vanish into the river. Signs that people still passed this way continued though: crops that were obviously being tended, the odd piece of clothing. I decided to keep going.

Signs that I might not be alone or that there might be a way out ahead spurred me on. My run had turned into obstacle course, which I navigated carefully. Finally, I saw a man ahead inspecting his crops. Hopeful, I asked him what lay ahead. Would I find a way out if I continued? He pointed to a sheer cliff behind him and said I could climb that. Otherwise I’d have to turn back. I took the latter piece of advice.

When I finally reached the bridge and the fork in the road from before, I chose the path I had previously ignored and soon ended up on a well-traveled road. The sun was climbing higher, and there were more people out and about—people that had never seen me before. The calls of bule! and tourist! began to increase in frequency. I felt my stock of patience running out.

IMG_2509When I finally made it back to familiar territory, I thought I’d be safe from unwanted attention. These people knew me after all. Unfortunately, I was wrong. People pointed me out the way I might draw attention to a kangaroo that had escaped from its zoo. My patience was nearly depleted, and I was disappointed that people I thought I knew would objectify me that way, but I had one more trick up my sleeve. I turned on to my old street* where I was sure I’d only be greeted with familiar hellos. It worked.

I’ll try this new run again sometime, and maybe I’ll even try it as a walk, so I can slow down and explain that I’m not an escaped kangaroo.

*I’ve moved! More to come soon.

TESOL | What has been done?

Time to practice passive present perfect (or passive simple past if you’re feeling AE).

Divide the class into two groups. While one group waits outside, the other group looks around the room, trying to remember as many details as possible. After a minute or two, the groups switch places. The students who had been waiting outside enter the classroom and proceed to change 10 things. (To ensure that only 10 things are changed and to help keep track of what was changed, assign smaller groups of students to each change a specific number of things about the room.)

After the changes of been made, the waiting group comes back in and tries to figure out what has been done to the room, e.g. the board has been cleaned; a chair has been moved; a window has been opened/closed, etc.

I’ve had students write their guesses on the board before discussing each one.

TESOL | 5 by 5

This activity is meant to practice vocabulary and spelling. I prefer a simple version of the game, but it can easily be made more difficult.

I have noticed that students at every level have trouble remembering the names of letters in English despite the fact that (or because?) they learn the alphabet so early. As a little refresher, I find it helpful to practice the alphabet immediately prior to this activity, e.g. by saying it together as a class or having each student say one letter.


To set up the game, the teacher draws a 5 x 5 grid on the board or on a piece of paper. (If the teacher uses the the board, the students can follow along more easily.) Each student then draws their own grid on a piece of paper.


To begin the game, the teacher says one letter of the alphabet and writes it in one square (any square). Students write the same letter in any one square of their grids. Then, students take turns each saying one letter, which each student adds to their grid. The goal is to write words of two to five letters. To keep things simple, I prefer to count only words going left to right or top to bottom. Generally, I allow letters to be repeated any number of times, but limits can be set by the teacher to add a challenge.


Each word is worth a certain amount of points. 5-letter words are worth 10 points. Words with 4, 3 or 2 letters are worth the number of letters in that word. Points are tallied at the end to determine the winner. Don’t forget to explain the point system before beginning the game.


The activity can be done as a class or in smaller groups. It is up to the teacher to decide what kinds of words should count. I prefer not to include acronyms like CEO, but having such words count can be useful. Limits or bonuses can also be set for parts of speech or other word categories, e.g. only verbs will be counted or color words count double.



Language is, of course, more than vocab, grammar and pronunciation, but in Indonesia, I’ve been stumbling over one aspect of language that has rarely tripped me up before, namely tone.

Indonesian is not a tone language like Chinese, where individual words change meaning depending on their pitch, but it is tonal insofar as every language is a little bit tonal. In English, pitch might not influence the definition of a word, but it can change the intended meaning or feeling of a word or of an entire sentence. Take the word please. We use it firstly for polite requests and agreement, but we can use it to express doubt or annoyance as well.

“English is a tonal language? Oh, please!”

Sarcastic, critical, patronizing, skeptical, sympathetic, imploring, aggressive, etc. We can be all of those things just by changing our tone of voice. The please example illustrates what I mean by tone, but it is also idiomatic; it’s a usage of please that has to be learned separately. The difficulty I’ve had with tone in Indonesia is not idiomatic, but idiosyncratic.

The intention behind a particular tone is not universal across languages. What I might interpret as a critical or mocking slight to my intelligence, might not be meant that way at all. In fact, in Indonesia, I can be relatively sure it isn’t. To make things (subjectively) worse, however, questions I get asked are often, though not always, phrased negatively.

Don’t you know about the meeting? Why aren’t you drinking coffee? Don’t you want some snacks? You’re not going out today? Why aren’t you riding your bike?

By themselves, each of those questions is innocent enough, but I rarely hear just one. It’s hard for me not to feel annoyed, when I’m bombarded with negativity like that, particularly when I hear a list of expectations I have “failed” to meet. In reality though, commenting on changes and differences is a classic Indonesian method of troubleshooting, albeit a nosy one. Straying from the norm in Indonesia can be seen as the first indication of a problem, so when my ibu as good as freaks out because I don’t drink coffee one morning, she doesn’t intend to criticize my habits; she’s worried she bought me the wrong coffee. I still can’t completely ignore my first impressions of a tone of voice, but I’m getting better at reinterpreting tone or simply accepting it.

The incongruence between what I hear and what I understand is a product of my own cultural sensibilities. The fact that, in Java, an invitation to have some food is expressed the same way I might warn someone that their shoes are on fire is simply an aspect of Javanese culture I have to get used to.