Column: Pulling rabbits out of hats

By Xana de Nagy

Strange title? Yes, I agree. Surely the rabbits don’t like it and it’s not their purpose in life. However, this is what teaching feels like at times. On occasion it can feel like we are constantly expected to come up with new and/or different ideas for our lessons.

However, our busy schedules mean that often we don’t have time to stray very far from the coursebooks and the materials they provide.

You’re probably thinking, why is that a problem? Coursebooks these days, and in particular young learner coursebooks, are crammed full of lovely materials, activities and extra resources. Sometimes, there are even too many to get through in the time we have. I would agree, however, all of us still need or want to put something of ourselves into each lesson and I know that a question I often hear in the staffroom is, ‘Do you have any ideas for…?’

So, what do you do when you have no ideas? Where do you get your inspiration? Here are some of my go-to sources.


We are lucky enough to work in thriving schools with teachers who have varied experience, so the first port of call would obviously be the staffroom. Asking colleagues what they have done in similar situations, with similar classes and levels, is by far one of the best solutions.

Does your staffroom have an ideas board or something similar? Do you have a system for sharing ideas that has worked, or even for alerting each other to ideas or materials that haven’t worked?

  • A noticeboard in the staffroom with material or an idea of the week.
  • A troubleshooting section, with comments and/or questions about materials that have been problematic; such as: Can anyone help with…?
  • A mini informal weekly get-together where teachers share a ‘new’ idea that they have tried out in class.
  • Book of the week – recommendations for storybooks or other supplementary materials
  • Online teachers’ resources such as Edmodo where teachers can help each other out.


Most schools run in-set training sessions during the academic year for teachers. This could be the seminar programme or something more formal like the IHCYLT or another YL course.

Training often provides us with new ideas, inspiring us to try something completely different or even reminding us of something we already knew but had forgotten about.

Make the most of this by:

  • Trying out one new idea that has been mentioned in the sessions with one class each week and reporting back to others on the course. Was it a triumph or a fail and why?
  • Reading more about an area that interests you and sharing this with colleagues, in a seminar or something similar.
  • Keeping a notebook with a list of materials and ideas that are mentioned so that you can easily refer back to it during the year.
  • Becoming familiar with one great YL online resource like This is full of ideas even though she hasn’t added to it recently.

The coursebook

As I mentioned earlier, most of us rely on the coursebook and the accompanying materials to help us structure our lessons and provide the necessary activities and materials we need.

  • Use the teacher’s book wisely, make use of the extra activities and resources. These can often be used for other classes as well. Can they be adapted for a different level?
  • Be selective to avoid repetition – you don’t have to use everything that is provided. Does it suit your class? Have you done an activity like that before? Did the children enjoy it? Did they find it difficult?
  • Share ideas with colleagues – who is using the same book? Did they do anything different with a particular unit?
  • Check out the publishers’ online resources. Most of them have excellent additional ideas and activities.

Going online

How often do we just type in what we need and rely on the virtual world to help us? I know I do. Do you have a favourite site/blog/podcast to inspire you? Share these with your colleagues.

In addition to the above. Here are some favourites that may be worth exploring:

Recycling ‘old, tried and tested’ ideas

When I am really stuck, there are some ideas I keep coming back to, I think this is the same for many of us. We know they work and with minimal adaptation we can put a new spin on them.

Here are my top 5:

  • Find someone who – why not get the learners to make their own. Give them each a card and get them to write down three things about themselves. They then have to get up and find someone who is similar to them in some way. You could leave this completely open or tie it to a topic or language area you are teaching. One example from a colleague (and trainee) who tried this recently, is to have the children write down three of their favourite things. They then had to stand up, walk around and ask: ‘What’s your favourite X?’, until they found someone who had something the same as them.
  • Letters Game – again this could be done off the cuff or by using sets of letters. Learners work in groups to spell/write words – use it for spelling, recycling or practising vocabulary by providing definitions and getting them to think of the word and write it, etc.
  • Noughts and Crosses or extend to play a version of ‘connect 4’ – no need to explain this one, everyone knows it. If you want it to cover more, you can always extend the grid and add an element of fun by having groups ‘blocking’ each other. Use it to practise grammar, vocabulary, speaking (they have to speak on a topic for 30 seconds to get their symbol in the square) or anything else.
  • Pelmanism – memory games, ask and answer to collect pairs, find your partner, etc. Can be used for any level and any age group, all you need is a set of cards which can have pictures and or words. You can even get the children to make the cards first, adding an element of listening and spelling.
  • Reading races – another favourite which can be adapted to most levels and ages. Lift the material off the page and add some movement to the lesson. Can be used for reading, grammar or vocabulary exercises, speaking, writing and so on.

There may be little that is new here but maybe one might just be your ‘rabbit’ this week. Have fun!

Author's Bio: Xana is a teacher/teacher trainer in Lisbon. She started teaching in 1984 and training in 1990. She spends most of her time working on CELTA courses, but also trains on IHCAM, DELTA, IHCYLT courses and runs sessions for state school teachers. She has always had a special interest in teaching children and has a MSc in TEYL.