Category: Teaching ESL

I paid Google €11.04 to get four people to look at my site

A brief foray into AdWords

Part of the appeal of the whole “let me start a website and try to monetize it” thing is getting a look behind the scene at how these financial mechanisms of the Internet work. My life has exposed my quite a lot to the technical mechanisms of the Internet, but I only vaguely knew that “advertising is big business.”

So, having declared the website to be officially finished (I now have a list of changes I want to make, so … whatever), I rationalized it was time to try and get some users who I don’t know.

I opened an account with Google’s AdWords.

The process of opening the account was painless, and making the ad was just like the YouTube tutorials I watched. However, it wasn’t easy because I tend to be a long-form writer, not the kind of guy who gets things said in six words. (Have you noticed that about me?)

Still, I got the add made, I was happy. This is how it looked:


(Fun fact: having that inline here still makes some part of my brain crazy, as I can feel myself trying not to read it.)

Advertising is expensive

I tried searches with the keywords I decided to market against. There were no ads shown to me (thinking my adblocking software might be the reason, it tried it in incognito mode and Firefox), it seemed reasonable to think that I wasn’t competing against many people in Google’s complex ad-auctioning system.

I set the price to €6/day for three days. It seemed like money I could afford, and it was hard to know what to expect.


My brief ad campaign

You can see how things went. Two dollars per click seems like a lot of money. Especially considering, when it was finished, I checked and there were no new user accounts, meaning people came, looked, and were not interested.

What I think I’ve learned

So, what have I learned? Well, I re-examined the landing page and have decided that it needs to be polished. I’d like it to reflect me as a person doing a thing more than looking like some impersonal internet software. After all, I’m a likable guy, right?

Further, I think it needs to more quickly move into the information of what can this site do for you? Because, humility aside, I think I have a compelling argument for the site being really useful.

My mistake, I think, was that, although I know I need the opinions of people who don’t know me, I didn’t put myself in the headspace of someone coming to the site.

The next campaign

I don’t know when it will be. I mean, I have some work to get done, some behind-the-scenes things I’m still working on (I’d like to be able to add resources, outside the worksheet creation process) and I still teach English more or less full time.

Still, when I come back to this, I’m going to target all of Germany, rather than my region, and use more limited keywords, rationalizing that people who come to the site looking for EFL vocab worksheets are more likely to be interested in what I have to offer than people who want EFL grammar worksheets (which my site does not create).

I’ll keep you posted.


The absurd business worksheets

The worksheets

A while back, I mentioned that I was making business worksheets. The idea has been to find some sort of “business worksheet” that does the following thing:

  • Engage my students so that they don’t shut down and go into passive mode
  • Cover grammar in a “business context” so that I can say it is relevant
  • Include business vocabulary

I approached this the way I approach everything: as a chance to be a clown. The worksheets are a collection of prose ‘business stories’ (or emails) illustrating the grammar/point in question and exercises based on that grammar. The stories and emails, however, are completely absurd.

Besides my own personal love of absurdity, I value it for two reasons: it brings some levity to the classroom and, second, it allows me to admit that I don’t know anything about their work in a practical way. We always finish the story with me saying “this is how I imagine your job…”

The post linked above includes one example, but here’s another.

This is not so much typical, as one of my favorites (also from the worksheet series focused on the passive voice). It follows the adventures of a fictional Customer Service Representative named Fritzilinde:

“The ‘Grammatik der Liebe‘ album has to be delivered on Friday,” she said to her colleagues in the creative department. “The customer wants to know if we’ll make the deadline.”

Her colleague made a face. “It should be finished on time…”

Fritzilinde cut him off. “Should isn’t good enough. What do you need to get it finished?”

Another colleague stopped mixing ketchup into his vodka and said “What he means to say is that it will be finished, if the muse inspires us.” He looked at the bottle in front of him. “And this is our last bottle of muse. So, it could be delivered on time, if this is enough.”

Fritzilinde went to his desk, took the bottle and held it in front of his face. “Listen to me, it is going to be delivered on time. I know that, because, if it’s not, I’ll take this bottle and stick it so far up your behind that you’ll need your muse and a powerful flashlight to find it.”

The Reception

When I made the worksheets, I had some specific groups in mind. The ones I like to laugh with. Originally, I thought that I’d rewrite the stories to match the tone of the more straight-laced groups. But, as things go, I “didn’t have time.”

So, all of my business groups (and several advanced evening groups) have had at least some of these worksheets.

And they were a resounding success.

I credit that to a few things.

First, I have learned that people genuinely enjoy the absurdity, if only to say “I know colleagues like that” or “is that what you think human resources does, Toby?” Everyone has some idea of the fact that their work is undervalued by people who don’t do it, so these sorts of jokes are great.

Second, there is a pretty boring component to the worksheets. I don’t make much of it here, because it’s not much to write about, but after each story introduces something, there are boring activities reinforcing what the story was supposed to introduce. Following the story above, there are activities matching modal verbs to probabilities as well as exercises with more ‘normal’ vocabulary. (“The product is going to be replaced by the more expensive SuperProduct 3000.”)

Third, they include brainstorm activities. Like worksheets downloaded from the internet, these are kept deliberately general. I’ve found that the ideal solution is to include some sort of brainstorming activity in which the students list their own vocabulary (for the passive, this is a table of tools they use and associated verbs).

Lastly, the trick is to combine the ‘generic’ worksheets with specific exercises. Using the vocabulary gained in the brainstorming, and in addition to the worksheets, I prepare a translation exercise using that vocabulary which, if I do it well, comes pretty close to language they would actually produce, or can imagine themselves producing. And that brings the exercise from a sense of abstract detachment (the absurd story) gradually to a feeling of hands-on practice (the customized exercises).

All of that, I think, has made for a series of successful worksheets.

The power of refinement

Something I’d like to tag on at the end here is that I think a value to using one set of worksheets for many different groups is that I take the time to go back and expand upon them, improving them as I realize what didn’t work.

An example is that I added a whole worksheet to the processes collection of worksheets to focus on the present perfect. (And, to be honest, it wouldn’t hurt to add at least two extra worksheets that focus only on negations and questions using the grammar covered, if I were to have unlimited time).

That means that my ‘generic’ worksheets have grown into a pretty decent tool which, coupled with my vocab worksheet generator for vocab review means that I’m only occasionally making really great, tailored activities, but maximizing my results.

Picture Memory


Adding images to was something I wanted to take care of in a ‘version 2.0’ or some other, later ‘new and improved’ update to the site. There are a lot of small things I want to clean up before soliciting users again.

However, I recently found out that I’ll be teaching a beginner’s class (the last ‘beginners’ I taught are now A2 and don’t really need pictures) and I figured that I’d better get the image activities working. After all, I’m the guy who beta-tests everything, and this seemed like an ideal opportunity to beta-test.

With that in mind, I’d like to announce that two of my groups will be playing picture memory tomorrow. (And, sadly, they probably won’t even appreciate that I’m excited about even having the activity to do.)

I got the basics done pretty quickly over two or three days. And, while there are still things to get done (right now users can create ‘translation memory’ or ‘picture memory,’ why not make a mixed mode that uses pictures where available and translations where they aren’t?) I’m back to focusing on ‘cleaning up’ the site to start asking people to try it.

Soon, I hope, I can report that I’m taking the next step.

If you want to teach English, be ready to learn

I’m going to say right now that I’m not a normal teacher. I didn’t like school, I wasn’t big on university, and I certainly didn’t want to be a teacher.

And, I believe, that’s part of why I’m a good teacher.

Why “teaching” doesn’t work

For better or for worse, the people I teach have been conditioned by years of experience that teachers teach and learners learn. And, as soon as they recognize that I’m teaching, most of their brain shuts down and they go into ‘learner mode’ which is just a step above ‘hibernation.’

And, learning (and teaching) does take place, but it’s an uphill, grinding process.

Sometimes, it’s what students need. But, I’m lucky that I hate doing it as much as they do, and they can see that. Then, they’re willing to accept that it’s something that I, in my professional opinion, think is necessary and know I’ll try to get us through it as quickly as possible.

The important thing is this: nobody thinks that I shift to ‘teacher mode’ to avoid demonstrating my ignorance of their work.

Learning is a better model

First, most EFL teachers will agree that we never understood English grammar so well as when we started teaching it. There’s something about teaching that makes you really understand a thing.

Once my students are able to start putting coherent sentences together, they learn a lot more if I ask them to teach me. Then, building on the fact that they’re fully engaged in trying to explain something — with pictures and gestures as well as with language — they’re quick to pick up vocab. (I only have to introduce the word ‘screw’ once, if it’s important for explaining how to use their product.)

This builds on a few things. First and foremost, most people in highly specialized jobs are used to (but not happy with) being surrounded by people who say “this is my husband, he is an engineer but I don’t really understand what he does.” They’re ready for someone to want to understand.

Second, most people are, by their nature, helpful. If I can find something even tangentially related and can genuinely need their help, they’re engaged and motivated to use the language.

How to be a teacher who learns

The trick, I think, is to be humble and curious. There is no shame in saying “I don’t understand your work, but I understand practicing an instrument. Is it like that?”

The first lesson or three with me is generally spent getting to know the person, of course, and establishing what they’re goals are, but my agenda is mostly to find the things about their job that I think are interesting. Once I have found those, I try to ‘master’ them if I can (“take me to your desk and show me how you do this”) and get to understanding other parts of their job relative to them.

I am blessed in that I enjoy building up my mental model of the world, and can be fascinated by the design processes of battery systems because they help me think about other things better. If you’re not naturally curious, I suggest you figure out how to be unnaturally curious.

An example

I will be restarting private lessons with a woman who works as the head of the accounting department in a company nearby. In the last block of lessons, she was willing to endure book exercises, but only really spontaneously used vocab when talking about sports (not what she was paying me to get better at discussing) or teaching me to appreciate the nuances of finance.

If I could find a newspaper story about a company selling its building and leasing it back, I knew I had an hour of conversation just by going in and saying “why does this make sense?” She was proud of what she did and happy to show me why some things that seem counter-intuitive (why sell something that you know you will need) actually can make sense.

As I approach restarting the lessons and I need a plan, I know we’ll stick with the book we had, but I bought myself a copy of Financial Intelligence for Entrepreneurs. If I ever want to be an entrepreneur I need to learn it, and I know that I’ll have conversation material for a half year’s worth of lessons.

Branding, or how much material can you copy from the Internet?

I’m going to sit now in judgment on other English teachers. I think that most of them make one of two opposing mistakes:

  1. Everything comes from the Internet. Their students experience the lessons as a hodge-podge of formats and headers. The general impression that students have is ‘All Toby does is print stuff off from the Internet.’
  2. They make everything themselves. The people I have seen do this generally have pretty abysmal formatting, but they make great resources tailored to each group. The groups are impressed with the work they put into preparation and would happily recommend them to friends and colleagues, but the teacher is so swamped with preparation, that they don’t have time for more lessons.

As a guy who wants to make a resource to create worksheets on the Internet, I’m very aware of the risks of over-relying on downloaded (or photocopied) resources. Students do not value your talent in leading a conversation, introducing vocabulary, and explaining grammar. The best teachers make it seem so effortless, that most students won’t appreciate the effort you invest until they try to teach their own native language.

And, of course, going the other route and just doing everything yourself is great… for one group, but not for twenty or thirty. (Not if you also want to learn to code, have writing projects, make music… This post is basically aimed at me.) What’s more, when I create a resource for only one group, we always find typos, and there is no point correcting them because nobody will ever see it again. This means that everyone basically sees the first draft of everything. I make a pretty good first draft, but the second draft is always better.

The first pillar of my solution: I use stuff from the Internet. But I have also become very proactive about communicating in the I form what my plans are, and on what basis I’ve made them. And that I got some resources to help us with whatever. Here are some things that I have said in my lessons:

Steffen, Mary, and yes, sometimes you Bert, have been making the ‘He, she, it — s muss mit’ mistake and I know that you know it. But we’re going to drill it a bit more in the next lessons to help make it automatic.


Normally, I’m happiest when you don’t make mistakes, but I’m glad you made that one because it brings me to something I want to talk about: the passive voice!

I know you all love grammar, but it’s important to master this if you want to talk about processes…

The goal in these little chats is to explain that I am a professional who has a plan, and not just a guy who was lucky enough to grow up speaking the language they are paying to learn.

The second pillar of my solution: With my worksheet generator (mostly) finished, I’m focusing this year on creating worksheets that are highly reusable, and yet tailored to me. The goal is to make it clear that I made the resources and to make them so quirky that it feels tailor-made for my classes. (Which are, fortunately, all quirky.)

The way I’m approaching this goal is by using two kinds of text in the worksheets. There are the absurd texts that I write, illustrating the use of the structures to be practiced. (See this example.) And there are the ‘drill texts’ in which the students fill in the blank, or complete the sentence, or translate from German, or whatever… and these are (almost) entirely boring, could-be-copied-from-the-internet bland.

The goal is to make something that confronts students with the vocabulary and structures they need and is still uniquely me. Then, after one group finds a typo, I can correct it and use it with another group. Because I teach in three different schools, I make them without a header and just paste in the header I made for the appropriate school.

In summary: I’m only about two months in, on using the second pillar of the solution. Nonetheless, the first results are positive and, combined with using my dynamically generated worksheets (which are, being made by me, also quirky) with the appropriate header on them. (That’s automatic with my great website!)

Making business worksheets

Not long ago, I wrote about the “imposter syndrome” I feel when I try to teach Business English. Don’t worry, I certainly still feel that way.

However, my goal this year is to go from simply saying “it’s all English, master this grammar and then use it in a business context” to showing it. And, to that end, I’m actually making business worksheets focusing on a specific grammar and using ‘business texts.’

However, to avoid getting caught in the situation where I write about things I don’t know, these worksheets follow fictional companies in ridiculous industries (the collection I’m working in for emailing follows a business in the “world domination” sector).

Here’s one of my favorite example texts, from a worksheet focused on using the passive to describe processes.

Hits are made at the Ohmpah Express! Internationally famous groups such as the Grammar Junkies and the Homework Heroes were discovered by the talent scouts of The Ohmpah Express and their unique sounds were developed in weeks of workshops with our ‘rock doctors.’

At The Ohmpah Express, we don’t wait for music to happen. Here, music is made. The musical demands of next summer are predicted now, using complicated statistical models. Rhythms, lyrics and songs are carefully constructed using advanced aritifical intilligence (and some alcohol intelligence) and refined until they’re guaranteed to sell out stadium concerts the world over.

Then, these songs are delivered to the talent we have developed in-house and are turned into platinum-selling albums.

I’m happy to report that the worksheets have had the best resonance of any I’ve used for ‘Business English.’ Partly, that’s because my students know me and we all laugh at the absurdity of these businesses, and it’s partly because my texts still come across a lot of vocabulary that they find useful in a business context (‘proprietary algorithms,’ ‘generate reports from user data’)

If you’re struggling with adapting texts to your students, the lesson to me seems to be adapting the texts to you, and inviting your students along for the ride.

Having the same conversation seven times

I’ve been thinking about what I can say that is of value to people who are considering becoming EFL teachers. I have a niece who wants to live in Europe and thinks teaching EFL can be her ticket. I told her two things:

  1. Learn another job in the U.S., because the most in-demand teachers are the ones who have experience in something else, and can teach specialist vocabulary. Also, because…
  2. I don’t think my job will be around in the future. Machine translation will be a much more affordable way to do the communication that I teach most. Sure, it won’t help much in vacations, but the people who pay for my work, bosses don’t care about their employees’ vacation experience. For what they want, machine translation will be great.

However, I’m collecting a couple of tips that I think might help people who are thinking of teaching EFL or are starting off. Today’s tip is this:

Get good at having the same conversation fifteen times, but making the person you are talking to feel like you’re having it for the first time.

No joke, I think this is my greatest strength as a teacher. It saves me thinking of something to speak about for every lesson, and the students think I’m the fun teacher who always has a different, wacky idea.

Even more, after you have the conversation twice, when you go into the third group you’ll know better which questions to ask, you’ll be able to provoke conversation with “you know, I’ve heard…”

A go-to conversation topic for me.

An example I have is talking about when to say “Hello” in Germany. I think this sounds absurd to Germans and people who haven’t lived in Germany, but I can do a good job of moving from one point to the next in this conversation spontaneously, as though I’m asking this question for the first time. I should point out, my style is much more conversational than this, but here are the major points in the conversation:

  1. In the U.S., when I studied German, my professors taught us the words “Guten Tag,” and then emphasized that we should never greet strangers in German. “It’s the fastest way to let them know you’re not from Germany.” Do you think that’s true?
  2. Here’s the thing, I’ve been thinking about this, because my wife — who you know is German — absolutely hates one of our neighbors because “she can’t open her mouth to say hello.” Why would she hate her for not doing something she shouldn’t do?
  3. So I should say hello to my neighbors? Even if I see them downtown, shopping?
  4. If I see you guys when you’re shopping, should I say hello?
    1. From what distance? I mean, I have no problem yelling across the street “Hey, Marcus, it’s me, the English teacher” and waving, but I don’t see other people doing it…
  5. Now that I’m thinking about it, people say “Hello” when they walk into the Doctor’s office. What’s up with that?
    1. Are there other places I should say hello?
  6. My mother-in-law greets every hiker we pass when we’re hiking. Is that normal?
    1. Should bikers greet each other? What about joggers? What if I’m walking with a stroller, should I wave to other people with strollers?
  7. Okay, thanks… I think you’ve helped me in my goal to become a little more German. I really appreciate it.

The think about this conversation is that I’ve found people love being helpful. And so, I like to give them the chance. You can see in reading this that the conversation is based on an actual question that I once had.

My strength is in letting people help me again and again. I think it’s once you should develop, too.