About Alan

I am from the United States, but have been teaching English in Japan for about 10 years. Most of that time has been at my own small, one-teacher classroom, English Alive! My pedagogical philosophy is that learning a language should be an adventure, not a chore.

Spelling Sets


Spelling Sets is a great phonics/spelling (encoding) activity for young learners to do individually. You can make your own by using the printable PDFs I have provided (links below), or using them as a template to make Spelling Sets to fit your students’ particular needs.

You don’t need the playing boards, but if you want to make them, here’s how I made mine:
1. I bought small whiteboards (20 x 30 cm.) that I purchased at Daiso 100 yen shop.
2. I printed the templates out on ‘free cut’ label paper. This is paper that has a backing that gets peeled off to reveal an adhesive side.
3. I cut the paper to fit my boards, peeled the backing off and applied it to the boards. (I put A on one side of each board, and B on the other side.) It was a bit fussy getting them smooth and square, but worth the trouble. The boards have served me well for a few years already.
To make the Spelling Set boards last even longer, you can laminate the sheets after printing—but before cutting and peeling. After laminating, cut the sheet to fit your board. The label paper backing will then easily peel off all in one piece.

To review:
Print → laminate (optional) → cut to fit the boards → stick ’em on!

Click here to go to the PDFs.

How to Make Crossword Puzzles


There are a number of websites that will let you make crossword puzzles for free. (Unfortunately, many are not compatible with Apple/Mac computers.) And there are a number of software programs you can buy as well. (Again, many are not compatible with Apple/Mac.)
But if you want to make nice-looking crosswords that you can manipulate as you wish, without paying for the privilege, this PDF will tell you how. It takes a little time, but if you are going to use the same crossword puzzle over and over, for multiple classes, it’s worth the time. (And it’s fun to do!)

Click here for the PDF:  Making Crosswords PDF

How to Make Puzzles


So you say you want to make puzzle pieces that look nice and are durable? You say you want them to have some thickness and stiffness, some heft when you pick them up, so they feel substantial and are easy to handle? But you don’t want to spend a lot of money, and you don’t want it to take forever to make? Wow! You sure do want a lot!
Fortunately, I have a suggestion. Here is how I make a lot of my puzzles. Of course this process won’t be suitable for all puzzles—it depends on the nature of the puzzle. But this should do the trick for most conventional style puzzles. And this same process can be used for a lot of game pieces as well.

— a computer and printer
— ‘free cut’ label paper
— a cutter
— stiff backing (I use 板目用紙 — “Itame Youshi.”)

Design the puzzle on your computer.
Print it out on the free-cut label paper.
STEP THREE (optional):
Laminate the sheet of label paper. Trim off the edges of the paper. (This will also remove the edges where the two layers of lamination sheet are fused together. Don’t worry. That’s what you want!)
Peel the sticky backing off the label paper and adhere the sheet to the stiff backing.
Carefully cut out your puzzle pieces.
Looks nice. Feels good in the hand. Holds up well through multiple uses.

NOTE: I also recommend color-coding your puzzles if there are multiple sets. They will be easier to organize, and if you have more than one set being used at the same time, it will make it MUCH easier to sort everything out if pieces from different puzzles get mixed up!

The Swinging Door


This story could also be called, “Bad Timing.” It uses a set of images by Gluyas Williams, complemented by narrative text that I wrote.
The PDF has suggested instructions for how to do this activity, as well as the images and text to print out and cut up.
Have fun, and feel free to let me know how it goes, or if you have any suggestions for other ways to use the idea.

The Swinging Door PDF

Five Fabulous Favorites


Here is a link to the handout for my presentation called “Five Fabulous Favorites.” The idea of the presentation was to give a brief introduction to five activities that have proven especially useful in my own teaching.

The five activities are:
Balloon Bump
Textless Storybooks
Spelling Sets *
RPD (Relaxed Pronunciation Dictation) *
Listening Homework *

* NOTE: On the “For Teachers” page of this website, you can find links to separate, more extensive posts on the last three: Spelling Sets, RPD, and Listening Homework.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments you have. I would be happy to hear from you.

Here’s the link to the PDF:  5 Fab Faves PDF

RPD (Relaxed Pronunciation Dictation)


RPD (Relaxed Pronunciation Dictation) is a simple but effective listening exercise to get your students’ ears used to English as it is naturally spoken by (some) native speakers.

Here’s how to do it:
Choose one of the examples from the PDF (or make up one of your own) and repeat it several times while your students write down whatever words they can catch. You may want to slow your speech down a bit, but try not to make it clearer. The whole point is for the students to get used to the phonetic shifts that result in utterances such as “Jeet yet?” (“Did you eat yet?”) You may also want to give, as a hint, a context in which the utterance might be used.
After several iterations of the sentence, I draw blanks on the board—one blank for each word—to show how many words are in the sentence.
Then I like to elicit one word per student at a time, so everyone has a chance to contribute to the solution.
Once it is all on the board for all to see, I first make sure everyone understands the sentence—grammar and vocabulary. Then I show the students what is happening with the phonetic changes.

Although I tend to favor a top-down approach to teaching English, I have found this bottom-up exercise to be very helpful in developing my students’ listening skills.
For more information about the phonetic shifts I am talking about, consult a resource that addresses these issues. I learned most of what I know from Sound Advantage, by Stacy Hagen and Patricia Grogan (1992, Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-816190-9), and Sound Advice, by Stacy Hagen (2000, Longman, ISBN 0-13-081361-3).

Here’s the link to the PDF:  RPD PDF

9 Square


Below is a link to a PDF for the solution to “9-Square”. This is a nine-piece puzzle that looks easy to solve, but is actually very difficult.
Repetition fosters fluency, but can be boring. With this puzzle, the student needs to read the word segments over and over again in order to find the solution to the puzzle. But they will not get tired of it because they will be too engaged with trying the solve the puzzle to notice that they are doing a reading practice drill!
It’s a great puzzle to give to a student who has finished an assigned in-class task sooner than the other students. (It really is challenging. They are very unlikely to solve it before the other students are done with the assigned task!)
Simply cut the larger square up into its nine component squares. To make durable, easy-to-handle puzzle pieces, see the post, “How to Make Puzzles.”
Better yet, just use the configuration in the PDF to fashion your own 9-Square puzzles. This puzzle design can be made easier by removing the ‘orphan’ word segments along the outside edges of the solved puzzle. You could also make a similar “4 Square” puzzle.

Here’s the PDF:  9-Square PDF



Potluck is a puzzle game in which players exchange tiles with each other in order to acquire a set. The concept is very adaptable to a wide range of targets and levels of difficulties.
Here is the link to the PDF of three sets I made: a blue set, a gray set, and a green set. You are welcome to print them out and use them for your own classes. But I encourage you to make sets of your own to fit the size of your classes and the needs of your students.

The simplest way to make the physical pieces (tiles) is to print out a page with a set, then cut along the black guide lines and through the very middle of the color borders. See “How to Make Puzzles” to learn how to make these tiles in a more durable, more tactile-friendly, and easier-to-handle form.

— One set is used per game. As you can see in the sets I have provided, each set consists of several pre-formed sentences. Each sentence is divided into pieces (words or phrases), each on a separate tile, as well as having an image tile associated with it.
— The tiles are placed, face down, in the middle of the playing table. Calculate the number of tiles divided by the number of players, and have each player take that many tiles. (So all tiles will be taken, with each player having the same number.)
— Each player looks at their tiles and decides which ones they don’t need in order to make a set. They discard the ones they don’t want back into the center of the table (the “pot”) face down. However many tiles a player discards, they take that many from the tiles that have been discarded by other players. Each player continues discarding unwanted tiles and drawing new tiles from the pot until they have a set, including the image.
ALTERNATE RULES: Instead of discarding unwanted tiles into the center at will, at a given signal each player passes one tile to the player on their left, as in “Old Maid” or “Babanuki.

Here is the PDF of the three sets mentioned above:  Potluck PDF