Teacher zone: how to make language classes engaging

As experts in the language education industry, Cactus has over 15 years’ experience designing and implementing language courses. If you have a language learning or language teaching query that you can’t find the answer to, please get in contact with us either by Facebook or by Twitter or contact us here.

In line with our new teacher training courses for foreign languages, we’re bringing you our best tips for how to make your language classes engaging.

  1. Activate Schemata

Whatever your lesson aims, find out what your students already know about the target language/topic. This shows you, the teacher, the language your students already have, encourages revision and recycling, and is good opportunity for some peer teaching and peer correction. It also shows your students what they lack, and shows them the language they don’t have, thereby creating a need for that language, which in turn motivates them to participate in the activities that follow – “I don’t know how to say this, I need to pay attention here!”. Activating schemata benefits both the teacher and the students on many levels. Images, realia, discussion questions, what happens next and problem-solving questions are some ways of activating schemata.

  1. Personalise your activities

Generally people prefer to talk about themselves, or about what they know. Remember – if someone doesn’t have a lot to say about a topic in their own language, they will have even less to say in a foreign language. By personalising your activities and finding a way for your learners to relate the questions to themselves, their lives, their experiences and their opinions, you will find that they have a lot more to say, and will be much more engaged.

  1. Vary Interaction Patterns

Increasing student talking time and reducing teacher talking time is key to maintaining students’ engagement levels and ensuring they progress at a good speed. However, it’s also important to remember to change things up – people don’t want to be working with or talking to the same person all the time. So change the pairs around, do the activities in groups of 3 or 4, change the classroom set up and physical arrangement. Keep things interesting by not being predictable.

  1. Cater for different learn styles

People learn in different ways so it is important to cover all bases by including a variety of activities that cater for different learner styles. Remember to have a good balance between aural, visual and kinesthetic tasks – this will keep your students engaged and also ensure that their learner style needs are being met. If you’re in a classroom that cannot accommodate a running dictation then get students to the board for feedback – you can incorporate ‘catering for different learner styles’ at all stages of the task cycle.

  1. Be Interested

Don’t use materials or activities you find boring, tedious or pointless. If you don’t like the materials or activities then this will show, and your students will not like them either. Be interested in what you are teaching and who you are teaching, and your students will be interested in what is being taught. Sometimes it is difficult to maintain enthusiasm for topics or language points you have taught many times before – so find different materials to teach the target language. Use authentic materials, take information from the internet, video clips, music, YouTube, TED talks etc. Bring the outside world into the classroom and your students will relate and participate fully.

Cactus has a wealth of information and tips on language teaching. Visit our blog or sign up to our newsletter for further information about language learning and teaching.

Of course, you can always call us on 00 44 (0) 1273 830 960 for information and advice on anything related to languages.

5 reasons why learning Spanish will make you thin

Yes, you read it right. Forget going to the gym. If you want to make yourself attractive, make it your new year’s resolution to learn Spanish!  Here’s why…

1. Learning Spanish burns calories! Make your brain work and the mere process of thinking will suck up glucose and oxygen from the bloodstream. Flexing your mental muscle to learn a new skill will also give you a natural endorphin high that will make you feel good about yourself – bonus!

2. Spanish food is more healthy than many Western diets. It’s long been known that a Mediterranean diet offers numerous health benefits such as reduced heart disease, blood pressure and diabetes. Rich in fresh vegetables, fruit, pulses and unsaturated fat from oil and nuts, you are also likely to lose weight eating these low GI foods.

3. Spanish nightlife makes you burn energy! Anyone who has spent time in Spain or Latin America will know that the night starts late, and goes on until the early hours. It’s completely normal to dance the night away with nothing but a bottle of water in hand, collapse in bed as the sun is rising…and then go on to do it all again the next night. Infinitely more fun than any treadmill.

4. As many Spanish-speaking countries boast a warm climate, you are likely to wear less and therefore be more aware of your body. You’ll also be surrounded by typically attractive people and this will have a subliminal effect of re-programming your brain’s ideal body image, giving you impetus to tone up.

5. If you are living in or visiting a Spanish-speaking country – which you are more likely to do if you are learning the language – you are likely to burn more energy than back home. Travel through South America and you’ll be on foot, bike or skis exploring new places. Take a city break in Barcelona and you’ll be moving between shops, cafés, museums and beaches. Take a Spanish course and you’ll be walking to and from the language school each day and visiting places of interest without even thinking about the exercise.

And last but not least – and not necessarily a way to lose weight – your newfound Spanish skills will earn you street cred. Who’s not impressed when someone pipes up with a line in Spanish whilst on holiday or at work when a foreign client drops by? Learning Spanish will keep you in shape long after your biceps have withered.


Cactus offers Spanish courses in Spain and countries across Latin America. We also run Spanish evening courses for adults and Spanish afternoon courses for children aged 7-15 in London and locations across the UK.

Bilingual market research for Mexican and Indian nationals in London

Given our large number of language learners across diverse nationalities, we’d like to offer our customers the opportunity to help market research company Saros in their search for bilingual people in London.

Saros is specifically looking for Mexican and Indian nationals, and therefore Spanish and Hindi speakers.

The project requires Mexican and Indian nationals in and around London to take part in a 90-minute study about being bilingual. English must be the second language.

Participants need to complete a screener form and, if selected, in-home interviews lasting 90 minutes will take place during the weeks commencing 30th June and 7th July 2014. The thank you payment for taking part is £50.

Please click on the following link for more information and to complete the screener form:

Bilingual market research for Saros: Mexican and Indian nationals

Language opens the door to new markets: the increase in Brazilian Portuguese, Turkish and Korean

Diversifying into new markets is a smart way for businesses to survive in hard times; having the appropriate language skills is key to tapping into these markets and forming long-term partnerships.

A few years ago we spoke about the increasing importance of Arabic, Russian and Mandarin as languages that were opening the door to valuable, developing markets – markets that were less affected by the latest global recession and which had the ability to maximise the earning potential of traditional western economies. These languages have indeed proved to be key in establishing successful business relationships with Russia, China and the Arab world, investments that will reap long-term reward.

It is now time to turn our head towards new markets that may for the same reason represent a smart business move in the current economic climate.

Brazil: Brazilian Portuguese

A prime contender here is Brazil, home to Brazilian Portuguese, and host country to major worldwide sporting events including next year’s FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. This vast South American country may have experienced a slight decrease in growth over the last year, but with the world’s eyes set on Brazil for a good few years to come and its status as one of the advancing BRICS economies, it is unlikely to lose its place in the spotlight. Brazilian Portuguese is certainly a popular language at Cactus, with students taking evening courses mostly for work reasons – a positive sign of commercial investment in the country and recognition of the need to communicate in the local language rather than relying on our own. With Brazilian Portuguese being spoken by nearly all of Brazil’s 200 million inhabitants, and the language rated as Category 1 difficulty for English speakers to learn (Category 1 being the easiest, Category 3 the most difficult*), that makes a lot of extra people you can do business with, relatively easily.

Turkey: Turkish

Second on our list of markets to watch is Turkey. A rich historical land sitting on the European-Asian divide, it is Turkey’s imminent accession to the EU that promises a significant leap in business potential. As has been witnessed with other member states, the country can expect increased overseas investment and access to economic development aid, both of which should drive economic growth.

It’s fair to say, however, that Turkey has been enjoying something of a transformation even before their EU membership comes into effect. Slowly appearing amongst Istanbul’s extravagant Ottoman mosques and exotic bazaars are ultra-modern shopping malls, fashionable bars and sleek art galleries, all frequented by a young and culturally diverse crowd who have money and time to spend it; in turn, this makes Istanbul an attractive city break for foreigners, bringing in additional foreign currency.

Turkish is a language with over 63 million native speakers and is generally classified as a language of Category 2* difficulty for English speakers. For a country such as Turkey with strong cultural traditions and deeply rooted beliefs, the ability to communicate on a personal level through knowledge of Turkish gives anyone considering doing business here a distinct advantage.

South Korea: Korean

Finally, our look at emerging markets turns to Asia. While China’s growth shows signs of slowing, its trading partner South Korea last month (July 2013) boasted its fastest growth rate in over two years. This is partly thanks to the country being home to some of the world’s most successful hi-tech and manufacturing corporations – Samsung and Hyundai Motors among them – which contribute to South Korea’s buoyant export figures. As a language to invest in, Korean is rated at Category 3* difficulty for English speakers so more time and money is required to achieve a proficient working knowledge of the language. That said, the effort to speak the local language is rarely more appreciated than it is in Asia, especially in the business environment. Add to this the fact that linguistic training invariably includes an appreciation of the relevant social and cultural contexts and building bridges with a new market such as South Korea becomes far more feasible.

The British Foreign Office has recently re-opened its language centre and is dedicating more funding to linguistic training, believing that senior diplomats working abroad command much greater respect and credibility when they can speak the language of the country where they work. The same goes for businesses wishing to expand into new markets; having a workforce who can communicate with the locals in an overseas posting puts them streets ahead, not only in terms of business success but also on a more personal level of settling into a new territory should they be relocating.

* International bodies including the British Foreign Office and the US Foreign Service Institute grade languages according to their difficulty, assuming that students are native speakers of English: Category 1 (most similarity to English; mostly Western European languages); Category 2 (siginificant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English); Category 3 (exceptionally difficult, primarily due to the complex writing system).

Cactus specialises in organising language courses for individuals and groups, having done so since 1999 for clients all over the globe and for diverse needs and budgets. Our expertise in the field of face-to-face tuition is second-to-none. With an extensive network of approved teachers and a strong in-house academic team, we are able to tailor a language course to suit your specific learning needs, anywhere in the world and whenever is convenient to you.

Pen friendship – A fun way to practice your language and make the world a friendlier place

Malcolm was a student who took one of our Spanish courses in Valencia, Spain. Malcolm is part of the International Friendship League (IFL) which is a voluntary organisation that encourages people from around the world to get to know one another through a range of activities including pen-friendship, email, travel, hospitality and social activities.

The IFL is an international group of people who are keen to make the world a friendlier place through encouraging friendships and understanding between people of all cultures. They believe that through cross-cultural communication and understanding we can promote peace and international friendship, whatever your country of origin or race.

The idea of international penfriendship matched perfectly the ideals of IFL and soon hundreds of people from many different countries have got to know each other through IFL: ‘Initially people start by writing letters to each other but often the friendship leads to e-mail exchange, telephone calls and visits. Some pen friends have even got married!’

We think it’s a wonderful idea, not only for its potential to promote peace and cross-cultural communication but as a fun way to help you improve your language skills and learn more about the culture behind the language. There are IFL groups in Britain, France, Sweden, Portugal, Uganda, Zambia, Kenya, Senegal and the Seychelles and new groups are starting up in several other countries. In many other countries worldwide there are individual IFL members.

To learn more about the International Friendship League and how you can get involved, please visit their website.

Winner of the Cactus 2011, Suzanne Furstner Foundation Scholarship, talks about her CELTA course.

Suzanne Furstner Scholarship 2011 – Winner’s Review

It was a Friday evening when I was sitting in the library with some of my colleagues, after having worked non-stop all week. We were researching for an assignment, furiously reading and taking notes, when from behind a tall stack of books a voice calmly stated that at that moment, the rest of the world was probably enjoying a cold beer and some well-deserved R & R. We barely entertained the idea, concluding that whilst it was attractive we had our work cut out for us, and so we dropped our eyes back to the books, saving our cervesas for another day. Such is the life of a CELTA trainee.

barcelonaIn February 2012, I attended the Cambridge CELTA course at International House Barcelona, one of the most reputable teacher training centres in the world. Made possible by the generosity of Cactus TEFL’s Suzanne Furstner Scholarship, the course was a rich and rewarding experience for me. Four-weeks of full-time training was made up of input sessions (a sort-of mix of workshops and lectures) and teaching practice, with the evening hours dedicated to lesson planning and completing written assignments. I received continuous support and direction from the course tutors, each of whom brought to the training room their years of teaching experience.

My class of 18 CELTA candidates was made up of individuals from the UK, the EU, the USA and Ireland, with me, the Australian, being the furthest from home. Some of my classmates were preparing to enter the workforce for the first time, whilst others were looking for a change in career and lifestyle. The training room was a fun learning environment from Day One, when an ongoing impromptu comedy routine was birthed due to an unusually high number of witty personalities in our group.

My expectations of the course had been set-up by a friend in London who had earlier completed his CELTA, and whose forewarning of long days and an intense transformation period proved to be true. I had experienced teaching English for a short stint before the course and was acutely aware of my need for quality training. I found the CELTA methodology to be both stretching and awakening, and unlike other candidates without prior experience I had to unlearn a few bad habits and replace them with ‘new and improved’ techniques.

An example of an area of learning for me was with regards to developing flexibility in the role of teacher. I devoted a lot of time to preparing my lessons, and sometimes the lessons didn’t go according to plan, either because of an aspect I had overlooked in my planning or because of a class dynamic which effected a change in direction. This experience taught me to ‘let go’ a bit as a teacher, to be guided by the students and to allow and encourage organic developments to occur. It taught me that being prepared for a lesson is equally as important as being ready to respond to its natural flow and momentum.

At the completion of the course, our group enjoyed dinner together at a restaurant to celebrate our success and hard work. A few of my classmates shared how they questioned if teaching English was the job for them, because in a course of such intensity you really have to work relentlessly from woe to go. However to live the CELTA as your every day life would be impossible; it’s an intensive training period crammed with all the content and practice you need to start working. The course is challenging but the end result is worthwhile; teaching is a rewarding and fun job that helps others, and having a CELTA opens up doors to employment in many countries around the world. As for me, I came to Barcelona exclusively to attain the CELTA, and five months later, I’m still here, nurturing my love of coffee and drinking in the beauty of this city. And when I’m not riding my bike or trying to improve my Spanish, I’m in the classroom, teaching English.

Cactus TEFL is an admissions and advice service for quality teacher training courses worldwide. Cactus works with well-known course providers to offer CELTA, TESOL, equivalent and online courses in over 90 locations across 36 countries. Cactus TEFL also offers free post-course careers advice and support, as well as access to our very own TEFL jobs board and job alerts. The next Suzanne Furstner Scholarship will be in 2016.


Congratulations to our evening language course winner! April-July 2011

At Cactus we have come to the end of another term of evening courses, and are delighted to have chosen the winner of our feedback questionnaire prize. This is awarded to the person who we feel has given us the most useful and structured feedback, upon completion of their course, and the prize is a refund of their course fees.

In this case our winner, Geri Tuneva, will be taking a continuation course with Cactus, and so rather than receive a refund she has opted to receive a complimentary subsequent course from Cactus.

Geri took a Level 1 10-week evening course in Spanish at our centre in Kings Cross, London, with teacher Aurea Ruiz Marcos. All in all she found her course to be excellent and scored an outstanding 5/5 for each category. We haven’t picked Geri simply because she enjoyed her course, however; Geri gave useful feedback and suggestions that our team has taken on board, especially relating to our course materials and Facebook profile. Thank you Geri and we hope you enjoy your next course!

Language learning resources you find useful: “The podcasts you provided were really useful as it gave us some more to the classes than we could get in the 2 hours we had per lesson. Also, it gave us a chance to practice and think about pronounciation”.

Course: (5/5) ”The course was excellent and I really enjoyed each lesson. The classmates were really fun which lead to a great learning environment.

Content comments
: (5/5) “The content was generally great, there were some lessons that were much harder than others, it would be great to challenge us in each lesson. However overall it was all great and is a good beginners course as it covers basic things you need to get by when speaking with in Spanish”.

Teacher comments: (5/5) “Auri was amazing, really lovely and she made an effort to make us use more than 1 sense in order to learn more quickly – one of the exercises was to have us blindfolded and for us to be guided around an obstacle course. What a great idea, really fun and we definitely learned how to give directions in Spanish!!

Materials comments: (5/5) “The coursebook was really good, simple and understandable.”

School comments: (5/5) “So far you guys have answered all my emails promptly, even when I didn’t expect it, and this effort on your part really shows. Well done!

Language Minis comments: (5/5) “These did not follow the course structure exactly, but this was good as we learned some new things from the podcasts we didn’t get a chance to cover in class”.

Value for money comments: (5/5) “For the price I think this is a great course, and the great thing is that the textbook is included in the price. This is a big selling point of yours and you should promote it as much as you can”.

I really enjoyed…The whole course – Auri was fantastic, my classmates were great and the Kings Cross facilities were generally great too (apart from the toilets which were consistently out of toilet paper and soap). I really liked the structure of how were sitting – in a circle, as it felt like we could all contribute to the class openly”.

I didn’t like…The fact that the course books were so late, but I understand this was not your fault. The electric blackboard was giving us many problems as it was hard to use (especially if you are not very tall!). Other than that everything was pretty spot on!

I would have liked…The listening exercises were really good as it gave us a chance to hear how fast Spanish people speak, making it a bit harder than in class (but more realistic). We could have had a few more listening exercises, as I think this is really useful. In class we speak slowly and we all know the material we have covered – the listening exercises move us out of our comfort zone a bit more”.

Have you made any progress?Yes. I was a complete beginner before I started, I had never had a Spanish lesson in my life. Now I can talk about myself and my family and friends, give directions, talk about my likes and dislikes, etc. (all in present tense of course!!) 🙂 It feels great to get so far in 10 weeks of classes, and I feel very prepared for my trip to Spain this summer!

Would you recommend Cactus to others?I have already been recommending you guys to all my friends, and I know that at least 2 people will be booking their next language course with you.”

Why did you choose this course / Cactus?You guys have a very professional website which is very reassuring. You are such a big company but you are very responsive and it feels like you are a small company – which is great as you have a big reputation that you are clearly upholding. You should promote the fact that you are in so many countries and have such a great reputation a bit more – as this is one of the most reassuring things for people looking to start a new language.”

Any other comments
: “It would be great if you guys had a forum or better yet a Facebook group for each language where people could join and practice the language as well as meet others with the same interests. I would like to meet other students on higher Spanish courses, not just beginners, as this is great for practicing but also for keeping in touch with people you’ve met along the way. We created our own Facebook group for our class where we post things in Spanish that we find and think are useful – this is really good as it engages you with Cactus and with your classmates even outside of class. This would be great for your branding and web presence”.

Cactus runs evening and part-time language courses in 41 locations and 24 languages across the UK. Courses are available at all levels, from beginners to advanced, and start on regular start dates throughout the year.

Can language help teams cross the cultural divide?

With domestic workforces becoming more ethnically and linguistically diverse, and companies of all sizes increasingly tapping into foreign markets, today’s average business will typically list employees of mixed nationality and race. English may no longer be the dominant language, and personal values may range from compatible to conflicting. That these people get on and understand each other, both in the spoken word and in deeper beliefs, is paramount to the business’ success.

Over the past few decades, ever-advancing technology and cheaper foreign travel have made the world progressively smaller. Even in times of recession it makes good business sense to exploit this heightened accessibility by penetrating emerging markets that are less affected by the crises currently crippling western economies. In fact there is almost no reason for a business not to expand into foreign territory, hence the now common practice of international mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures and offshoring. With this often comes relocation of staff for short or longer-term stints, the transfer of skills between countries, and in effect a workforce with huge potential for growth and success.

It would however be naïve to enter foreign waters ill equipped. There is no quicker way to widen the cultural divide than to march into a foreign business or culture and expect them to adopt your language and customs to the detriment of theirs. Successful partnerships, whether with a new or existing market, depend on relationship building, and these relationships can only be formed with a degree of linguistic and cultural awareness.

Language training is key to opening communication channels and to maintaining the free flow of information and ideas within a business environment. Study of any language also naturally embraces the culture or cultures associated with it; you may for example learn about a country’s food or art, government or geography. Even basic etiquette such as greetings, socialising, time-keeping, dress and body language – each of which hold ample scope for faux pas – may be covered through linguistic development, as this often goes hand in hand with cultural sensitivities. Finally, on a practical level, the natural knock-on effect of improved verbal, written, reading and listening skills that come from learning another language will only enhance team communication further.

If organising language training for your company, it is advisable to tailor-make classes so they are geared towards the specific needs of your industry and target market, and thus cover cultural particularities at the same time. This will give staff the skills necessary to build sustainable long-term relationships, manage teams based in different offices around the world and reduce culture shock for any incoming and outgoing workforce. The resulting pooling of talents under a common language can only serve to boost a company’s productivity and inner harmony.

It is with this type of investment that language can go a long way towards bridging the cultural divide.

Setting a good example: Prince William parle français

There are few things more quintessentially British than the monarchy, but the recent royal newlyweds were less than British in character as they greeted the Canadian public last week. Addressing an enthusiastic crowd in Ottawa during a tour of Canada with his new wife, Prince William broke with British stereotype by speaking not just English, but French too. The traditional image of Brits abroad talking brazenly in their own language, or at best fumbling with an order for dos cervezas, was cast aside instantly as William spoke slowly, apologetically but admittedly very well, to his Canadian audience in French.

The cheer that erupted as the first words in French rolled off his tongue was proof enough that his efforts were appreciated. Not that they were necessary – the truth being that us Brits can get away with speaking English, and only English, almost anywhere in the world – but that’s not really the point. The majority of us may sit back and expect the rest of the world to speak back to us in English, which for the most part works, but the effort to learn even just a little of the language of the country you are visiting can touch hearts and get you much further than fluency in your own language. You will likely endear yourself to the locals, meet people you may not otherwise and experience local life in a way that a non-comprehending visitor may not.

For this we salute William for getting up there and putting his French on display, flaws and all (not that there were many), for the Québecois. Whatever your thoughts on the monarchy itself, William has acted as a true role model and done the nation proud by showing that we’re not all inept at languages. At Cactus of course we know that, sending thousands of you away on foreign language courses each year, but with GCSE language uptake dwindling each year and the dominance of English gathering momentum, his speech couldn’t come at a better time.

As Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language it goes to his heart.”

IATEFL 2011 - a report from our Cactus to Conference scholarship winner

I applied for the Cactus IATEFL scholarship for two reasons: I am a newly-qualified teacher looking to develop the skills I already have and to prevent myself becoming an island in a big teaching world.

In the introductory speech, IATEFL president Herbert Puchta proclaimed that “this is going to be a fantastic conference!” His words were heart-warming – he not only seemed to be talking about the programme but also about the amount and range of people who had come to the IATEFL conference. I looked around me – in front of me I could hear Dutch, French and Italian being spoken, to my right Japanese and to my left: Russian. These were all teachers of English! This was my second day at IATEFL as I had already attended a SIG (Special Interest Group) event the day before and it was just beginning to dawn on me how much there was to do and to see: the choice is overwhelming particularly if you are a first-time conference visitor.

I met up with colleagues later to discuss our choices of sessions and workshops. A useful lesson is to ‘keep it relevant’ I found out. I made decisions about what I wanted to do and see that I felt would be useful to my development now or in the next year.But relevant to what exactly? My own school – a Dutch Montessori secondary school with a creative profile – is there another school like it in the whole world?), my professional development, the development of young people generally? I needn’t have worried – I was in the right place and easily filled the four day conference with plenaries, discussions, talks and workshops not to mention conversations with other teachers and student teachers that I met at IATEFL.

The Conference I planned for myself spanned, amongst other things; Child and teenage development (Sue Palmer), learning to learn (Bonnie Tsai) and Hyperlink Heroin (Jim Scrivener). I learnt how to present, how to analyse and talk about literature, how to teach thinking, how to approach my Master’s course, how to use Moodle for a range of different practices and to use and embed sound files.

The mood of the Conference was a positive, creative and happy one. Everyone who was there, wanted to be there – it was no small under-taking for some who had travelled a very long way. This became evident at the Scholar’s Tea on Saturday when we had the chance to meet other prize-winners and their sponsors. More than twenty countries were represented: it was a proud and happy moment and I was glad that Cactus had given me the opportunity to be a part of it.

Find out more on the Cactus to Conference IATEFL Scholarship