Michelle's independent resources for ESL Students at Vancouver Community College

This blog is for Intermediate and Advanced Students who want to learn and improve their English. Each PAGE above contains thousands of free English lessons and practice exercises to help you learn and improve your English grammar, reading, listening, pronunciation, writing and editing. On the right hand side, is a list of links of resources grouped by category. Although I am constantly checking on the links, please let me know if you find any that don't work.

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Idioms of the Heart for Valentine's Day

 Happy Valentine's Day! 

I wrote this last year, but idioms don't change over a year, so enjoy!! 

Valentine's day is a day when lovers wear their hearts on their sleeves, so I thought it would be fun for you to learn a few idioms of the heart so that you could tell your loved one that your heart skips a beat every time he or she walks into the room.  

Of course, not all idioms with the word "heart"  send a message of love. In fact, the meanings can be very surprising.

a heart of gold: When people have a heart of gold, they are extremely kind and generous. 

Example:  My grandmother had such a heart of gold that every time she saw someone in trouble she always tried to help them.

pour your heart out ( to someone)" When  you pour your heart out to someone, you tell them them all your problems, fears, hopes or dreams.  You have a very intimate conversation. 

 Example:  My daughter poured her heart out to me when she broke up with her husband. 

wear your heart on your sleeve: When you wear your heart on your sleeve, you show your feelings about someone, or something very openly. . 
Example:  Everybody knew that Tom really wanted to go out with Maire because he wore his heart on his sleeve every time he was around her. 

get to the heart of the matterWhen you get to the heart of the matter, you understand the most important thing about something. 

Example:  It took a long time, but we finally got to the heart of the matter about the problem in the office, and were finally able to discuss it. 

heart is in the right place: Your heart is in the right place  when you have good intentions even if there are bad results.

Example:   Tom's gifts are always unsuitable, but his heart is in the right place, so I don't want  to hurt him by telling him he bought me the wrong thing. 

a bleeding heart  is someone who feels too much sympathy for people such as poor people, criminals or drug addicts. 

Example: My father is such a bleeding heart that he gives money to every bum on the street who asks for it even if they don't have a good reason.

heart goes out to (someone): You heart goes out to someone when you feel sympathy or sorry about something bad that has happened to them.  

ExampleMy heart goes out to  all the people who lost family and friends in the recent eathquake.  

lose heart:  If you lose heart, you feel discouraged because you have failed, or you have lost hope about achieving a goal. You think something is too difficult and you want to stop trying. 

Example:  My friend lost heart when she failed her driver's test for the third time. 


take heart:  When you take heart, you start to feel more hopeful and confident. We often tell people to "take heart" when we are trying to encourage them or make them feel better about something. 
Example: House owners can take heart from the news that housing prices are on the increase again. 

break someone's heart When you break someone's  heart, you make them feel sad or hopeless     (usually because of love or a similar loss) 

Example: My father broke my mother's heart when he told her he wanted a divorce because she still loved him.

have a heart! We tell people to have a heart when we want to say " don't be unkind or do something mean or cruel."

Example  The students asked the teacher to have a heart when she told them they would have  homework during the Christmas holidays. 


 heart skips a beat: Your heart skips a beat when you are startled or excited from surprise, joy or fear.

Example:  My heart skipped a beat when I realized  that I might win the lottery since I had five of the six numbers that I needed.

heart is not in (something): When your heart is not in something, it means you have lost interest in it.  

Example:   John is not working very hard on the project becausehis heart is not in it. He would prefer to be doing something completely different. . 

a change of heart : if you have a change of heart, you change the way you feel or think about something, or you change your mind. 

Example:  I refused to let my daughter go to the dance.But, when I realized that the teachers would be supervising, I had a change of heart and decided to allow her to attend. 

a heart to heart (talk): When you have a heart to heart talk with someone, you have a deep, sincere and intimate talk with someone about personal feelings or problems. 

Example:  My girlfriend and I had a long heart to heart last night after whether or not she should break up with her boyfriend after he cheated on her. .

heart sinks:  Your heart sinks at the moment you become disappointed or discouraged. 

Example:  Jane's heart sank when she opened the letter and realized that the university had rejected her application.   

a heart of stone: When someone has a heart of stone, they are cold and have no pity or sympathy. 

Example:  The man who murdered his wife and children had a heart of stone.

learn something by heart: when you something by heart, you learn learn it perfectly so that you can 
repeat it by memory. 

Example:  I had to learn many poems by heart when I was a young girl. Today, young people don't do this. . 

heart stands still: your heart stands still  when you are very frightened about something.

Example:  My heart stood still when the car almost hit my daughter as she was crossing the street. 

heavy heart: You have a heavy heart when you feel very sad, or feel weighed down with sorrow or sadness.

Example:  We waved goodbye to my friends and family with a heavy heart because we didn't know when we would see them again. 

 heart is in your mouth: Your heart is in your mouth when you are very frightened or terrified . 

Example: Tom's heart was in his mouth  and his heart was beating loudly as he ran away from the two  men who were trying to steal his wallet.

have your heart set on something:  When you have your heart set on something, you want something very badly 

Example: I was very disappointed when I did not get the job as manager because I had my heart set on it. 

How well do you know the idioms?  Try the quiz below  

Practice in Speaking and/ or Writing 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Improve your English with SMART Goals

Last year I posted an article about how ESL students can achieve their goals more successfully.

Today, as a new year AND a new term begin for many of you, I want to re-post that article because I think many of you could really benefit from reading it. 

You CAN be successful.  BUT, you need to be very clear about to WHAT specific goal you want to achieve, how realistic it is and how you actually plan to do it.  This article can help you start start the process. 

Reaching Goals the SMART Way

If I asked you what your goals are for this term, many of you would say: " I want to improve my English."  Others would try to be a little more specific and say, " I want  to be more fluent."  or I want to improve my grammar." 

What do these  vague  goals actually mean?  How do you know how to achieve them, or when you have actually achieved them?  

So... what's the answer?

It's important for you to have a dream, a destination you want to reach.  However, if you truly want to reach that destination,  you can't just hope it will happen by saying you want to improve. You need real strategies  that will help you get what you want. 

Instead of having vague, undefined goals, you need to set realistic targets for yourself - targets you can actually hit or reach.  

Business experts and psychologists have proven that setting SMART goals will help you get to your destination much more efficiently and effectively. They will also allow you to measure and see the progress you have made.


'Watch the following video on SMART goals. The speaker has an accent, so, play the video several times and listen carefully.

VIDEO # 2: SMART GOALS for language learning  

So what does this all mean?

One way to think about  SMART GOALS is to think of them as a series of smaller,  easy to accomplish action steps towards achieving your bigger goal. 

If you use this method, you are more likely to move one step closer to your final goal instead of always being disappointed with yourself and your progress. You are also more likely to develop the self-discipline to do the required work, and the belief that you can eventually achieve your bigger goal.

S= Specific

  • Make your goal(s) specific, not general. 
  • What do you want to accomplish? Saying you want to improve your English grammar is general. It doesn't really mean anything because you don't really know what you really want, or how to measure it. 
  • On the other hand, if you are an advanced level student, start with something like " I want to be able to write with only a few verb tense mistakes by the end of the term,  or I want to understand and use prepositions properly 80% of the time."   
  • Don't say you want to improve your communication skills.Try something like this: I want to be able to comfortably carry on a ten minute conversation with a stranger. 


  • Make your goals measurable.  For example, if you want to make fewer verb tense errors in your writing, start working towards that goal by learning which tenses to use in your writing. 
  • Start proofreading and editing  your writing. Finally, count the  number of verb tense errors your teacher has marked. Are you making fewer errors each time? Don't give up after one or two tries. Keep doing this over a period of time, and measure the improvement. 
  • Are you getting closer to your goal? If you do reach your goal- extend the goal,or develop another one.
A= Attainable:
  • Make sure you can achieve your goal within a realistic amount of time. 
  • Don't set too many at the same time. For example, if you are not comfortable speaking English out of class, don't think you will be fluent and comfortable at the end of three months. Instead, decide that you want to be comfortable speaking in a few non-survival situations.  Then, make a plan and stick to it.
  •  If you never speak English outside of class, decide to join a church, a club, a meet-up group, or a sports team. Do this regularly, and as often as possible. Participate, become engaged rather than sitting back and letting others do the talking. Become as comfortable as you can with that particular group. 
  • After a few weeks, try to determine if your comfort level has increased. 
  • Continue measuring it. Are you now using your English spontaneously with strangers, at work?
R= Realistic or Relevant 

  • Make sure you goal is relevant to your needs. 
  • Focus on areas you are weak in  rather than on stronger skills.  For example, if your  pronunciation is OK,  leave it alone. 
  •  Decide what you DO need to work on now. How about your vocabulary? Do you still use simple words like bad, good nice, interesting, have, be, and do instead of better words that show you are not a beginner.  
  • Determine the  kind of vocabulary you want to be able to actively use correctly in three months. 
  • Make sure these words are useful ones for your life - NOT  the kind you will only use once on a TOEFL test. Then, make a plan as to how you intend to accomplish this. Make your plan specific, measurable and realistic.
T= Time Bound (Creating Deadlines)
  • Set a time frame, or deadline within which you want to achieve your small goals.
  •  Remember. There is no magic. Your English will not be perfect in three months. It takes time. 
  • But, you CAN make fewer mistakes in your writing and speaking. You CAN improve your ability to listen to the news, or understand more complicated instructions at work. You CAN  start feeling more comfortable stepping outside your comfort zone and speaking to English speakers. 


Think about how some of these strategies could be  used to help you set "real" goals for different aspects of your English learning. 

Think of some specific goals YOU would like to achieve this term.  Follow the guidelines above to make them specific, measurable, attainable or achievable, realistic and time bound.l   

Then, think about some of the steps involved in setting and most importantly keeping SMART GOALS.

Some of the steps include choosing your goal(s). writing them down, assessing them and getting specific, creating a plan and executing it by developing  habits and making changes  in your life to  make time for your actions, staying motivated, tracking your progress and being accountable. But, virtstk  

  What do YOU think about this?    All comments and suggestions are welcome. 

 To leave a  comment, click on the  blue word comment or no comments.  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

ESL Christmas 2013: The Nativity Story

Christmas has become a fun filled holiday for people all over the world - regardless of whether they are Christian or not.  As a result many people are very familiar with the idea of Santa Claus, gift giving, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, Jingle Bells and Christmas dinner of turkey and all the trimmings. 

However, some people are not familiar with the reason practicing Christians celebrate this special day. 

The following video tells the story of Christmas that comes from the Bible.  It does not matter if you believe the story or not, but IS is important to know the story itself if you want to understand Christian beliefs and culture.

  • Try to listen to the story several times WITHOUT reading the subtitles. 
  • Then, try to answer the questions. ( Do NOT check your answers)   
  • Next, go back and listen to the story while you read the subtitles.  
  • Answer the questions again.  Check the answers. 
  • Read along WITH the speaker - at the same time, NOT after him. When you speak at the same time as the speaker, this is called shadow speaking. 

 Read about the Nativity Story 

Traditional Christmas Carols: 

I'm including some traditional Christmas carols  that focus on the real meaning of Christmas.  People have sung these carols for hundreds of years, so it is useful for you to know some of them. 

Silent Night

Silent Night ( German Stille Nach, heilige Nacht) is the best known Christmas carol in the world.  It has been translated into more than 140 languages and sung by every singer who has ever released a Christmas album.  Composed in 1818 in Austria, it was declared an intagible cultural heritage by UNESCO in March 20111. 

In 1914,during World War 1,  soldiers on both sides called a Christmas truce for one night when one side heard the other singing silent night.  All soldiers on both sides began singing the song in their own language as it was one song they all knew. That night, the enemy troops spent the evenig celebrating Christmas together singing, getting to know each other and talking about their loved ones.  The next day, they went back to shooting and killing each other. 

Silent Night and the Seven O'clock News 

In 1966 Well known singers Simon and Garfunkel  recorded two contrasting recordings: a simple arrangement of the Christmas carol "Silent Night", and a simulated "7 O'Clock News" bulletin of the actual events of 3 August 1966.

Breath of Heaven

This song focuses on how frightened Mary was and her hopes that she could live up to the responsibilities she was going to have as the mother of God. The video features scenes adapted from the 2007 film "The Nativity Story" by New Lines Productions Inc. 

O Holy Night 

This song was originally written in French and is often sung at Christian services on Christmas eve. More than 100 artists have recorded this song,  This version by Canadian singer Josh Groban is very powerful.  

Do You Hear What I Hear?

This song  focuses on what the shepherds in the field heard and saw on the first
Christmas when Jesus was born.

What Child Is This 

The next two songs focus on the joy Christmas is supposed to bring and reminds us that we need to remember to keep some of that joy in our heart even when things in our life are bad. 

Try to sing along with this next song as loudly as you can. Make sure you really open your mouth wide. It will help with your pronunciation, your phrasing and your speaking fluency. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

ESL Christmas with Charlie Brown

After nearly 50 years, one  of the greatest Christmas holiday specials continues to be the animated cartoon  "A Charlie Brown Christmas"  

Why is it so special? According to Robert Loyd, film critic for the Los Angeles Times, " it isn't about any invented crisis in the life of an imaginary  creature. There are no elves, no reindeer, no Santa. It's just about us. 

The Spirit of Christmas 
 Charles Schulz, the creator of "Peanuts"  wrote a little fable  about how a meaningful  holiday such as Christmas has become so commercialized that it has  lost any meaning. The only magic Christmas now allows  is the kind we create ourselves when we pay attention to someone besides ourselves.  

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" remains true to both the spirit of Christmas and to the spirit of "Peanuts."

Although it t emphasizes the need for hope and love, it still reminds us that for many people around the world the Christmas season can bring anxiety and a feeling of being alone and unloved. 

 "I know nobody likes me," sighs Charlie Brown in the animated special.  "Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?"

The Charlie Brown Christmas Tree 
The sad little Christmas tree he buys for the school play stands for all the world's underfed, unseen, unloved,  yet it is not beyond rescue. 

In fact, with a little love, care and attention, it can truly be something special and even magic. 

Subtle, slow and quiet — absolutely silent at times — the special is remains as satisfying today as it was when it was first shown in 1965. 

In addition to the wonderful score by Vince Guaraldi's famous jazz piano score, 
the production features the voicers of real children rather than adult actors trying to sound like children. "

Watch the special and learn about one of the most popular idioms about Christmas that comes from the story: A Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. 

How Well did you Understand? 

Watch the film as many times as you need to. Then see how  many questions you can answer in the quiz below. 

Also, can you answer the question: What is a Charlie Brown Christmas tree?

Now, try this song.

For more information  on Charlie Brown 's christmas as well as other Charlie Brown stories go to  Jennthebenn's Peanut Page

For the complete transcript go to:  Transcript Charlie Brown Christmas

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

ESL Christmas: Home for Christmas

One of the most important parts of any holiday, whether it be Christmas, Hanukkah, Lunar New Year,  or Kwanzaa  is coming home to be with your family and friends. 

Many Christmas songs focus on how lonely people are when they can't be with their loved ones. 

Sometimes this is is because they live in different places. Other times, one person is  traveling or working away from home. 

Thinking about Home

No matter what the reason, Christmas or any other holiday can be a time of loneliness and homesickness when we find ourselves thinking of home....wherever that may be.  

Canada is a country full of immigrants, many of whom have left family and friends back in countries such as China, Korea, Poland, Columbia, Peru....

It is common for them to feel lonely and homesick at this time of year. 

Here are a few songs that focus on some of the deep emotions that being away from our loved ones bring out in us.  

Song for a Winter's Night 

This song sung by Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan and written by Canadian singer songwriter Gordon Lightfoot has become a popular Christmas song because it focuses on  the desire to be with a loved one.  Christmas is a time when we think of the people we love who are far away from us. 


This is a new version of Home sung by Blake Shelton and Michael Buble that focuses specifically on how much would like to be home for Christmas. 

The original song by Michael  Buble shows the same emotion, but stresses how hard it is to be away from people you love at any time.  This is an easy song to sing along to because it is clear and slow and full of emotion. Try to sing along with it as many times as you can, and put as much emotion into your voice as possible when you sing it. It will definitely help your pronunciation.

I'll Be Home For Christmas 

Even a beginner can sing this song which communicates the feelings of anyone who wants to be home for the holidays. If you can't be home in reality, you CAN go home in your dreams. What a lovely idea. This is a slow song that doesn't have many difficult words. Enjoy! 


Have Yourself  a Merry Little  Christmas is one of the great Christmas classics and has been recorded by hundreds of singers. 
Judy Garland sang the original song to her sister in the movie Meet Me in St. Louis. Her sister was upset because their  father wanted to move her family away from her  "home"  to New York. 

The original song was much sadder in order to suit the story line in the movie movie  but Judy Garland thought it was too depressing, so the writers changed the lyrics to make it a little more hopeful. Read the original lyrics at the end of the song. 

Original lyrics:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last,
Next year we may all be living in the past
Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork,
Next year we will all be living in New York.
No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore,
Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.
But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow,
From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

I think we all understand why Judy wanted it changed to a happier, more hopeful version 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

ESL Christmas Love Songs

Love is one of the main messages of Christmas. 

People all over the world enjoy sharing their love with each other at this special time. 

But Christmas can also be a time of  loss and heartbreak - a time when people remember a love lost and the wonderfu  times they had.

Although these are not traditional Christmas carols, the following songs have no become classics because they show both the joy, the sadness and  the yearning that Christmas and the holiday season brings to people in love.   

Here are a few songs to keep you in the mood, whether you are happy or sad. Listen, play the game. Then sing along. There's lots of Christmas vocabulary here.  Try some.

But first, let's try some some vocabulary review 

All I Want for Christmas is You:

Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey

Before you watch:

1.   When you stand under this, you have to kiss someone   
2.   Underneath means ________________ 
2.   This is made out of snow and often has eyes, a nose and stick arms 
3.   We roast these type of nuts on the fire.  
4.   What do people put under the Christmas tree and open on Christmas 

Winter Wonderland by Rod Stewart and Michael Buble

Before you watch: 

1`.  A meadow is a place ___________________
2.  What kind of person is a "parson"?  (clue) he can legally 
      marry you with someone
3.   What does Santa ride in the sky with reindeer pulling?

Mistletoe by Justin Bieber

Before you listen to the song: 

1.  Justin Bieber uses the word  "Imma" several times during the song. This is slang for  
      "I'm going to be" 

2.  Cheer is another word for joy. 

3.  What is this below?
4.  If you spend time "chilling" with someone, you ___  

5.  shawti is slang for ______________________________'

6. When you "stare" at someone, you ______

Many of us are afraid to tell the people we love how we feel, so we hide our feelings. Sometimes it's worth being brave and taking a chance to open up about those feelings. Who knows what could happen. Listen to the following song to see what Kelly Clarkson has to sat about it. 

Have you ever experienced a sad Christmas when everything reminded you of a former love? I'm sure you are not alone. As everyone knows even people whose heart is broken still get through it. The next song is about that. .