WizIQ Distance Learning Summer Course: Chapter 2: things are looking up

Providing a structure for growth

You may remember what happened last week on my distance learning summer course, (read it here)I was keen to use a fantastic online tool ‘lights out’ and in true form, nobody could see anything! So, this week I decided to aim for simplicity, and it all went much better, so I thought I’d tell you about it.


The learners themselves choose the topics in class, by putting them into the chatbox and the one people like most wins. This is similar to the #eltchat approach to selecting topics and since it works so well for the Twitter discussion group I thought it would be good to extend it to my conversation class.

Photo credit: theirhistory posted on Flickr


I’ve written about this before, and other people do the same thing but give it a different name. Basically it reflects my idea that with distancelearning the online lesson is a discussion space that motivates learners, and gives them somewhere to experiment with the language they are learning. I do not use it for long, detailed clarifications of language, although language points do come up and the virtual classroom lends itself well to micro-teaching slots. My summer course: Activate your English, has this name because this is what I hope learners are doing, activating their English in class. But what about input? I hear someone cry. Well, that is the aducating, the leading learners to language. The classroom activities are accompanied by our Activate Your English blog where learners can before lessons to propare for class. (In this class, for instance the focus was on the learners and their countries, towns and lives) so I asked them to make sure before class that they knew the names of countries and nationali adjectives. (the level is very loosely intermediate, with an enormous range). I also gave them a reading text to piece together about me and my hometown, which we then looked at in class too, and I suggested revising comparatives and superlatives, providing activities to do this. So whe’s the learner-centred bit? I hear someone ask. This is aducating because the learners can go to the materials and do the work that they need or choose to do in preparation, and then in class they put it into practice.


I don’t really like the ideea of strict procedure but I know that we human beings find rituals and habits very reassuring so I tend to include the following ingredients in an online lesson:
1) A game or quiz (with winners, I’m afraid, so that everyone can applaud them. The names are published on the blog after the lesson). This week it was an alphabet quiz with countries. I gave them a letter and the first person to type in the country got a point. This is very simple but works well, and what is really nice is the encouraging comments people make to each other as we go.
2) Some microphone work, where learners can speak whilst the class types questions into the chatbox, or vice versa (this is very popular and interesting as we have learners from all over the world with a wealth of experience and plenty of stories to tell us.) This week I put up a map of the world and learners put a cross or a dot on their homes, then I called on various people to talk about where they were and what they were doing whilst the others asked questions in the chatbox. When they got going it was hard to stop them… Wonderful!
3) Structured skills work ( mainly because the learners like it and it provides good scaffolding). In this case I had a worksheet with a picture of me and Haggis my cat and another one of the barges on a canal in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, my home town. This was followed by a jigsaw texts which the learners put into the correct order in the usual fashion, but it, of course, had a twist. The text contained a lot of informaion that was obviously wrong.

My name is Sharon and I live in London. ( They all know that I live in Verona)

So the next stage was to read the text again and find out what was false. This was a lot of fun and helped the learners to process and understand the information in the text, in a fun, natural way, as well as provoking some discussion and vocabulary work.

4) A screen sharing phase. On Wiziq you, the teacher can share your screen with the class ( although it’s as well to keep this simple too as not everything comes out so well, and some learners cannot see things at times depending on their bandwidth.) I showed them the blog, for the new people or those who weren’t aware of it, and told them how it works. If you want to go the and see some of the things we do this is the link. Then I showed the CUP promotions page ( free grammar and exams preparation apps today and huge discounts for the rest of the week ) and finally I showed them the linoit noticeboard we had made as a back up to last week’s lesson and a new one for this week, where they can load their own photos and comments etc. ( all the links are on the blog). This activity is a follow up, and there are others too, including a focus on idioms: “worldly idioms” since we were looking at the world, for those who like them, but again it is up to the learner what they choose to do or not.

5) The hour was nearly up at this point, but we still had time for a fun final activity, which, this week was a general knowledge geography quiz (hence the need for comparatives and superlatives).

6) and finally the poll, where we chose the topic for next week. The most popular were music and stories, so I’m thinking of soing storytelling based on music, of course… Any ideas?

Scoop.it!! An inspiring new toy to play with for the summer.

Creativity comes in all shapes and forms

Recently various scoop.it topics have been appearing in the blogosphere, amd being naturally magpie like, I was immediately attracted by the glitz. So here is my first topic: inspiration for tired teachers. I’m sure that at this time of year a lot of us are not quite as scintillating and enthusiastic as we were at the beginning of the school year. This is definitely true for me, especially after a week of marking 600 written exams :-(. So, in search of insight and creativity I turned to some of my favourite posts, videos, ideas, thoughts etc. This is what keeps me going. Hope it works for you too.

Here’s a little blog challenge (for the summer holidays):


one fun lesson activity;

one inspiring video;

one inspiring thought or insight

that keeps you going?

You could either publish them in your blog or write them in a comment and I’ll make a scoop.it topic to keep us all going 🙂

Meet Nina Hanakova…or on Facebook: Nina EnglishBrno

Nina Hanakova known as Nina EnglishBrno on facebook
Nina Hanakova known as Nina EnglishBrno on facebook


Hi everyone,

Welcome to the second of my PLN “Who’s next…? Challenge (thanks to Brad Patterson for this Blog Challenge) Interviews. This week I interviewed Nina Hanakova from Brno in the Czech Republic. I have not known Nina for very long, so it’s nice to get the chance to discover a little more about someone who, I can see from Facebook, is an incredibly learner centred, innovative teacher, who combines a love of technology with a truly caring attitude towards her students. If you have never visited her blog you can find her here. English Brno greets you with what looks like a really comfortable sofa for you to relax on as Nina shares her teaching ideas with you and at the same time opens a window for you to take a peek at her learners and some of  their work so… here goes: 


Nina in Brno with her students at their final party

1) If your students were to label you with 3 adjectives, what might they be?
– talkative, fun, supportive
2) What would we find in your refrigerator right now?
– lots of veggies, different kinds of Czech, Slovak and Greek cheese, Greek olives, ouzo (we had Greek family friends visiting us last week), Moravian white wine, two bottles of local beer, strawberry jam, marinated chicken breasts, trout (fish), apple juice, milk.
3) If you weren’t a teacher, what might your profession be?
– intercultural consultant
4) What do you find most difficult about working in teaching, or What has been your most difficult moment in class?
– most difficult in teaching: class time management – sometimes I could spend all day with my students
5) What was the last book/movie you read/saw, and what have you seen/read way too many times?
– last movie I saw was “Life in a Day”, the Youtube movie, last book I read “ScreemFree Parenting”, I have seen “The Family Stone” too many times
6) Do you like working as a freelance teacher?
– I love it! I am a big fan of freelancing. I wish everyone on this planet could work for themselves/in small private companies, following their true passions. I love what I do and the fact that I am my own boss gives me complete freedom to choose when, where, how, with whom and if at all I will work today.
7) How do you juggle work and parenting?
– it’s an everyday challenge. especially because I have to plan my working time very carefully. which doesn’t always work the best for me as I like to work in “creative waves”. but my partner and my mom are very helpful. I find it important to feel balanced both personally and professionally.

The passion and enthusiasm for teaching and communicating shines through these asnwers! So I’ll just finish with one of Nina’s favourite quotes from her Facebook page. I like it because it is both brave and liberating, and in tune with the essence of Nina EnglishBrno:

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those that matter don’t mind and those that mind don’t matter!” ~ Dr. Suess

If you want to read more interviews that bloggers have done in response to this challenge follow this link to Dave Dodgson’s Scoop.It page

Lights Out!

Light around the world
Lights Out


Hi everyone, well, I promised I’d tell you what happened when I used my screencast of the lights out tool I talked about last week, which you can see here, if you missed it. I had intended to use this nifty little tool to do an activity where I slowly revealed different parts of a picture of a graffiti covered desk. This was to lead into a discussion about the difference between graffiti and street art, whether it was decoration or defacement etc. But, in fact, it was lights out for my lesson plan because nobody could see the video despite the fact that I’d lovingly uploaded it before the class. The joy of technology, eh? Anyway, this gives you the opportunity to think on your feet so I quickly switched to the screensharing mode, where learners in the WizIQ classroom can see some of the things that are on my screen. Infortunately they can’t use the chatbox during screensharing, so I simply asked them to watch the video and tell me what the picture was at the end. Phew, this worked. But it was an added frustration because the lesson had got off to a rocky start as I had been expecting more of my university students and, in fact only one showed up. This makes me wonder about the wisdom of offering free classes. Is it that people don’t appreciate things that they don’t have to pay for, or is it simply that they’ve all had a lot of exams recently and want a rest from studying…let’s hope it’s the latter.


What happens when you offer free public classes in English on WizIQ? Well, you usually get quite a lot of interest and up to 50 or so people will enrol for the class, but they don’t all turn up, they don’t all read your description of the class or necesarily do the preparation work. They don’t all have microphones, and they are all different levels. Added to this you occasionally get someone who is just playing around. (In extreme cases, you, the teacher, can block someone, but it would have to be quite extreme before I felt like doing that.) This means that you cannot know who you will have or what level they will be, so it is quite a challenge. In this lesson I had aimed it at a higher level, because I was thinking of my university students, whereas, when I was in class I realised that the level was probably too high for most of the learners present. So, again thinking on your feet is important, and I adapted some of the questions about “Street Art” which was the topic of the discussion to the level of the people there, whilst giving the more advanced learners the chance to use the language they had prepared in advance too. After the class I felt a little bit frazzled due to the technical and logistics problems and I began to be quite frustrated at the lack of continuity etc. I had also prepared a linoit canvas as back up work for these learners where they could go and post their own photos after class and in my negative mind set I was thinking “Oh, nobody will bother with that!” So, imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that people had gone and posted their photos, and that they have reenrolled for class next week, and that maybe the whole experience hadn’t been quite as negative as I’d thought.


One of the plus points is always the buzz in these classes. Things move forward at a fast and furious rate and learners joke with each other (in English) in the chatbox, and generally communicate a lot. I always end the lesson on a high note with a game of some sort to recycle either content or language that has come up in class. This week I wanted to play “hangman” but it takes me too long to manage the free drawing tool for the whiteboard, to draw the hangman. In fact, this was of no importance whatsoever, as the learners were very happy to guess the letters and the words, applauding enthusiastically when someone won. (All the winners names are published after the event on the WizIQ site, so that is a high point too 🙂 )

I also wanted to make next lesson more learner centred so I asked them for the topics they wanted to talk about and we will be organising our lessons around those areas in the next few weeks. So, I suppose, in the end it was quite successful, and I’m looking forward to next lesson. (I will not be planning for any particular level in mind, but will be ready to think on my feet! The best way to approach it all.)

Oh, and I will not be giving the whiteboard controls to everyone right at the start either. That was another mistake this week. In the virtual classroom you can give the whiteboard controls to the learners and I was using this fundction for a brainstorming session where they wrote questions on the board around a picture I had previously uploaded, but I had not checked who I had in the class, so not only did I get the questions I wanted, but doodles, geometric designs, people moving the board around etc. etc. but it was…. learner centred, that is true, and once again, I just laughed and then took the controls off them again.

Anyway, if you want to see the video of this event you can judge for yourself (Don’t be firghtened when you see me in the video. I had had my hair cut and bore an uncanny resemblance to a goat. I’ve since washed it a few times and it’s… well, on the way to getting back to normal.

See you soon 🙂

ClassTools.net: using their cool tools to work on close ups

merry go round
All the fun of the fair

Technology Returns, and here are some really fun tools

ClassTools.net: Create interactive flash tools / games for education.

I haven’t written about technology for quite a while now but this site provides us with a serious of really “cool tools”. You can simply use them in class, like the countdown clock with various musical themes to choose from, or you can use the templates and then embed them in your blog or wiki, like the Fakebook page we used in the Literature work (See the second Storytelling post). Here’s an example of how I decided to use “Lights Out” in my online class (which is on Tuesday so I’ll tell you later how it went.)

Lights Out

Lights Out is a new take on the idea of covering an image and revealing it slowly. You simply upload an image and then: hey presto, there you are, you can turn the lights out and with a digital torch illuminate just the bits you want to. To do this online though I didn’t know if I would be able to use the application, some of the students would not be able to see it, so I scratched my head and thought for a bit and this is the recipe:

1) upload the image on Lights Out;

2) Decide how you are going to use it, which bits to highlight, what questions you might ask;

3)Make a screen capture video of the exerice with Jing or Camstudio, which is opensource software and my personal favourite;

4) you can either embed the video, save it or put it on YouTube etc. or simply use in class. I uploaded it to WizIQ so that I can use the video in the lesson, and my students should be able to see it. Anyway, I’ll let you know what happens.

Oh, what was that? You want to see the video? Well, as it happens you’re in luck I put it onto YouTube as well 🙂

#ELTchat Summary: how can we teach lexical grammar, going beyond “single word” lists?

#ELTchat SUMMARY : June 15th
Coming to you from Verona, Italy…..
What is ELTchat?
If you have never been to an #ELTchat discussion, you don’t know what you’re missing. For a comprehensive introduction to these breathtaking chat sessions, read Marisa Constantinides’ great post.  Today’s chat was a discussion of this question:

How can we teach lexical grammar, going beyond “single
word” lists?

I was particularly excited about this chat because it was the first time a topic I’d proposed had been chosen, so it was with bated breath that I launched Tweetdeck and went to the column I keep for the #ELTchat. If you want to read the transcript follow this link.
Why Lexical Grammar?
I had chosen this topic because it is particularly close to my heart. So many of my university students, who have possibly concentrated mainly on grammar and skills work in their language learning careers, later discover something that is not news by any means, in the words of Wilkins (1972):

“Without grammar very little
can be conveyed,

without vocabulary nothing can
be conveyed”.

As emerged in this chat, many of us are in favour of the idea of language as being lexical but are not so sure of how to apply this systematically to out teaching. There were a lot of
“pearls” as always and also a lot of questions. At the beginning there was some
confusion as to what we were discussing but as our great moderator (@rliberni) said at the end:
“Wow this was avery dynamic chat after a rocky start! Thx to co-moderator @Shaunwilden whose lexical-grammar is flawless! :-)”
What is lexical grammar?

What is Lexical Grammar?

This was the first question which sparked off various different responses, a few of which are here:
*I think it is the collocations, chunks etc (@Shaunwilden)
*Is  it to do with ‘colligations’, or the grammar that goes with a word e.g. like + -ing or to+inf  but not bare inf. ? (@sandymillin)
*A  simple example of lexical grammar – adjective synonyms/antonyms that use the same preposition, e.g. good/brilliant/bad at(doing st (@pjgallantry)
*Grammar is seen to be more “right or wrong”, or   black or white. Lexis oozes with various shades of grey. (@chriscatteneo)
*We know that we need grammar but without words we cannot communicate (@hartle)
*Lexis is central in meaning. Grammar plays a subservient role. (@gknightbkk)
*Language is grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar (Lewis 1993) (@gknightbkk)
*Maybe @thornburyscott’s “L is for Michael Lewis” might shed a bit more
light? (@esolcourses)
*Lexical patterns in discourse are a part of any study of textual cohesion – so perhaps this is where it is (@Marisa_C) @Marisa_C Yes. Cohesion and coherence in discourse are vital to understanding meaning beyond the sentence level.  (@gknightbkk)
*Grammar without lexis is irrelevant.  Grammar needs  meaning to give it relevance (@FarnhamCastle)
So we could conclude that Lexical Grammar is “words and the company they keep”, where vocabulary is king and grammar is his court.

Lexis should be taught in context

The chat now turned in the direction of how we should approach lexis in teaching:
 *I think a lot of words are taught in context, but not necessarily explored in similar contexts/grammar not highlighted  (@rliberni)
*We need to teach lexical chunks that have grammatical info attached to them (@gknightbkk)
*Who thinks there’s a split in pedagogy: those who teach grammar “mathematically” and those who teach it lexically? (@bethcagnol)
*If it just comes down to teaching vocab in context., problem solved! (ann_f) RT @ann_f:  No that’s a first step but then users can notice patterning and go on to experiment. (@hartle)
*Context is so important. Otherwise it’s a blind and meaningless journey into a variety of unknown words/phrases. (@MissLadyCaz)
*My students saying “Speed down” have a lexical problem not a grammatical one!
(@gknightbkk): A good case in point: that vocabulary has grammar (@BobK99)
 We generally  agreed that we need to teach the items and the
grammatical information together and in context, so then we moved on to think
about ways of doing this:

Matters  of teaching lexical grammar and Using Corpora

*I agree that concordancing is useful to see who words are “friends”
(@AlexandraKouk) uses collocations for advanced levels and for self-study work.There were various comments on concordances, some had had negative
experiences, others thought the teacher should use them rather than the students or vice versa and others were interested in how to use them.
*I find that many discussions and reiterations help my ESL learners to become more confident in using new words in correct contexts. (@MissLadyCaz) RT @MissLadyCaz: Yes, exposure and experimenting are essential but noticing is too (@hartle)
*I have my students  look for images they associate with the word and then share it in class. The different associations are amazing! (@OUPELTGlobal)
*The visual and the sharing of the images adds different contexts to different students (OUPELTGlobal)
Inspiration and poetry
Inspiration leads to growth and creative expression.
Incorporating the systematic teaching of lexis into other approaches such as Dogme or TBL
The topic of teaching approaches came up and how we could include lexical teaching into these:
*In approaches such as TBL, Unplugged etc. Focusing on the language that comes from students?
*I think that’s a common misconception (that working on student language is only concentrating on output)  about working with student output. Output is reformulated, extended and worked on and becomes input. (@chiasun)
*It is true, lexical grammar does lend itself well to TBL, but it’s all student
output/correction: where’s the input?(@pjgallantry) (In reply @chiasun) There’s
always a way of feeding in and dealing with emergent language and extending it
with Lexical Approach ideas. (In reply @pjgallantry) that’s true, but the issue
there may be one of sufficient input of new lexis – does it make for a large
teacher workload?
*I think whether it’s TBL or Dogme, it depends on the teachers’ approach and seizing opportunities to work on emergent lang. (@chiasun)
* I think an unplugged approach allows for both lexicalisd grammar and grammaticalised lexis depending on the teacher & learners. (@BethCagnol in reply to @chiasun and @pjgallantry)
*Error correction needs to become not just correction but input with reformulation and experimenting. (@hartle
*So biteable chuncks, ss output>input and whatever methodology that suits? (@ann_f)
* Input is not equal to intake (@cherrymp)
Learner training
One important area was learner training and how we can train our learners to notice lexical grammar autonomously.
*(Learner training)sounds like a good strategy, but what do you use as a starting point? single vocab item, grammar point, text…? (@rliberni)
*OK, so do you e.g. take a word they use incorrectly, then examine what the correct grammar around it would be? (@sandymillin) (reply from @hartle) yes, it  could be a collocation problem, wrong syntax etc.
*Students keeping vocabulary records should help (@AlexandraKouk)  Yes and exploring ways for them to keep records other than a list. (@Shaunwilden) (Reply @Shaunwilden) encourage learners to write a sentence/short conversation for each new word they learn  (@sandymillin)
*We should adjust our approach to different learners. Some learn more organically, & some more systematically. (@chiasuan)
*Readymade chunks help students  in attending to the meaning rather than worrying about language especially FL learners. (@cherrymp)
*OK, when dealing with lexis and lexical grammar, we also have to deal with the ‘rules’ of register/style – how to make students aware? (@pjgallantry)
Won't they get confused?
Is Lexical Grammar for Advanced Learners?
Some of us thought that lexical grammar is only
suitable for advanced learners:
*Lexical priming also seems more for advanced students (ann_f)
*Corpora in class is, I think, rather a specialised use and not for beginners. (@pjgallantry)
*I think meeting students’ expectations is important, if they want grammar, it’s our starting point (@sandymillin)(reply from @hartle) but they have trouble with lexis, coz they didn’t know it’s important.
*They need to build their base. they need to know what the structures are. but it’s not a must (@juanalejandro)
*Let them find the patterns  – rule is just a term of convenience language has patterns and generalizations 🙂  (@Shaunwilden) (In reply @sandymillin) I like
the idea of letting students find patterns, but grouping language for  low-level students to do this maybe difficult without special coursebooks?
*There are no rules! The first rule about rule club:  you don’t talk about rules. :-)(@BobK99)
*Teaching chunks not words is a habit, I think not level related. I can teach “shower” or “have a shower” and ask students to notice. (@hartle)
*If u want SS to find patterns, often low-level texts have too many language points: how to highlight to students,  which 2 focus on (@sandymillin in reply @Shaunwilden)
We also have quite a lot of problems, including the
grammar versus lexis debate:
*Currently working on a coursebook and teaching grammar lexically is heavily discouraged. It’s discouraging! (@BethCagnol)
*I think there’s a time and a place for mathematical and lexical grammar teaching. Both should be used. (@BethCagnol) (in reply ) l  think many of us were trained to teach grammar mathematically… not so sure how to teach it lexically myself. (@marcusmurilo)
*Perhaps it takes more time to see how our efforts to teach grammar lexically work. (@BethCagnol)
*Does teaching different contexts for the same word help or confuse students? (@OUPELTGlobal) depends on their level and on how you do it (@AlexandraKouk)
*I think it depends on level more advanced need broader contexts & can compare usages, lower level might get confused (@rliberni)
*I think it’s the ‘noticing’ part that needs a systematic framework which at present does not exist. (@Marisa_C)
*Aren’t we in danger here of teaching ABOUT the language and not the language itself? (@OUPELTGlobal)
*I think some teachers like teaching grammar mathematically because it’s easier to test it. (@BethCagnol)
*I find most of my advanced students actually want to talk about grammar it gives them a prop (may be age tho) (@rliberni) (reply from @mcneilmahon) @rliberni but do they? Or is it the teachers & coursebook authors?  My SS much prefer
new lexis 2 old grammar they still can’t get.
*Grammar is a “teddy bear” reassuring but most of my advanced  students have more trouble with lexis.(@hartle)(reply from @rliberni) Grammar is more finite in a way (we can ‘do’ it) lexis is more infinite in terms of breadth of usage which makes it harder . (reply from @mcneilmahon) so do we continue to take the easy (finite)
way out?
Links shared
Articles and websites of interest
1) Lexical syllabus, Dave Willis  (@cherrymp)
2)     Lexical Approach 1 from TE  (@cherrymp)
3)     A couple of articles by @thornburyscott on lexical grammar: (part 1)
& (part 2) http://www.thornburyscott.com/assets/oup%20grammar%20part%202.html (@esolcourses)
4)     Taking a lexical approach to teaching: principles and problems http://privatewww.essex.ac.uk/~nharwood/lexapproach.htm (@cherrymp)
5)     Lexical Approach Classroom Activities http://yeuanhvan.com/teach-english/lesson-plans/2696-lexical-approach-classroom-activities.html (@cherrymp)
6)     Lexical Priming by Michael Hoey http://www.macmillandictionaries.com/med-magazine/January2009/52-LA-LexicalPriming.htm (@Shaunwilden)
Teaching Video/Slideshow links
  1. http://www.slideshare.net/SandyMillin1/if-i-were-a-boy-beyonce (@sandymillin)
  2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEwaVW858_I (@hartle)
  3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSMX7HCLw84 (@hartle)

Useful sites

  1. http://llohe-ocd.appspot.com/ Oxford Collocations Dictionary Online (@sandymillin)
  2. http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/ (@hartle)
  3. https://www.ed2go.com/Classroom/Lessons.aspx?lesson=1&classroom=oanDAP0rPlxv5KWIroT08T5jRHVVSP%2BuRpfxidWBLds%3D A free online course on using corpora (@NikkiFortova)

Back to Dogme: Stage Two…. dealing with emergent language and experimenting.

Magician and rabbit
You never know what might pop out of the hat!

Back to Dogme: Stage Two: dealing with emergent language and experimenting

It’s amazing how time flies but at the same time stands still. It seems only minutes since I was writing last week about me and my poor, tired bedraggled students, as we all braved the elements to get to our Monday evening conversation class. Well, it’s Monday again, so welcome back to part two of the exciting journey into learner centred, conversation based teaching.

Plugging us back in again

Social Networking
Emerging from the machine
Last week, as you may remember, the group told stories about recent trips they had been on, and one learner gave an impromptu presentation on marketing. I took quite a lot of notes during this and I promised I’d let you know what became of them. Well, first of all, I have to say that my teaching may well be learner centred, but in no way can it be described as unplugged. No, I must admit that I use technology all the time, and I am firmly convinced that it brings me closer to my learners and brings them closer to each other. I had written a few of the things they had said, and I selected six “utterances” to send to them by email a few days after the class:
      “We had a good travel although I had to use a lot of suncream.”
     “The traffic was absoltely dreadful….never again!”
      “I really should have checked the traffic news before I left.”
                                                                            “The worst thing was the travel by ship…it was really boring.”
                                                                            “She didn’t have to spend too long in the sun.”
                                                                            “We went for a travel in the mountains.”
I’m sure you can already see the pattern that is emerging here. But all I told my learners to do was:
a)  to decide which of these were utterances that I had been really impressed with and which ones probably needed a bit more work on the language;
b) to see if they could remember who had said which utterance and what it was connected with.
So they duly arrived with their ideas, but the first step in this lesson, as a type of warmer, was pronunciation. There were a couple of words such as “mountains” that were causing problems, and my learners love to be drilled. There seems to be something very reassuring about a bit of backchaining, and it gets us into the mood. So, that’s what we did. After that we moved on to look at their ideas about who had said what, which became both a discussion, as well as a way of reactivating the discussion we had had last week. We revised the use of “didn’t have to” as meaning “not necessary”, something which had come up recently, quite quickly. We didn’t actually spend too much time on that as they really only needed to be reminded of it and asked to give a couple more examples.

Travel Vocabulary

Then we moved on to what was to become a major focus in this lesson. It was obvious that “travel” was causing a lot of trouble, so I had decided to look at nouns relating to travel (Most of these can be verbs too, which we also pointed out, but here we were using them as nouns). The learners had to look at the following nouns, made with the traditional, but excellent, shareware Hot Potatoes authoring tools, and match them to the descriptions:
They were then asked which of these nouns is uncountable (there was only one) and we stopped to think about the uncountable or countable nature of nouns which is reflected in travel and journey. So by this time we had been doing quite a lot of reflection on this language, all of which had come out of the previous lesson. It was time to move on to do some more experimenting.

Experimenting with Emergent Language

Most of my groups are used to working with my wiki, and I’m afraid the wiki has been made private as it has some confidential information like exams results etc. on it now, but I made a little video to show you the page I made for this group and the second exercise which is one way of extending a classic cloze activity to make it into something a little more personalised and meaningful: a springboard into personalised reflection and further discussion.

And that’s where we got to this evening. Of course, the learners can now go back to the wiki page whenever they want to, print out the exercises or download them to their own computers, and they are usually motivated to do that, so who knows what next week will bring? In any case this was just one example of how the emergent language from learner discussions can be extended in a meaningful way, experimented with and then built upon. Oh, and I almost fogot, there is of course a fun element. The first person to finish the matching exercise was awarded a chocolate rabbit,

chocolate rabbit
You never know what type of rabbit you'll get.

because you never know with a learner centred approach, what sort of rabbit will emerge from the magician’s hat.

PLN Interview Challenge…. Meet Anita

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Meet Anita Adnan

Meet Anita Adnan

Last month Brad Patterson launched the idea of an interview challenge where various bloggers interview each other or people  from their PLNs so that we can get to know each other a bit better… a great idea, which was seized upon by several people straight away. It takes others, like me, a bit longer, but better late than never as they say. I extended the activity to my Facebok PLN as well and this is the first interview, introducing the Amazing Anita Adnan.

I first met Anita when I attended a teacher training session that she held on WizIQ a couple of months ago, and then we hooked up on Facebook too. She is originally from Malaysia but is currently doing a PHD in education at Nottingham University in the UK. Anita is a caring teacher who is passionate about the world of online teaching. If I had to think of one adjective to describe her approach to education it would have to be …innovative. She loves experimentation and teaches regularly by means of Skype or by doing Facebook “live chat sessions” which are attended by students and teachers.

She is also a very lively, enthusiastic mother and teacher so, without any more ado, here are her answers to the five great questions suggested by Brad plus the two questions she herself “would like to be asked in an interview”:

1)  If your students were to label you with 3 adjectives, what might they be?

enthusiastic, accomodating, adventurous 🙂

2) What would we find in your refrigerator right now?

all kinds of filling for sandwiches and top ups for pizzas..

3) If you weren’t a teacher, what might your profession be?

a photographer – i love taking pictures, and create stories out of them.

4) What do you find most difficult about working in teaching, or What has been your most difficult moment in class?

when students do not respond / when they are too quiet! i can’t stand silence in the classrooms!

5) What was the last book/movie you read/saw, and what have you seen/read way too many times?

the Element – Sir Ken Robinson. i’ve watched The Notebook too many times 🙂

6) What is the future of online teaching?

ALL teachers should try it – build your presence online and try it out – we need to learn from our mistakes / experiments.

7) Where do you  see yourself in the next 5 years?

on a quiet beach, teaching online to some 100+ learners from all around the world 🙂

Come to Famagusta

I’ve noticed the theme of the beach cropping up in more than one of these interviews, and maybe it’s something we all aspire to. I know, I do, so maybe we’ll all meet up one day in the flesh… right there, on the beach: a great place to hold a conference?

Once upon a sentence: the written word… storytelling part two

Lose yourself in a good book
Lose yourself in a good book

Stories can be written too…

In my last storytelling post I wrote about the oral traditions of storytelling and how we might use visualisation to spark off originality and imagination in our learners, who can use these techniques to draw on their own deep rooted experiences, beliefs and dreams, to communicate something which is not only meaningful and relevant to them personally, but is often a lovely story that we can all enjoy listening to, rather, I’m afraid to say, than the somewhat banal offerings that we sometimes get when we do storytelling activities half-heartedly, or when learners do not have enough time to really think about their stories in advance.
Storytelling, however, is also linked to the written word and it is written stories that I want to think about today. This also leads me on to wonder where the borderline is between storytelling an literature. When does a story become literature?  In my mind storytelling is only one part of literature. Well written, lasting narrative novels are not only limited to the plot, but actually use language, and finely honed expression, to stimulate thought on all kinds of level, by creating realistic characters with real problems, by putting these characters into different situations and questioning their thoughts and preoccupations, their perceptions and their daily life experiences, these narratives take us, the readers, into a new world, which, yes, is fictional, but which exists on a different plane and is an adventure park for us to explore, providing us with new “friends” that we can relate to and new experiences to go through, which have an effect on us even if they are vicarious. There is also another very simple reason why literature is very useful for language learners. It brings you, the learner, not only into the culture you are to some extent studying when you choose to study a language, but it provides you, almost as a by-product, with models ofskilfully crafted expression in the target language, exposure to which can only do us good if we are trained to notice the language patterns and usage. Our learners can work with literature at various different levels, integrating all the skills and ultimately moving on to, what is probably the goal for most of us: expressing their own thoughts and insights in writing, having fun writing poetry whilst reinforcing patterns and language chunks and taking the time to use written discourse, which is planned and effectively packaged, as well as expressing themselves in new, meaningful ways in the language they are studying. Writing has notnot enjoyed too much popularity in recent years, although it is making something of a comeback with web related activities like blogging and networking etc., but, in my opinion, writing is an invaluable process for all of us, including those studying another language. By taking the time to plan, sitting down and thinking about how to turn a phrase, by editing and re-reading your work, you are actually improving your own expressive ability, which is useful for communication in any language, and by rewriting and rephrasing you are often developing and shaping your own thoughts and ideas. So… in this post I’d like to explore all this a bit more. First of all, though, you may be wondering why the title of this post is “Once Upon a Sentence…” where does the sentence come into it?

There is no such thing as a word or sentence in isolation.

Where does this lead to?
Where does this lead to?

A lot has been written fairly recently about discourse and how it makes very little sense to look at language purely at the single word or the single sentence level. Key figures in this field in recent times are Michael Hoey or John Sinclair, without forgetting Michael McCarthy and Ron Carter.  It seems to make a lot more sense to consider language as text or discourse because one sentence leads on from what came before and leads into what comes next. Instinctively we all know this, and we know that many words have all kinds of connotations connected to them and inter textual or extra-textual, personal reading schemata and cultural references as well. A very accessible book on this subject for elf teachers is Scott Thornbury’s book “Beyond the Sentence” which was at the back of my mind when I wrote the title of this article (just proving the point that no language comes from nowhere. Everything links to something else.) Despite this, however, there is still a small army of coursebook writers, teachers, students, examining boards etc. etc. who persist in creating materials which look at language in precisely this way. Think of the tranformation exercises so beloved of certain exams where the focus is purely on the grammatical structure or the knowledge of phrasal verbs etc. in isolation, where the sentence is there, merely as window dressing, without being related in any way to a broader context.

One Typical Example
Transform the sentence below using the ending provided for you:
I started working in this company ten years ago.
                                   ………………………………………………for ten years.

This type of example is eminently forgettable, and, yes, tests knowledge of the form, but can’t we do this in a more meaningful way? Precisely because discourse connects and transforms language; words change their meanings within the contexts of one piece of writing we need to think about the broader context of the text. The classic example of lexis changing meaning within a text is that of “eggs”, which mean one thing at the beginning of a recipe and refer to something completely different by the end, when they have become an omelette. So, it would seem, at least to me, to be clear, that we really need to be thinking of texts rather than “bits of language” in isolation. Even isolated sentences, however, in coursebook exercises can reveal a lot about the state of mind of the person who wrote them, recisely because of the references they contain. An example such as “Teachers are very badly paid.” tells us quite a lot about the writer and his or her beliefs! This means, in fact, that there is no such thing as a sentence in isolation. As John Sinclair set out in “Trust the Text” ( see the link above) each sentence in a text actually encapsulates what has gone before and points towards what will come next. In teaching then we might usefully consider a sentence as a starting point which we can use to stimulate learners to think about whatcame before or what will come afterwards, as a springboard to working with a text, which would make a lot more sense than just looking at the single chunks in isolation. To go even frther than this, if we take the line that we are all our own stories then each of our sentences springs from those stories and can be used to lead our readers into our world.
Added to this is the fact that it is a very natural almost innate function of the human brain to tell stories, to look for connections and links. We simply need to look at a list of words and we start automatically trying to sort them into groups, forming connections and telling the story… each story, of course being different from the next.

So, the implications for teaching are that we can use this associative or storytelling function, and, in fact, we always have done. Yesterday, for instance,  I asked my learners to brainstorm words connected to money, individually, without giving any further guidelines. The result was that one person produced very technical words like mortgage, investment, interest rates, another student produced words like, holiday, work, hobbies, computers, which were related to what he needs money for, and a third wrote a list of things connected to money semantically like, payment, bill, cheque etc. The logical next step, then, was to ask these learners in groups to tell each other’s stories, why had they chosen those particular words. Each learner told another one their impressions which were then confirmed or not as the first student explained his or her choices. The whole activity was fascinating and developed both knowledge of lexis and helped us to get to know a little more about our classmates. To go even further in this direction we can take those “isolated words” and build them into patterns noticing and producing collocations, colligations and semantic prosody etc. and then to use them in different contexts. I suppose the point is that everything is connected so words and sentences can lead into stories and can then be used to build discourse. Of course we can do all kinds of things with stories, including reading them discussing them and writing them, but this brings me onto the question of which stories to focus on and how to work with written stories in our teaching contexts.

extensive reading
Extensive reading with a glass of wine

Working with texts inside and outside of the classroom: integrated skills work or an adventure of discovery

As I said at the beginning there are all kinds of reasons why we might want to work with literature both inside and outside the classroom so the next question is how to do it. Literature, prose and poetry, as well as film and songs can all be used as stories and an integrated skills approach might concentrate on reading and discussing or listening (watching) and discussing, noticing language, developing and writing, (not necessarily in that order). There are several classic teaching handbooks that I have found to be extremely useful over the years and three of these are Literature (CUP) Class Readers (OUP) and The Inward Ear (CUP), all containing a wealth of activities that can easily be adapted. There was an #eltchat this week (Wednesday June 8th) on this subject too, and the summary provides a lot of food for thought on the subject.( see the list of sammaries on the homepage) It would be a waste of space to repeat all these things but I would like to give three examples here of a classic activities that I use or am planning to work on different aspects of texts:

Working from the bottom up 

The first one ,then, is a typical example of a communicative activity which is a bottom-up approach (focusing on micro components of the text) and then needs follow up activities to look at a text from a more global point of view, but whichI have found to be fun, motivating and useful to learners and which I have been using successfully in various ways for years. The original idea, I think came from Penny Ur’s “Discussions that Work“.


You take an extract from a novel, (or any text for that matter) and make three versions, by carefully substituting key pieces of language. If, for example the text starts:

“Halloween, which is in autumn, is often a dark, cold time of year”

You might make:
Version A: “Halloween, which is in summer, is often a hot, sweaty time of year.”
Version B: “Christmas, which is in autumn, is never a dark, cold time of year.
Learners can work in pairs where one is given version A and the other version B. By means of logical analysis of each “word” and “sentence” in the context of the text, they work together to produce what they think the original text was. In this case it ptobably won’t be Christmas because of the time references (summer or autumn) and it can’t be summer either, so it is fairly simple to find a logical version. In the original version of this exercise students were asked not to lok at each other’s versions because the thinking was that they had to listen to each other, but I have found that to be an added complication so I ask them to read their sentences to each other, listening first, but I then let them look at the written text too if they need to. The final step is to give them the original text to compare with their versions and then to lead on to doing follow up work such as noticing language or discussion or anything you want to do, really. So, this is just one way of focusing on words and sentences in the broader context of discourse.

Using the text as a sringboard to further work

The other two activities I wanted to mention here are more technology related (sorry but it had to come in somewhere!). The second activity is a fun activity which I did with my university students this year. We used Fakebook, a wonderful tool where you can make “fake” Facebook pages for characters in a book, historical characters etc. We used this in the context of exams preparation because my C1 level learners were reading “The Winter Ghosts” by Kate Mosse as a set text for their final written exam. They enojoyed making the pages and it reinforced the idea of these characters as being “real” on some level, and if they have a Facebook page, then “you can relate to them personally as well“. In the #eltchat I mentioned above Shaun Wilden pointed me in the direction of  the Twitter “such tweet sorrow” project which looks great too. I haven’t used it but I got very excited about it so I thought I’d put it in here too.

discussing extensive reading
The book club in a digital age

Extensive Reading in a digital Age

The third activity I wanted to mention here takes reading and discussion to a whole new level, I think. This is a project I am setting up for next year and is based on the principle of the class library. I intend to use Google Reader, or something similar (any suggestions would be really welcome) to ask my learners to set up at least five RSS feeds for a month. They will then choose three items, which may be articles, podcasts, videos, whatever they like, that have spoken to them in some way. We have a class wiki which they can then use to post:

a) a brief summary of their top three choices;
b) the reasons why they think other people in the group will be interested
c) the links

The next step is to choose three of the posts and to follow up with the reading, and then have a final discussion lesson where learners can do a presentation of their ideas (Prezi or Powerpoint) and what they have learnt from this project. So, I have been talking a lot about how to use texts in the classrom but not much about writing, which is the final step today.

Inspiration and poetry
Inspiration leads to growth and creative expression.

So can we ask our learners to write literature??

Should we ask learners to write poetry? Isn’t it a bit forced? These are the type of objections you hear to the idea of writing poetry ( although less when it comes to writing stories, strangely enough). Writing, as I said at the beginningof this post, is, in my opinion, a great process to go through and not only for language learning. For language learners, thought, there is the added plus that writing poetry, even when they are beginners can be immensely satisfying. I remember using this a lot when I began learning Russian to reinforce patterns in a meaningful, expressive way(At least I hope they did). Just taking a language pattern such as “I like + ing” or “I like + noun” for a beginner, can produce a poem like this:

I like swimming in the sea
I like cake and tea
I like reading in the bath
and playing with my cat.

This may have dubious literary value, but on a personal level, it reveals a lot about this learner and she has also reinforced those patterns in a meaningful way whilst processing all kinds of language on the way. This type of activity is great for noticing and experimenting with language and enjoyable for learners too. Gunther Gerngross and Herbert Puchta’s book Creative Grammar contains a wealth of activities of this type. I could continue endlessly on the subject but if you’ve read up to this point you deserve a medal (or a chocolate biscuit and a cuppa at the very least) so I’m going to close the post here, but I’d be really interested to hear what you think on the subject…

Back to Dogme… the best option for adult learners in an Evening Class

This week so far has been dominated by exams, which unfortunately seems to be happening all too often these days. I know it’s that time of year but our university language centre is, as always strapped for cash, meaning that there
are only two of us, armed, albeit, with that powerful tool for exams management…Excel(?) and our own laptops and netbooks (as the Jurassic verrsions of computers in our office would take us ten times as long to do anything. So
you may think, well, they probably have a hundred candidates
or so… But you would be wrong. There are almost 2,000 at
thr last count and they have to do three parts to the exam, so the organisation has to cope with something like 6,000 exams and results etc. Pretty mind-boggling, in fact. I think it’ better if I don’t dwell on it too much.

This, of course, has nothing at all to do with Dogme, but it goes some way to explaining why I was exhausted when I staggered home in the pouring rain on Monday evening to… Yes, get ready for an evening of conversation classes.

A Student Centred Approach

So, that was the setting for the story, oh and I should add the students were not in much better shape. It was eight o’clock and the cameras were about to roll. They all came trouping in together and I put on my best teaching smile,
complimented people on various things and wondered hopefully if anyone had got around to a spot of homework. I then discovered that, they had done some homework, but in the usual anarchic fashion, so that the exercise, which had been to write true or false sentences about a recent trip they
had been on, had become all kinds of things. One person had written about an accident she’d been caught up in on the motorway, whilst another had written about whether he should put suncream on before going to the beach. They all, however, had one thing in common: they sparked off real communication between members of the group (including me) and we all started to wake up and take an interest in vocabuary (meaning
and pronunciation) as well as the topics we were discussing. I had also planned to read an article, but someone else in the class had been reading about marketing, and, as they were all interested in this, he had brought all this along and gave an impromptu presentation, whilst the others listened, wrote questions to ask him, and I had the chance to make notes for error analysis later on.

I’m still not sure if this is pure Dogme or not, but, in fact, I have come to the conclusion that, with these learners, at this time of day, it is one of the best ways to work, and is entirely student centred and often conversation based. Although it is eight in the evening and they have all done a full day’s work, they are motivated when we do activities that are meaningful and relevant to them. This would seem to be logical,and it brings me back again to the idea of Dogme and learner centred teaching.

Anyway, that was my Monday, and then today… Yes, you’ve guessed. Back to the exams organisation :-(.