Month: March 2012

Fast Forward from Iatefl Glasgow 2012

Where next? Past, Present, Future or all three together?

Fast Forward…From Glasgow back to everyday life

I’ve actually been back from Glasgow for almost a week now and as time passes your brain begins to put things into order, classifying the kaleidoscope of talks, ideas, peoples, impressions that whirled round you during what is definitely one of the highlights of my year.

All the conferences tend to have a sort of thread running through them to my mind. My thread for Harrogate 2010, for instance was stories, possibly because of the links between Harrogate and Agatha Christie, but also because that year there seemed to be a wealth of references to Whodunnit activities and stories, culminating in the incredible Jan Blake plenary which had us all in tears. No mean feat at a conference.

Connectivity and Relationships

This year, in Glasgow, there were two main themes for me. One was connectivity and relationships. As I wrote in my last post at the beginning of the conference, Adrian Underhill underlined how important relationships are in our world and how it is only really by stressing relationships, connecting with others and drawing on each other’s strengths that a group can be successful. The days of the charismatic leaders are numbered, it seems, although I can think of a few leaders who haven’t quite realised that yet.

This theme is in fact central to what I was talking about: social networking and professional developments because it is by relating to one another, and by connecting up that so many of us are developing our teaching by means of sites like Twitter and Facebook as well as so many others. Relationships, however, have always been important and this brings me on to my second theme: integrating the past into the present and going on into the future.

From the Present back to the Past and then on into the Future

We all tend to look for new things, and I am always insatiably curious, which is probably why I like technology so much, but it is also true that there is nothing new under the sun, and that we are basically reworking things that already exist in new ways. On the first day of the conference I managed to get one of the seats in Anthony Gaughan’s presentation: The Se7en Deadly Sins of ELT, where he claimed that he was not going to try to persuade us that he was right but that he was going to talk about seven techniques that have been banned or have almost disappeared from EFL classrooms, being frowned upon.

1) drilling;
2) translation/L1 use;
3) dictionary use;
4) teacher explanations;
5) reading aloud;
6) telling students they’re wrong;
7) teacher talk time.

Apart from the fact that I actually regularly do most of these things with the exception of reading aloud, which I do in drama activities, but otherwise tend to avoid, I must say that his talk was very convincing. Perhaps he was preaching to the converted, but it is worth repeating what seems to me to be the crucial point here:

It is not the technique, drilling, reading aloud etc. that is “wrong” but what you do with it, like so many techniques. If you spend your whole lesson translating texts and not doing much else (which does actually happen even now in some classrooms) then translation is something to be discouraged, or if the whole lesson is conducted in the students’ L1 rather than in English and English is only used for mechanical exercises then of course it is negative, but a constructive use of translation for critical analysis, and the use of the L1 to save lengthy contortions on the part of the teacher just to explain one “word” is simply a matter of common sense. The same is true of all these “sins”.

Blending the past and the present

It struck me forcibly however, that what was hailed as “new and good” not so many years ago, is now considered by many to be “old hat” and frowned upon, but a teacher’s box of tricks is surely a blending of everything together. In my teaching I would hope that I have taken a range of techniques such as drilling, mill drills etc. and combined them with other elements developing my own skills so that one thing grows out of another. What I mean for instance is that I might do a “mill drill” where student’s ask each other questions about what they are going to take with them on a holiday, for instance, and then they may plan the holiday with those items and finally write an email to a friend after the holiday talking about an episode that happened involving one of the things they took with them. This may then be posted on Linoit or some such noticeboard. In this way drilling becomes a task and is then developed using technology. In this way what we do today is the result of building on what we have done in the past.

So, that’s it for today, I think. Iatefl was, as ever, a great conference and I’m sure I’ll have more to say as my brain orders it all even more.

Thoughts from Glasgow Iatefl Day One

It’s been an energizing here in Glasgow today, and I finally got to meet a few of my Twitter friends. (hope I’ll be meeting more tonight at the ELTCHAT party :-) as well.

So, I thought I’d share a few of my impressions whilst they’re still fresh in my mind. A big thread running through the sessions I attended today was “interconnectedness” brginning with Adrian Underhill’s excellent plenary “Mess and Progress” where he explored the changing scenario of our perceptions of leadership, moving away from the “Braveheart” type of leader whose charisma takes us on inspiring us into winning battles etc. to a type of “post heroic leadership” where what counts is the relationships between people, and their interconnectedness, so that an organisatioon that listens to the experience and appreciates the skills of its members will flourish. He said a lot more, and much more eloquently, of course, but the hread of interconnectedness was then taken up again by Penny Ur who asked whether teachers should be taking research into account, and whether or not they did. The answer, she said, was that very few teachers read research, but she also added that being àware of the research puts teachers into a more powerful position. Basically if you know the reasons why something is a good educational strategy to adopt, you stand a better chance of convincing others.

A conference is not only the talks, either, and the chance to meet old friends and make new ones is an invaluable moment in my academic year, so I’m really enjoying it so far, and in that way I’m trying to make my relationships flourish too.

I’m not sure if the organisations in Italy will embrace new ideeas about focusing on relationships rater than respecting hierarchies. We have only recently moved on from Berlusconi who definitely saw himself as a leader in the traditional sense, and our universities are hives of status…

Ah well, it all remains to be seen. In any case, I’m off to the party. See you tomorrow :-)


The Essence of the Lesson

Bringing that spark of magic into your lessons

Lighting the spark….I was talking

with two of my colleagues this morning about our lessons, and you might think we’d be discussing the focus we’d planned, or the materials etc. But, in fact, you’d be wrong.

What we talked about was what I call the indefinable extra something that is the essence of a good lesson: real human interaction and communication.

One colleague told me that the audio had broken down in her classroom so she’d got two boys to act out a dialogue. The only problem was that the dialogue was between “Mandy and Jane”, who were two girls gossiping about their boyfriends. The two boys, she said, rose to the occasion admirably and overacted so that they had everyone in stitches. This is what was probably memorable about the lesson, that everyone was having a good time as well as studying English.

In my B1 class the other day I had two examples of John, who was short and Michael who was very tall, a common enough example to illustrate bug differences and how to express them, with forms like, yes, you guessed it: “Michael is much taller than John.” Very dry stuff, until I mentioned “Little John” and someone asked where Robin Hood was. I said that he was somewhere in the middle but was only “a bit taller than Little John”.

In this way, what was a very banal example had been transformed into a memorable communicative interlude.

Grammar and Magic

I would just like to stay with these comparatives for a moment to show how through noticing and experimenting these B1 learners somehow managed to normalize the patterns (to some extent) so that they could make effective comparisons and prepare for their exam all at the same time.

They have to translate sentences unfortunately from Italian to English to show an awareness of various grammatical and lexical items in their written exam, so I, as their teacher, need to provide them with exam practice whilst making it meaningful and, dare I say it…magic, at the same time.

Here is the magic spell

1) Provide a series of provocative sentences for learners to translate.

Travelling by bike is by far the fastest way of getting around the city.

Women tend to be much more faithful than men.

Those who earn the most are definitely the most responsible members of society.

2) Let learners translate these (In our case from Italian to English) then check their ideas and help;

3) Then wave you magic wand and just as they think that is the end of the activity you ask them… “So, do you agree with all this then?” And suddenly these statements are no longer just a mechanical exercise but someone’s thoughts that have been expressed.

4) In pairs or small groups the learners discuss them and, as you go round monitoring you will hear some of this language being expressed absolutely naturally as they make their point.

The height of the discussion this afternoon was when someone mentioned quite a well known Italian politician as being the antithesis of the last sentence.

None of this is particularly innovative. In fact, it is actually common sense, but it shows how from humble exercises real communication can grow, and that is the true magic of the lesson. The essence is always the individuals who are sitting there in your group, and what they can express to each other. It can all be made up into heady brew….

A Voice from the Desert

A Voice in the Desert

Image taken from 04/03/ 2012

It isn’t very popular these days to like coursebooks, and I like many of my colleagues, feel that following a course book can, at times, be extremely limiting.

Often we tend to equate using the course book with “lazy” teaching. We talk about slavishly adhering to someone else’s program me, and there is the stereotype of the far from motivating teacher who goes into the classroom and says something like:

“Right, turn to page 35 and let’s see where we are up to…” Not, of course, that any of you would ever do that!

Apart from the jokes, it is difficult for course books to cater for specific needs and interests and since each group is different it would seem to be so much easier to develop content which is learner centred and addresses the needs of the specific group. We are living in a world of information, much of which is in English, so why can’t we simply take content from the Internet etc. and adapt it to our needs?

Living with our Feet on the Ground

In an ideal world we would all have enough time and energy to do this all the time but the truth is that many teachers are under stress and are teaching far too many hours every week, with the result that the course book provides them with a structure, which is more or less reliable, and they can take it as a springboard finding what is relevant and what is interesting for their learners. This doesn’t mean that the teaching is not learner centered, but it means that the learners have a collection of materials there that can be used. This seems obvious but is worth pointing out at times. Of course, some people will misuse casebooks, just like they will everything else. Video, for example is a great resource when used appropriately, but not so great when a teacher just puts on a film and leaves the students to it. This does not mean that video as a resource is any less valuable and the same, I think, may be said for many course books.

Introducing Speakout

Having said all this, I must admit that I find it hard to work with course books myself, and I am the last person, really, who ought to be writing this, as very few of my groups use them. In recent years I’ve looked at quite a few of them and rarely find much to excite me, which is why “Speakout” the new book by Pearson Longman came as such a nice surprise to me. I have been dipping into the Upper Intermediate book and have found that it is refreshingly effective and interesting, and my learners like it too. This book has been developed with BBC media, which is well done and realistic, and each student’s book comes with an active ebook, a DVD which includes all the materials, videos, audio texts etc. so it can be projected in the classroom and used at home too, but what do I like it?

Why I and my learners like it

To give you an example, I have a C1 level group that have to do a composition exam, which includes narrative writing. I noticed in our recent January exams that a lot of people were having trouble with narrative tenses, which is probably because they had studied these tenses as single items rather than looking at them as parts of discourse, and learning how to put them together. When I looked at the storytelling unit (And I know the book is a B2 level but that doesn’t really matter. They are learning from it anyway!) I saw a motivating lesson where learners read two texts, discuss the morals in the stories (the exercises were very well scaffolded too) and then analyze the tenses as parts of the narrative text:

Past continuous for interrupted past activity, yes, but also for setting the background to the story.

Past Simple for the events in the story etc.

This rang very true to me, and is what I, and many others, have been doing for years, but somehow in this book it all hangs together really well.

Image retrieved from on 04/03/2012

Another nice example is the lesson on Larks or Owls where learners listen to people being interviewed by the BBC about their habits, whether they are larks or owls. The vocabulary for this activity is pre taught in a quiz activity which is motivating and fun, and it all leads very naturally into the listening activity.




Using the book as a Springboard

Of course, as with any course book, as I said before, if it is going to be made relevant it needs to be used discerningly. Teachers need to think about what their learners need, what they need to be able to do and what the best way is to help them to do that. Having said that, though, I must say I really like this book :-).